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How Mukesh Kumar went from small-town Bihar to the Delhi Capitals line-up

The Bengal fast bowler stuck with cricket against the odds. At the IPL auction, he got his payoff

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
28-Dec-2022
Career high: Mukesh Kumar is ecstatic after Bengal's win in the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy semi-final against Karnataka  •  PTI

Career high: Mukesh Kumar is ecstatic after Bengal's win in the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy semi-final against Karnataka  •  PTI

A day after the IPL auction in Kochi, fast bowler Mukesh Kumar, 29, has barely had time to soak up being signed for Rs 5.5 crore (about US$660,000) by Delhi Capitals. He has been on the phone non-stop, receiving congratulatory calls and requests for interviews from the media. Mukesh, who attracted the second-highest bid for an uncapped player at the auction, has been pinching himself to believe if it's all real.
Sitting in a plush hotel room in Bengaluru, where he's in rehab at the National Cricket Academy for an injury, his heart and mind are in Gopalganj, his home town in rural Bihar.
"The farm is my happy place," he says. "In fact, any open space where you can breathe fresh air. I get the most peace there.
"I'm going to be bowling for the first time today after ten days of rehab," he says. "It gives me a rush. That kind which is hard to explain."
Sunday was the first time Mukesh attracted bids at an IPL auction. He might have missed the big moment if not for frantic calls from a friend.
"I was watching the auction and then switched to the India-Bangladesh Test when the overseas players had their turn," he says. "Then I got on the phone with my mother and I kept getting missed-call alerts. My friend kept calling me, so I knew something was happening. He said, 'Did you see, did you see?'
"So I switched back to the auction, but I still couldn't believe it's my name, because it has happened so many times earlier - I would be told I have a good chance but then my name doesn't even come up. Only when I saw my photo next to my name, I could finally believe what was happening."
He pauses several times as he continues. "It's bittersweet, to be honest," he says. "God gives you something but takes away something else. I didn't think I'll ever see this kind of money in my lifetime, but two very important people in my life - my father and uncle - who I should be sharing this moment with, aren't with me anymore."
Mukesh lost his father two years ago to a stroke. His bade papa - father's older brother - who supported him financially when he moved to Kolkata full-time in 2012, died in November.
"The joy I saw in my father's eyes when I gave him my daily allowance money after my Ranji debut, I can never forget. I wish I could've given him something more then. But now, even if I want to, I can't. That's why I'm a little emotional. Money can't buy you everything."

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For three years Mukesh prepared for entrance exams to get into the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Bihar police. He finally passed the written exams in 2012 but was rejected on fitness grounds. It was around this time that he decided seriously to make a switch to cricket.
Bihar wasn't eligible to feature in India's premier domestic competitions, which meant Mukesh didn't have a pathway in his home state. He made his living as a recreational tennis-ball cricket player for hire, featuring in tournaments that offered prize money that gave him enough money for his basic needs. But when he had a bike accident during one such tournament in Bihar, his father, who had run a taxi service in Kolkata since 2003, decided it was time to step in and asked him to move to the city.
"He strictly told me, now whatever you do, whether it's cricket or anything else, it will only be in Kolkata, not anywhere else. He wanted to keep watch on me," Mukesh says. "I enrolled for graduation through distance learning even though I wasn't very serious about it. I only wanted to show my father that I was studying.
"My father thought, 'Okay, this guy will play cricket, realise how hard it can be in Kolkata to break through, and give up. And once he completes his graduation, I can try and get him a job somewhere.' He was wrong, I guess. Because my interest in serious red-ball cricket began to grow."
Mukesh went to the prestigious Kalighat Club first, only to be turned back. A club official told him he would have to run drinks for at least two years before getting a look-in because only "big players play here". Mukesh then went to Bani Niketan Sports Club, where he met Birendra Singh, who he trained under and who went on to be a mentor to him.
"On debut [for Bani Niketan], I picked up six wickets in a second-division league match," he remembers. "Then the next year I moved to the first-division team. But because my dad's health had started to deteriorate, I couldn't play regularly. He was hellbent on me getting a job and becoming more stable. I told him, 'Give me one more year' and continued playing.
It was around this time, in mid- 2014, that Sourav Ganguly, then secretary of the Cricket Association of Bengal, announced his Vision 2020 programme to select talented cricketers to help make Bengal a force in domestic cricket. Waqar Younis, Muthiah Muralidaran and VVS Laxman were roped in for the programme, to help local coaches shortlist a pool of players who could then be nurtured over time. On Birendra's recommendation, Mukesh was allowed to enter the trials, where he found himself competing with over 300 candidates.
"Towards the end of the trials, only four or five bowlers were remaining, but to my bad luck, my name was called when I took a quick toilet break," Mukesh says. "Because there was no response, my name was struck off. I literally had to plead with Rono da [Ranadeb Bose, the former Bengal seamer, who was involved in running the trial] to give me a chance.
"I knew I had just four or five balls to make a difference. I found out later in the evening that I had been shortlisted. So the effort of standing all day in the sun paid off, luckily." It turned out Bose had made Mukesh's case with Waqar.
"When I saw him bowl, I thought there was something [about him]," Bose says. "Waqar was not 100% convinced, but I requested him. 'Bhai, rakh lo' [Let's keep him]. He asked, 'Are you sure?' And I said, 'Mere ko achha lag raha hai.' [I like him] He said, 'Theek.'
"At the fag end of a long day, maybe even I could have missed him. But I just happened to go behind the nets to have a cup of tea. So I was able to watch him from behind the batter and he seemed impressive."
If getting through the trials was one step, meeting the fitness parameters proved tougher. It was during this period that it came to light that Mukesh had a bone edema (fluid accumulation) in his knees, and that he was anaemic. It meant more time in hospitals and rehab centres, missing three games for every one that he played.
"CAB helped a lot during this period, getting me MRIs, taking care of my medical bills, even allowing me to stay in their accommodation," he says. "Without their help, I don't think I would have survived. For eight months, between 2014 and 2015, all I did was rehab. It was very tough. At times I thought it might be best to move back to the village. But I wanted to try. If it didn't work, it didn't work. The least I could do was try."
In 2015, after he regained fitness and impressed in club tournaments, Mukesh made his Ranji Trophy debut against Haryana in Lahli.
Before the game, discontent had been brewing within the Bengal side - about how an injury-prone player, an "outsider", was being picked over several state regulars. Bose, who was the bowling coach, had the backing of Laxman and Sairaj Bahutule, the head coach, in his support for Mukesh.
Mukesh dismissed opener Rahul Dewan and then Virender Sehwag, and picked up five wickets in the game. "He saved my job," Bose says.
Mukesh played four games that season. In 2016-17, he only played two before getting injured, and when he was fit, he lost form, leading to a decision to go back to club cricket. The following season he played just the one match, though he was fit; Bengal had Mohammed Shami and Ashok Dinda in their ranks and it was hard to make it into the side as a fast bowler. In 2018-19, he got five games, in which he took 22 wickets. The season after, he properly become part of a competent pace attack, getting ten games off the back of strong performances in club cricket. It helped that there was a vacancy following Dinda's departure after a tiff with the team management. Mukesh impressed with 32 wickets and his control and ability to nip the ball around across different surfaces was noted by the national selectors.
In the semi-final, against a power-packed Karnataka line-up boasting KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Devdutt Padikkal and Karun Nair among others, Mukesh returned figures of 6 for 61 in the second innings to power Bengal into the title clash.
"That season was a turning point, but within two weeks, just when I had been told by the selectors I'd get picked in the Duleep Trophy and Irani Cup, Covid struck. And it was back to square one."
He worked on endurance training in that enforced downtime, and ran cross-country to improve his fitness. "I even completed a 20km run in two hours after watching Ben Stokes and Steven Smith do a charity run," he says. "Even five years ago, I may have not been able to do that. Today, my fitness is so much better."
Earlier this year, Mukesh broke into the India A squad for the home series against New Zealand A. Earlier this month he was part of the India A squad in Bangladesh, where he picked up 6 for 40 in the second unofficial Test. Between the two stints he earned an ODI call-up for the home series against South Africa. He didn't play, but that he ended up making a mark of that sort despite having not featured in the IPL yet makes his journey even more special.
Mukesh's biggest improvement over the past three years has been in making the shift from being known just for his red-ball exploits. He wants to build on this at the IPL. But before he gets there, he's looking forward to a trip home to see his mother.
"I want to take her around the country," he says. "Recently, we'd been to Shirdi. I took her on a temple tour. That makes her happy, and taking her will make me happy.
"People have asked, 'What will you do with so much money?' See, I don't have any extravagant dreams. I love the life in the fields, growing crops, doing farming.
"I'm that kind of a person who loves sitting on the floor and enjoying a meal with family. That gives me a lot of happiness when I'm not on the field. It's a simple life.
"After cricket, if I want to go back to farming in my village, the money will probably help me realise my dream by making an investment towards that. But all that is for later. Now I just want to be fit and play all the cricket that comes my way."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo