After three minutes of cricket's version of high-stakes poker, Tim David's life changed forever. The 26-year-old was fancied heading into the IPL mega auction in February, but his modest base price of Rs 40 lakhs (about US$52,000) gave little indication of the mayhem to ensue.
The Singapore-born, Australia-raised batter and handy offspinner, who had forged his big-hitting reputation and prowess on the T20 franchise merry-go-round and in Associate cricket, found himself the object of a three-way bidding war between Rajasthan Royals, Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians. It ended with Mumbai landing David, who had scored one run in his sole IPL match as a replacement player for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2021, for a whopping Rs 8.25 crore ($1.1m) - 20 times his base price. That fetched David the unlikely distinction of being the most expensive Australian at the auction.
Having never played at the first-class level, nearly three years since his Western Australia rookie contract was not upgraded, David's maverick career had a fuse lit under it.
Alone in his hotel room in Pakistan, taking a breather from his domination of the PSL, he tried to comprehend his newfound fame and fortune, his phone running hot with good wishes from just about everyone he knew.
"I gave him a quick FaceTime call. He didn't know what to do and couldn't quite believe it," says Perth Scorchers batter Nick Hobson, a long-time team-mate of David at Claremont-Nedlands in Perth club cricket.
"If there's one person who can handle this all, it's Tim. He's already acted like a millionaire his whole life, so nothing much will change," Hobson laughs.
Broad-shouldered and tall, David cuts an intimidating presence at the crease that is reinforced by his ability to hit any ball he pleases to over the fence.
"For me to be effective, I have to be able to clear the boundary when I want," David said to ESPNcricinfo in February. "The experience you go through, batting in the middle order, you learn how to chase, finish off an innings or maximise the scoring when the game's pretty much dictated to you."
He boasts a remarkable career strike rate of near 160 across various T20 franchise leagues, including the BBL, PSL, CPL and T20 Blast, and 14 T20Is for Singapore.
"He's got a strong power-hitting base. Bowlers can execute and they are still getting hit over the ropes," says his former coach at Claremont-Nedlands, Tim Macdonald, who is currently England Women's senior assistant coach.
Watching David toy with bowlers suggests he's an innate aggressor, someone who bullied his way through the ranks since juniors. Not quite.
"I have this snapshot of ten-year-old Tim. This small, chubby kid who almost looked like a turtle," says Western Australia fast bowler Joel Paris, who is David's team-mate at Hobart Hurricanes in the BBL. "He was a tiny, tiny boy, who had no power, no flair in his game. It's so hard for people to understand now. He had to wait until his growth spurt to compete with guys physically bigger."
That growth spurt came late and in the meanwhile, diminutive David found himself relying on timing and technique to survive in the middle of a talent boon at Scotch College, a prestigious school in Perth's leafy western suburbs.
"His main shot was a cut behind point, using the pace of the ball," says Hobson, who too attended Scotch at and around the time Paris, Western Australia cricketers Matt Kelly and Will Bosisto, English player Cameron Steel, and current Australia Test allrounder Cameron Green, were there. "He was a good player but he didn't have the stature."
Those who saw David look out of place in his weight division merely hoped he wouldn't get hurt, but he showed enough guts to open the batting for Scotch. "I remember getting ready for an Australian Under-19 tour and being invited to bowl during a session with Scotch," says Paris, who is three years older than David. "The Scotch nets used to be spicy and I hit him in the elbow and hip. I could sense that it hurt him. He wanted to dig in and salvage something from the net session. He was a hard nut."
David might have been smaller than his peers, but he had confidence in spades, which would serve him well when he embarked on his freelance career. "He would sometimes throw the toys out of the cot," Hobson says. "He didn't enjoy some aspects of getting disciplined."
That petulance once reared its head during a Scotch training session that is still a source of amusement for some who were there. Cricket coach Mike Hirsch preached discipline to his pupils and particularly wanted them to take net sessions seriously. If the rules were not adhered to - batting recklessly was frowned upon - then the whole team would have to run laps of the oval in their full playing kit, pads, gloves and all, while waving their bats over their heads. After three laps of one such punishment, David vanished. "He ran off and didn't come back. He had enough of the session," Paris says. "He could get bloody stroppy."
Former Somerset allrounder Jim Allenby, David's batting mentor, says he wasn't the most focused at training. "He wasn't dedicated to one cause as a teenager… didn't know what he wanted to do. It was always an unknown, how he would approach things mentally."
When he finished high school, 5'8" David headed overseas for a change of scenery in a rite of passage for many of his compatriots at that age.
After playing the first of four seasons for South Shields in the UK's Durham and North East League, he turned heads when he came back to Perth. "I remember driving up to training and saw this big bloke. I was like, 'Who is this?'" Paris says. "Tim came back from England 6'2" and he went to the gym a lot there too. I couldn't believe his power in the nets.
"Getting out of Perth was a new experience and it did him a world of good from a maturity perspective. He did a lot of growing up."
Unleashing his newfound strength, David destroyed bowling attacks for South Shields during his time there. Durham School head of cricket Mike Fishwick excitedly texted Justin Langer, the Western Australia and Perth Scorchers coach at the time. "There's a kid called Tim David - you've got to keep an eye on him," Fishwick wrote. "He's whacking them all out of the park in England."
Langer, always on the lookout for fresh talent to develop at WA, monitored David, who had started to hit his straps as he entered his 20s. "When I was captain of Claremont-Nedlands, around 2012, we picked him in first grade," Macdonald says. "He didn't have a lot of an idea about cricket and he couldn't field. Took him a few years to learn the game. Then everything came together in 2016-17."
That season, David won the Olly Cooley Medal for the best player in first grade Western Australia Premier Cricket, then produced standout performances with the WA U-23 team. His upward trajectory continued when he made his BBL debut for Perth Scorchers on New Year's Day in 2018.
At Scorchers, David was introduced to Langer's hard-nosed regime. "He was a hard taskmaster. I went to the team very fresh faced but he made me feel welcome," David said to this writer two years ago. "He instilled a work ethic and respect for each other."
David received a WA rookie contract for 2018-19 but his season was interrupted by a stress fracture to his foot, which has hampered his seam bowling ever since. WA cricket had a wealth of talent and David wasn't offered a senior contract, which left the 23-year-old at a crossroads, facing the prospect of having to grind away at the lower levels like many discarded state players.
"I felt like I was trending in the right direction," David says. "I was improving and starting to learn more about my game.
"It was incredibly disappointing. I guess for me, it was a wake-up call, because by that point I had my sights set on what I wanted to achieve, but I had to find a different way of going about it. And that meant going outside the WA system."
He reached out to those closest to him for advice on what to do. "He was devastated because he worked so hard to get the contract," Allenby says. "I spent a lot of time with him at the time and it was about how he would navigate his way out and find a style. It was about dealing with a setback and setting a new focus."
While breaking his game down analytically during this nadir, and getting back into supreme physical shape after his injury setback, David decided to double down on his undeniable strength - his ability to smash a cricket ball, a talent in hot demand in the shorter forms. "I think it was a case of finding what I was best at. My skills were to hit and to be able to play aggressively through the middle," he says.
"For me to get myself into a Big Bash team at the time, I needed to work on those skills and the biggest opening I saw where my skill set would fit in was to be able to play in the middle order and play with power."
Against conventional wisdom, provoking raised eyebrows from traditionalists, David decided to pigeonhole himself. "He made a conscious decision to focus on white-ball cricket," Allenby says. "It was a really tough decision. He didn't get swayed by popular opinion. It took a lot of courage and he stuck with his convictions.
After his contract disappointment, David was keen to get out of Perth and toyed with the idea of returning to the UK. But a left-field opportunity emerged when cricket officials from Singapore, his country of birth, reached out. David was eligible to play for the national team. His parents had lived for seven years in Singapore, where his father, Rod, worked in engineering and even played cricket for the national team briefly in the late '90s. The family moved back to Perth when David was two, but returned regularly for holidays.
"Tim had the belief he could play on the world stage and he backed himself," Hobson says. "He saw Singapore as an opportunity."
David accepted the offer and spent three months living in the affluent city-state, where he absorbed its many and varied cultures, and particularly took to the famous food hawkers, whose carts seemingly dot every corner. But though the burden of being the prized wicket for the amateur Singapore team, comprised mostly of expats from the subcontinent, whose day jobs consigned them to training sessions under lights, sat lightly on him, he was looking to take his game to another level.
"It was nice to get out of the Australian cricket bubble," David says. "I went and did something different for a while. I was able to go play in foreign conditions and really learn some skills and work on my batting skills that I still try to build on now."
His match-winning ability was first showcased to the world when he led Singapore to a momentous four-run T20 victory over Zimbabwe at home in September 2019, having top-scored with a 24-ball 41, punctuated by four sixes. Singapore fell short of qualifying for the 2020 T20 World Cup, but overall David has averaged 46.5 at a strike rate of 158.52 from his T20Is for them.
Used to faster and bouncier wickets in Perth, David particularly improved against spin on unforgiving pitches marked by slow and prodigious turn. "It was important for him to be exposed to tough conditions and playing against world-class spinners," Allenby says. "He was responsible for winning games for Singapore and did that against good teams. He liked being a match-winner."
Though he mostly batted at No. 3 for Singapore, David was widely viewed as a specialist T20 finisher, capable of clearing the ropes from the get-go amid the whirlwind death overs.
"The way he hits off length is difficult, and he can take fielders out of the game," Macdonald says. "You used to be able to challenge him with the short ball, but he's worked on that. Can't chuck it wide because of his reach - he's got those long arms, which he can free up for wide yorkers."
"His hand speed and hand-eye coordination is freakish," Paris says.
Having been unable to cement himself amid limited opportunities in Scorchers' stacked batting order, David was lured to Hurricanes ahead of the 2020-21 BBL season by their then coach Adam Griffith, a former WA bowling coach, and entrusted to bat at No. 6. With the power surge introduced in the BBL - where batters can choose when to take two overs of a powerplay in the back half of the innings - David became a strategic weapon. He started the season with a firecracker 58 against defending champions Sydney Sixers and finished the tournament with a strike rate of 153, fuelling interest from T20 teams around the world.
Over the next 12 months, he starred in different leagues and conditions, leading up to the surreal three minutes of the IPL mega auction, whereupon media around the world lapped up his story, painting it as a classic zero-to-hero tale. That's not quite how Allenby sees it.
"It's not an inspirational story of redemption, where everything changed one day when he woke up," he says. "It was a methodical approach to change his game, and it all became process-driven. He has a repeatable way of batting in white-ball cricket.
"We talk every few days. It's about standing still and hitting straight. He has a clear game plan."
While in time it might be tempting for David to pursue longer-form cricket, perhaps replicating the career arc of David Warner, for now he remains content to stick with his winning formula. "I'm having so much fun," he says. "I love going to training, working on new skills, working on the skills I've got at the moment, trying to improve all the time.
"I don't see myself as a finished product. I've got so much stuff I want to learn and improve on."
David's career can now go in various directions but his rise has clearly made for an intriguing case study. He is possibly the first cricketer to make serious money across the world without having played first-class cricket.
Those close to him are unsure whether his journey exposes underlining defects in traditional pathways. "He's always made runs but rarely got recognition because WA had strong teams," Allenby says. "Other people were backed ahead of him. It was a time in Aussie cricket when they looked at youth and a certain type of player, which he didn't tick the box [for]."
"Maybe the way he played wasn't like everyone else. Maybe he took longer to blossom," Macdonald says. "As traditionalists, you love to see that traditional route taken although this is the new age with different options. But it's not an easy way of doing it."
After his roundabout journey, David now finds himself on the radar for selection in Australia's T20 World Cup squad later in the year. ICC rules make him eligible, though he has represented Singapore. "I don't think it weighs heavily on me at all," he says about the prospect of playing for Australia. "If my performances are providing me the opportunity to be a part of those things, then that's great."
The cauldron of the IPL, where he will grapple with huge expectations under the bright lights of cricket's biggest league, could well decide David's fate.
"[Finishing an innings] is not something the Australian T20 side has had. He offers something completely different," Macdonald says. "He's got more money than he's ever earned in his life. He'll have to deal with that. But nothing fazes him. He's big time."
Whether David is a pioneer or an outlier, it's too early to tell, but those on the fringes, scrapping for a cricket career, have been stirred by his exploits. "He's shown there are many ways to be a professional cricketer," says Hobson, who has never played first-class cricket, and holds down a day job as an accountant. "Tim's done it his way."