Twenty-two-year-old Virat Singh is a fan of MS Dhoni and is his Jharkhand team-mate. And though he was bought for INR 1.9 crore (US$ 251,000 approx) by Sunrisers Hyderabad in this year's IPL auction, at nearly ten times his base price, Singh believes he is "late" to break into the big leagues.
Singh is a dynamic left-hand batsman who can bat at No. 3 as well as finish an innings in white-ball cricket. His strong showing at last season's Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, where he was Jharkhand's top scorer, with a strike rate of 142.32, led to an intense bidding war between Sunrisers and Kings XI Punjab at the 2020 auction.
Singh says he had "got indications" of interest from Kings XI's scouts even during the tournament - when he cracked an unbeaten 76 off 44 balls against Karnataka in Surat last November. He was also on the radar of Sunrisers, Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals. At a Sunrisers trial, he struck four sixes and four fours in a slog-overs scenario (between overs 14 and 20) and helped hunt down about 70 in six overs, he says. Sunrisers were so impressed they raised the paddle 13 times to outbid Kings XI.
After hitting pay dirt, Singh caught up with Dhoni in Ranchi and got some tips from the master about dealing with the pressure of the crowd in the IPL.
"I've been watching MS Dhoni from the start," Singh says. "I still remember his first game [for India] - he was run out [for a first-ball duck] against Bangladesh. My father told me he's from Ranchi, so I was interested in watching him. After that, he was doing well in the international cricket and I looked up to him."
In 2016-17, Singh played under Dhoni's captaincy in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy. Jharkhand progressed to the semi-finals that season, but Singh had an underwhelming tournament, managing only 50 runs in six innings. He says Dhoni reassured him that he was on the right path and offered him a peek into his own game.
"He said, 'You've got the fitness and technique and you will get the runs,'" Singh recalls "Before this season also, he was in the nets helping me in manipulating the field, how to change the mind of the bowler, to play spin."
Singh was 16 when he made his debut for Jharkhand in all three formats. Back then he was looking to break into the India Under-19 squad with the hope of playing the 2016 U-19 World Cup. But a bout of appendicitis put a halt to his plans.
"When I was about to leave for the Challenger Trophy, I felt pain in my stomach and thought this could be something dangerous and I will have to see a doctor," he says. "A scan was taken and it showed appendix [inflammation]. I was really, really upset. It was very important for me to play cricket because the World Cup was coming up. I was against undergoing surgery. I took painkillers and medicines to stop the pain, but it erupted again after ten days and I had to undergo surgery."
When he recovered, he made his U-19 debut for India late in 2015, in two tri-series, at home against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and in Sri Lanka, against the hosts and England, which included a match-winning unbeaten 60 from No. 6 in Colombo. But he was not picked in the World Cup squad, a snub he found hard to deal with at first.
"It was very disappointing and after the season I didn't work out for a month or so," Singh says. "I wasn't going for practice and I was really, really down."
"I somehow motivated myself after that. I told myself what's gone is gone and I really worked hard on my fitness and batting. My brother Vishal [who has also played for Jharkhand] and my entire family were very supportive of me.
Singh knew he needed to make a big change.
"If you talk about the 2016-17 domestic season, I wasn't scoring runs consistently. The next year - the same story. I was working hard but I wasn't scoring the amount of runs I wanted to score. Before the 2017-18 season, I told myself I need to play more games. I am somebody who dreams high. The amount of games I was getting wasn't enough."
With some help from Rajiv Kumar, the Jharkhand coach, Singh got a gig with the Seaham Park Cricket Club in the Durham League in 2018. Spending four months away from home was difficult, but he embraced the challenge of playing as an overseas recruit, shouldering extra pressure with the bat and chipping in with his legbreaks. He learned to live on his own, doing laundry and cooking for himself.
"You're away from friends and family and in a totally different zone. Not only as a cricketer, I also grew as a human being in England. The people over there were very helpful. They made sure I was absolutely fine. I think I scored a century in the first game. The first three-four weeks we played one-day games, and then [from] the fifth week onwards, I was getting three games a week - two T20s and one 50-over game."
Singh had worked on his power-hitting during the 2017-18 Syed Mustaq Ali Trophy in which he made 224 runs in eight innings at a strike rate at 134. He now fine-tuned it at Seaham and regularly finished games for the club, a skill that put him in the T20 spotlight back home.
"In England, I used to bat at No. 4 or No. 3 and I was familiar with the role. I had the experience of finishing games and I knew I could do it again and again, so I backed myself here [in India] as well," he says.
"To be honest, power-hitting doesn't come to me naturally. Since I wanted to get into the IPL, I worked on my strength, and in the time I was in England, I regularly went to the gym. Over there, there was a bowling machine on which I worked on power-hitting and range-hitting. That helped me develop my power. It's a mixture of working hard in the gym and range-hitting."
Singh's game isn't all about power, though. He is also adept at building or rebuilding an innings, like he showed in the 50-over Deodhar Trophy last year. In Ranchi, against an India B attack that included international caps like Shahbaz Nadeem, Mohammed Siraj, Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadhav, Singh entered at 54 for 2 and watched his team slip to 126 for 5 on a fairly tricky track. He held himself back and fashioned a remarkable 154-run recovery with allrounder Axar Patel - 122 of those runs came in the last ten overs.
After seeing off spells from seamers Siraj and Roosh Kalaria, Singh clouted his Jharkhand team-mate Nadeem's left-arm fingerspin for back-to-back sixes. From 35 off 66 balls, he moved to a 72-ball fifty and finished unbeaten on 76 off 96 balls.
"It was a massive opportunity for me because it was live on TV," Singh says of that game. "Since it was my home ground, I knew if I go for shots early on, it's not going to happen. I was the only main batsman at that time and it was my responsibility to stay till the end.
"I thought I would wait till the 35th over. I knew that Nadeem would bowl a couple of overs later on. I've faced a lot of him in the Jharkhand nets and I know what he bowls. Axar was also timing the ball really well that day."
Singh was set to team up with Nadeem again, at Sunrisers in March this year, but with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the IPL to be postponed indefinitely, he is instead spending his time working out at home in Jamshedpur and playing badminton a couple of hours every evening to keep fit. Should the IPL take place later in the year, Singh hopes to pick the brains of the senior internationals at Sunrisers.
"To share the dressing room with Kane Williamson and David Warner is a dream come true," he says. "You talk about the coaches as well - World Cup-winning coach [Trevor] Bayliss, [VVS] Laxman and [Muttiah] Muralitharan. I just hope the IPL happens so I can learn from them and take my game to the next level. If things get normal in India, I might go and play in the Chennai league as well. I will get decent match practice there before the IPL, if it happens."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo