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Feature

How Saurabh Kumar's perseverance brought him closer to his India dream

From travelling for more than three hours from Baraut to Delhi for training to stepping up for UP, the left-arm spinner is now nearing his destination

Daya Sagar
Daya Sagar
14-Jun-2022
Saurabh Kumar: "It was a big deal to be a part of team India's dressing room"  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

Saurabh Kumar: "It was a big deal to be a part of team India's dressing room"  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

A little progress each day adds up to big results.
When Saurabh Kumar earned his maiden call-up to the Indian Test team, albeit as a net bowler, in February 2021, he expressed his happiness with the above motivational quote on his Instagram account. It was accompanied by a selfie of him in the India practice jersey.
Saurabh calls it the realisation of a tiny dream. "It was a big deal to be a part of team India's dressing room," he remembers. "My dream right from childhood was to be able to play Test cricket for India. I wasn't going to realise that just yet, but this was the closest I had gotten to doing so. That was exciting in itself."
For the left-arm spinner from Uttar Pradesh, this was a rare moment of joy after a year that had had its fair share of gloom. The gloom had nothing to do with his performance. If anything, he was on top of his game when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. In the 2019-20 domestic season, Saurabh had 44 wickets at 21.09 in eight Ranji Trophy matches, including five five-wicket hauls. In the previous season, 13 first-class games had yielded 70 wickets at 18.15 with seven five-wicket hauls. He had also begun contributing regularly with the bat.
This consistency was rewarded with a place in the Rest of India squad for the Irani Trophy against Saurashtra. That was around the time Covid-19 struck, and cricket, like everything else that was a marker of normalcy in everyday life, came to a grinding halt.
"This was the most difficult phase of life for me," Saurabh remembers. "I was bowling exceptionally well and felt I was not far from selection for the national team. My selection in Rest of India suggested that too. When Covid struck and everything stopped, I would often sit at home and wonder when things will restart. The way things had come to a halt gave no hope at times. You can play a tournament involving eight teams in a bio-bubble, but you obviously can't replicate that for 38 teams. The lockdown kept me occupied with a lot of negative thoughts, but I was glad once that difficult phase ended.
"However, the best thing for me was that the selectors remembered my performances when cricket restarted. I was asked to join the team as a net bowler when England visited in 2021. That's when I felt assured that if one keeps performing, then that opportunity has to come, sooner or later."
Things only picked up for Saurabh from there. He was selected in the India A team for the tour to South Africa in the latter part of the year and then retained as a net bowler for the home Tests against New Zealand, before being picked in the main squad against Sri Lanka.
Saurabh is currently in Bengaluru, spearheading UP's spin attack against mighty Mumbai in the Ranji semi-finals. He had inspired his team to a big win in the previous round against Karnataka with seven wickets.
None of this has come easy to Saurabh. He was all of 10 when he left his home in Baraut, Baghpat, to pursue his cricket dreams in Delhi. The distance of 60 kms would be covered by a passenger train, which stopped frequently enough for the actual travel time of two-two and a half hours to get extended by an hour everyday. In the initial years, Saurabh's father Ramesh Chand, a junior engineer at All India Radio's Akashvani Bhavan, would accompany him and drop him off at the National Stadium cricket academy before heading off for work. Once Saurabh got more familiar with the national capital, he remembers travelling by himself.
"If I had practice at eight in the morning, then I would have to catch the 4.20 train. It was a single line, and that meant the train stopped often, and it would usually reach Old Delhi station only after three or three-and-a-half hours. Then I would catch a bus to the academy, where I was coached by Sunita Sharma ma'am and her husband Dinesh Tomar sir. Sometimes if there was a match, I would reach the venue straight from the station. It was tiring, but when you are driven by a dream, you tend to keep walking in spite of all that."
It was Saurabh's positivity and perseverance that kept him going through the grind of travelling three to four days a week from Baraut to Delhi for practice. When there were tournaments he could be a part of, that frequency of travel went up accordingly. As performances in these events became better and more consistent, he started making his way into UP's age-group teams. While making his way through Under-13 and Under-15 teams, he also earned himself a cricket scholarship at ONGC at age 15 and became a stipend-bound player for them.
It was around this time that he also got an opportunity to train under Bishan Singh Bedi at one of his famed summer camps. "Bishan sir has had a huge role in my development," he says. "He would organise these camps every summer and I have been a part of a fair few. I benefited greatly from him because he too was a left-arm spinner. When I was named in the Test team, he congratulated me over a video call. He's a large-hearted man and one can't help but feel positive after having a chat with him."
Working through Under-16 and Under-17 levels, Saurabh also turned out for UP Under-19 for three years. However, the pathway to the senior team seemed less obvious. At that point of time, the senior team had first-choice spinners in Piyush Chawla, Ali Murtaza, Praveen Gupta and Avinash Yadav, with the likes of Kuldeep Yadav and Saurabh Kashyap as prospects.
With his participation in tournaments in Delhi continuing, he was approached by officials at the Indian Air Force, who wanted him to turn out for them in an inter-departmental tournament of the armed forces. With no immediate prospects of playing for UP, the 20-year-old Saurabh accepted their offer, and with it a job as an airman.
An impressive performance for Air Force brought him a chance to realise the first step of his India Test dream with a spot in the Services Ranji squad. His debut season for them in 2014-15 fetched him 36 wickets in seven matches. Soon, the tide turned in his favour in terms of spin resources at UP - Murtaza and Chawla had disappointing domestic seasons and Kuldeep began graduating to senior India honours.
The prospect of returning to UP, initiated over a conversation with the state selectors, was not an easy decision for Saurabh or his family. At Services, he had the security of a stable government job in addition to the opportunity to play regularly for the senior team. The UP selectors also wanted him to first turn out for the Under-23 team as a precondition.
"It wasn't an easy decision, but I am glad it was one I took. If I hadn't taken this decision then, I am quite sure I would have regretted this whole episode," he says. "I learnt a lot from my stint with the Services. Their training is unlike that of any other cricket team. We would begin at 4.30 in the morning and only wind up around 9.30 at night. I found it challenging physically, but I can safely say that has made me a much mentally tougher cricketer."
Saurabh returned to Under-23 cricket with UP and picked up 21 wickets. This cemented his place in the senior team, and he celebrated his maiden first-class game for his home state with 10 wickets in the match against Gujarat.
It's only been upward and onward for Saurabh since. Before the semi-final this year, Saurabh had 206 first-class wickets at 24.29, with 16 five-wicket hauls and 10 wickets in a match on six occasions. He has also managed 1657 runs in 66 innings at 29.58 with two centuries and nine fifties.
This season, his batting came to the fore in UP's final league match against Vidarbha. Saurabh made 81 as UP avoided an innings defeat at the hands of an Umesh Yadav-led attack, a result that helped the team advance to the knockouts. He shared a seventh-wicket stand of 154 with Rinku Singh, who made 62 himself.
"I wasn't a very good batter to begin with but I have put in a lot of practice since," Saurabh says. "I always wanted to be a bowler, but with time I realised that you need to contribute to your team's performance beyond your basic skill. I take my batting quite seriously and work on it quite a bit - I am quite happy with two centuries, nine half-centuries and an average of 30!"
Saurabh remembers the Vidarbha game for another reason; it was during this match that he learnt of his selection for India. "When I got hold of my mobile phone at the end of day's play, I found a huge number of missed calls. I was wondering what might have happened," he recalls. "When I got to know of my selection, I spoke to my parents and my wife. Being a part of the Indian Test team had been a childhood dream of mine, but it was one I had shared with them. When I got the white jersey of the Indian Test side in Chandigarh, I felt like I was within touching distance of this dream."
The presence of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja meant Saurabh wouldn't get his India debut just yet. At 29, he realises he might not have much more than four or five years at his peak ahead of him. With India blessed with spin reserves, Saurabh might still have to wait for his turn with the Test team, but it is one he accepts gleefully.
"I don't think of this in a negative way, as that would begin to impact my performances. My job is just to go out there and play cricket with all my passion. I know that I will play Test cricket one day."

Daya Sagar is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo Hindi