When Mukesh Kumar was in the Rest of India’s team bus on the way back to the hotel after the second day’s play at the Irani Cup in Rajkot, he got a notification on his phone: he was added to the Indian team’s WhatsApp group for the South Africa ODI series.
Within minutes, he started getting congratulatory messages on social media and messaging apps from his fans, supporters and well-wishers. The first thing he did was to call “my mother and inform her”. That was followed by calls to those who had stood by him through thick and thin, including his coaches “Joy sir (Joydeep Mukherjee, former Bengal batter) and Rano sir (Ranadeb Bose, former Bengal swinger and bowling coach).”
Minutes before leaving the Saurashtra Cricket Association stadium, Mukesh and Umran Malik were involved in a prolonged discussion with national selector Sunil Joshi. Didn’t Joshi tell him? He didn’t. “He waited for the official announcement and then called me to congratulate,” says Mukesh.
Staying in the present
It’s been almost three hours since he has received a call-up that virtually every young Indian aspires for at some point in his or her early life. Sitting in the hotel’s lobby in a white tee and black shorts, what's on his mind?
“Honestly, I am just thinking about how to bowl tomorrow (Monday), and my plan and my team’s (Rest of India) plan to wrap the game up tomorrow. Yes, I am extremely happy with the India call-up, but for now, I am focused on tomorrow’s (Monday) game,” Mukesh says.
Your immediate feeling after reading this would be 'it’s a typical cliche used by sportspersons to downplay their achievement'. But one can sense Mukesh, just over a week shy of turning 29, is being genuine.
“I am like this. It’s a very proud feeling to be selected for India but tomorrow (Monday) is important.”
Perhaps his tendency to not get over-excited on what is perhaps the biggest day in his sojourn as a cricketer has a lot to do with how his life has panned out so far. Far from being a privileged cricketer in urban India, as a teenager, Mukesh would be waiting for the fields to be harvested so that he could run in and bowl in Kakarkund, a village in Bihar’s Gopalganj district.
While his father used to run a taxi business in Kolkata, Mukesh preferred to stay at his native place. It took an accident - “I was riding a bike, and someone rammed into it. The side-glass cut my right cheek bone” - for him to get an ultimatum from his father to pack his bags and head over to Kolkata.
In 2012, Mukesh’s father wanted him to “take up a job and help the family”. But the son was in love with the game. “I loved playing cricket. I loved to work hard. I didn’t even know what an inswing or an outswing is. All I knew was to bowl fast. That’s how I played in the second division, picked six wickets in the first match,” he recalls.
He was elevated to the first division of the CAB League but was far from focused. For most of the next two years, he was smitten by tennis-ball cricket - a lucrative proposition - and the T20 frenzy. “I would play these prize-money tournaments in Kolkata, Patna, even Delhi at times. Then came the Vision 2020 trials, and it changed my life forever.”
The Cricket Association of Bengal launched a grooming programme with V.V.S. Laxman, Waqar Younis and Muttiah Muralitharan at the helm. Bose sensed his talent and convinced Waqar to include him.
The next season, he made his Bengal debut. “I am indebted to Rano sir and Joy sir. They taught me to be disciplined and patient,” he says.
He also acknowledges “Lal sir” - former India opener and Bengal head coach Arun Lal - for believing in him and giving him every match of the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy, which proved to be a game-changer. Until then, he did not get a consistent run in the state side.
From the kind of background he has had, any bowler would be overwhelmed after being included in a state team. Mukesh’s case was no different.
“When I first entered the Bengal dressing room, it was full of India players. Pragyan Ojha, Mohammed Shami, Ashok Dinda, Manoj Tiwary, Wriddhiman Saha. Five players,” he said with a sheepish smile.
“I would keep thinking about where I used to play until recently. There’s no ground in my village. I used to play two seasons, one after the wheat harvest and one after rice. I used to level the field with my own hands and play. And I used to think that's where I have come from and kept laughing about it sitting in a corner.”
Once Tiwary asked him: 'why do you laugh whenever you see me?' “So I told him the same and said I still cannot believe I am sharing the dressing room with you." He told me: you have worked hard for it, and you have earned it.”
On Sunday, everyone in the Indian cricket fraternity and Mukesh’s social circle would be repeating what Tiwary had told him six years ago.