‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you,’ reads a post on Riyan Parag’s Twitter feed.
And it’s not just a random quote. The fun-loving, cheerful 21-year-old has realised every word in his cricketing journey so far, and these days, when he walks out on the 22 yards, Riyan knows that every challenge is a new opportunity for him. He just needs to back himself and overcome those hurdles, one by one, be it for Assam in the domestic circuit or for Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League.
Coming from a family of sportspersons - his father Parag Das is a former first-class cricketer, while his mother Mithoo Barooah is an international swimmer - Riyan knows what a cricketer goes through when the odds are against him. And, over the last couple of years, life has taught Riyan a very important lesson - be your own inspiration.
The youngster is a music geek, an avid social media user and is very particular about his opinions and choices on the platforms. But when on the field, you get to see a completely different Riyan, who is aggressive in approach and loves playing under pressure.
Perhaps that’s why you see him firing 78 runs from just 28 balls in the second innings of a Ranji Trophy match against Hyderabad and setting the tone for Assam’s thrilling 18-run win. “The role definitely changes when I am playing for Assam. Here, I have to take on a lot of responsibility because I know the team needs me in certain situations. I have got to perform if I want to win games. I love that,” Riyan tells Sportstar.
By his own admission, he plays his ‘best cricket when there is pressure’, and his stint in the IPL has taught the young gun how to keep calm and just finish off things. “Every game has its own pressure. I am in a situation where I need to pull through. That’s what I like. I like challenges and here every game is a challenge. It’s like giving a kid a candy. I am loving it,” he says with a smile.
At the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad this week, Riyan claimed four wickets for 48 runs, before setting the stage on fire with his 78. Coming out to bat at No.4, he hammered eight fours and six sixes at a strike rate of 278.57 and reached his fifty in just 19 balls.
That quick-fire innings bolstered Assam’s chances and paved the way for its victory. In the second innings, too, Riyan claimed four wickets. “That’s right up my forte. I visualise these scenarios a lot. My social media and Instagram might say otherwise, that I am not that focused or that I am not a deep thinker about cricket, but my teammates know that I am a very big thinker. I visualise a lot of things and that helps me in performing in pressure situations,” he says confidently.
A member of India’s U-19 World Cup-winning team of 2018, Riyan has been in fine touch this season. After impressive performances in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (253 runs in seven outings) and Vijay Hazare Trophy (552 runs in nine games; 10 wickets), Riyan has so far had a successful stint in the Ranji Trophy, too.
Riyan has served a polite reminder of just why he is valued so much by his IPL franchise and his State team. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he stood out with his performances right through Assam’s campaign. His consistency with the willow — a 174 against Jammu & Kashmir in a run-chase of 351 in the quarterfinal was the highlight — came to the fore. He also stunned opponents with his variations with the ball.
Over the years, the youngster has often been unfairly trolled on social media, but Riyan says that he has realised how to take things in his stride.
“It’s mostly about believing in myself. I know that’s a cliche that everyone says, but I think as a cricketer, you only evolve with as many games as you play. After playing four seasons of the IPL and quite a lot of domestic cricket, I really believe in myself and my abilities. That’s one part of having relative success in the domestic circuit…”
The second part, he says, is ‘cutting out all the outside noise’.
“I have convinced myself that no matter how good I do, people are going to judge me because I play a different brand of cricket. If I let that affect me, it hampers my game. I am playing like a free bird now. I am expressing myself, doing what I love and just showcasing my abilities to the world. What I can actually do and not impersonate someone and try to fit in,” he says.
The Guwahati boy shot to fame in 2019 after his stint with Rajasthan Royals, and thereafter every time things have not gone his way, Riyan has found himself being trolled on social media.
He would initially think a lot about it. But not anymore.
“Trust me, cricket in India is the easiest part, but handling all that comes with cricket is the hardest bit. That’s what I have realised,” he says.
“A lot of us get carried away with all the hype, all the media attention that comes with it. But there’s also a flip-side to it. The moment you don’t do well, there will be so many people talking against you and trying to bring you down. It kind of affects your actual belief…”
“My social media is very active, I like to express my views on topics that I like, but I don’t really go into what other people have to say. If I have an opinion, I will post about it, or tweet about it but then, it’s my opinion and I am not waiting for someone else’s opinion on the same. That has helped me a lot. I share what I want to share, what I want to say, and that’s the end of it. I then move on to the next thing….” he says.
Picking up from a rough
Riyan remembers those days in Dubai when he would walk on the beach in the middle of the night, gazing at the stars. A large part of the world was still under the COVID-induced lockdown and Riyan was in the Rajasthan Royals bio-bubble for the 2020 edition of the IPL.
Things looked difficult for the youngster. Far away from his family and friends, he did not have quite a memorable start to the tournament. Runs dried up, he was low on confidence and just like the COVID-stuck world, Riyan, too, was in search of a vaccine, albeit with the willow.
“I was nowhere. I would go to the beach and stare at the stars and the moon till about 4 am. I got dropped for a couple of matches,” he recollects those difficult days.
“But I came back and played a match-winning knock against SRH. I try to recollect all those memories because your experience will mean much more than somebody else’s. If someone tells me something then that’s an example for sure, but when you have lived it and have been able to pull through, that’s when you have learned the most,” he says.
And that’s why, even though he draws inspiration from Cristiano Ronaldo, the late Kobe Bryant and Virat Kohli, Riyan believes life has been his teacher. “I firmly believe that even though I am 21, I have been through situations where I needed to perform when all the chips were down, and my back was against the wall. I needed to bounce back and I pulled through. You are your best motivator, inspiration, your best example in terms of how to get up when the chips are down…” he says.
Rajasthan Royals has backed him through thick and thin, and in the 2023 edition of the IPL, Riyan wants to do something ‘extraordinary’ to repay the franchise’s faith in him. “Rajasthan Royals has been my biggest motivator. Even though I am doing a tough job there, I am not performing as well as I would like to, they have tagged me for four seasons now, which is a very big thing for me.”
“All the experiences that I have had in the IPL, I don’t have words to describe it. Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara), Zubs (Zubin Bharucha), Sanju (Samson) bhaiya… all of them have helped me immensely to grow over the years and I will forever be grateful for them. Hopefully, next season I do something extraordinary to repay their faith in me,” a smiling Riyan says.
While Royals has always supported him, Riyan’s parents and a close group of friends - none of them are cricketers - have helped him pull through the challenges.
“My parents take care of the sporting side of things; my dad gives me a lot of advice in terms of what I need to do, and my mom being an international swimmer, understands how to handle the hype and all. But at the end of the day, you need to figure things out,” Riyan avers. “You may have the best friends, but you still need to figure out what you need to do. For me, the last year has been very helpful. I know the IPL did not really go well for me, even though we qualified, I got a lot of backlash and criticism for the way I played. But then, I don’t expect people to understand the nitty-gritty of the game.”
“Rajasthan Royals understands my role in the team and how difficult a role that is. But that’s between the team and me. No one knows what goes on there and what I do or why the team is backing me. I don’t really expect people to understand that and accepting that fact has helped me a lot,” he says, adding, “I know what the team needs me to do, I know what my capabilities are. If I can focus on that, other opinions don’t really matter…”
The India dream
When India won the U-19 World Cup in 2018 under the leadership of Prithvi Shaw, the team’s head coach Rahul Dravid had told the youngsters to never lose focus, going forward. It’s been almost five years since that iconic title win and some of Riyan’s then U-19 teammates have already made it to the senior men’s Indian team.
But Riyan has had to wait a tad longer, but he doesn’t mind. “I have exempted myself from the thoughts about how many of my U-19 teammates are in the Indian team already. I started playing cricket when I was six or seven years old, I got a hang of it when I was 10 or 11 and since then, the only goal has been to play for India,” he says.
“My belief is that whether it’s three months or three years, I will play for India. It’s not me hoping that I am going to make it, but it’s the belief in myself that I know I am going to make it. There’s no second doubt there. I know I am going to play for India, whether it’s now or in a few years…”
And, to turn that dream into a reality, Riyan now wants to show his abilities and perform wherever he can. “My performances haven’t backed my ambition and my abilities so far, so all I need to do now is perform. Let everything else take care of itself. The belief is always there that I know I will play for India and I will. Other things don’t really matter,” he says, before quickly adding, “Once I am there, I am not going anywhere else…”
That’s the sort of confidence a youngster needs to chase his dreams. And luckily for Riyan, that’s the sort of confidence and self-belief he has to turn the dream into a reality.