Gaming

How Ganguly’s phone call spurred Kumar Kushagra’s massive IPL payday | Cricket

On the evening of December 19, 2023, Jharkhand’s Kumar Kushagra found himself navigating an unusual struggle. While fans remained glued to screens, tracking the latest additions to their favourite Indian Premier League teams at the 2024 Auction, Kushagra faced a unique hurdle in following his destiny. In his room in Jharkhand’s training camp in Ranchi, the 19-year-old from Bokaro remained busy dismissing phone calls as he tried following his bidding. By the time he could follow the auction properly, he was already a Delhi Capitals player. Sold, for INR 7.20 crore.

Kumar Kushagra of Jharkhand during preliminary quarter final match of Ranji Trophy match against Nagaland, in Kolkata(PTI)

“I was alone in my room that time. I had finished my practice early, returned straight to my room, took out my mobile, and started following the auction. That was because the TV in my room was not working,” Kushagra tells us as he revisits the evening that would change his life forever.

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“My name was in the 55th position. The moment it was supposed to be announced, they took a break. I hadn’t eaten anything, and it must have been 6 or 6:30 in the evening by then. I was pretty annoyed!

“But then, my name eventually came. Chennai Super Kings started the bidding, and they went to INR 60 lakh. I started receiving so many calls back-to-back. I must have received at least 15 calls, I think. And I was watching the auction on my phone, so I kept dismissing them and the streaming kept getting paused. I couldn’t follow it properly; the next thing I saw, the bidding reached INR 7.20 crore.”

Delhi Capitals waived off fierce competition with CSK and 2022 champions Gujarat Titans for Kushagra’s signature. As the youngster was still wrapping his head around the momentous bid, a jubilant horde of his Jharkhand teammates barged into his room to celebrate the occasion. But Kushagra knew what he had to do first and foremost.

“All 23 players burst in and started celebrating. I told them to give me five minutes as I wanted to talk to my mother. I called her, and we started crying. She said it’s the reward for the years of hard work and just a start. And that we have to build on this now. We just kept crying on that phone call,” remembers Kushagra.

The youngster, too, initially mirrored a similar pursuit in a household where academic aspirations flourish. Throughout middle school, he remained a diligent student, prioritising his studies. The trajectory of his life underwent a significant shift at the age of 12 when he secured a spot in the Jharkhand Under-16s. Then, cricket took over.

Just four years ago, Kushagra caught the attention of selectors for the India U19s with a sensational stint in the U19 Vinoo Mankad Trophy. He ended as the tournament’s top-scorer, even as Jharkhand failed to reach the final. Interestingly, even then, a significant part of his training regimen included sessions with his father, whose coaching bible was the legendary Bob Woolmer’s ‘The Art and Science of Cricket’.

For Kushagra, those sessions helped him carve an identity of his own.

“We didn’t use to get much time to practice. The training timings were 3-6 in the evening, and there was a lot of crowd that time, so I didn’t get sufficient time to bat. So, my father used to wake me up at five in the morning, and we practised till 7 when it was time to go to school. He hasn’t had formal training in cricket and would read cricket-related books to train me. He does that even now. And I trust his knowledge.

“His collection goes way beyond Bob Woolmer’s book, actually. He has also read NCA books, which are technically the guidebooks for batting technique. That helped a lot. At 19, I’m playing Ranji Trophy and feel it is still helping me improve my game,” says Kushagra.

Indeed, it is.

In 2022, Kushagra seized the attention of the Indian cricket fraternity. At 17, he crafted a remarkable double hundred against Nagaland in the pre-quarterfinal of the Ranji Trophy, becoming the youngest batter to amass 250 or more runs in a first-class innings, breaking Javed Miandad’s long-standing record.

Fast forward to the present, at 19 years old, Kushagra emerged as the sixth-highest run-scorer in the recent Deodhar Trophy, amassing 227 runs in five innings with an impressive strike rate of 109.13. His notable contributions included a fifty for East Zone in the final, albeit in a losing effort against South Zone. It was before that game that he first got wind of Delhi Capitals’ interest in him, when one of the commentators from the match approached him with a message from Sourav Ganguly, the franchise’s team director.

“He told me that Sourav sir has called me for a trial at Delhi Capitals. I was a little confused then, since the IPL auction was far away (the final was in August),” remembers Kushagra. The state association thought so, too, and denied him permission to leave the side, for the domestic season was about to kickstart. That was when Ganguly personally reached out to the youngster.

“Sourav sir called me personally. He said that Delhi Capitals are looking at me for their squad. He praised my performances over the past two years and wanted to see me play. I participated in a camp in Gurugram and did well in a trial match. I played in another camp in Bengaluru, scoring 60-odd runs in 25 balls. In Kolkata, I scored 60-odd runs again, this time in 23 balls,” says Kushagra.

Justifiably, Ganguly was impressed. He would sometimes come to him as he batted in the nets, suggesting certain modifications in his stroke playing that can help Kushagra bat more aggressively. During the camp in Kolkata, Kushagra also met Capitals’ skipper Rishabh Pant and had a detailed chat with the India star on the nuances related to wicketkeeping.

With Pant still recovering from the injuries sustained in a car accident in December 2022, such performances played a crucial role in the franchise breaking the bank for Kushagra. Even as multiple reports have suggested that Pant will return in IPL 2024, there are still doubts about whether he can take over full-time wicketkeeping duties. That is where Kushagra comes into the picture.

“There’s no such pressure, to be honest. You have to take responsibility; that’s how you grow. And even at the number where I bat, I have to play for the team. So, I have to follow my processes and help the team win,” says the young wicketkeeper-batter.

Kushagra comes from a land that has given India one of its finest cricketing captains in Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Like many growing up in the late 2000s, Kushagra also idolises the wicketkeeper-batter, who currently leads the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. The youngster has yet to meet his idol, but the 2024 IPL might provide a golden opportunity for Kushagra to finally share the same space as the legendary skipper.

“There are a lot of questions in my head, already (for when I will meet MS Dhoni),” says Kushagra with a smile.

“There’s no one better to answer those questions than him. Some are wicketkeeping-related, but the one important thing I want to ask him is how to segregate smart work and hard work,” says the Jharkhand wicketkeeper.

“Nowadays, being a cricketer, you have many travelling days in addition to the games. How do you ensure that your form isn’t hampered during that time, keep your mind focused, and what should be the food intake? Those are the things I want to ask from him.”

Despite the wisdom beyond his years, there’s no escaping the intense competition for wicketkeeping positions at the international level. This role has particularly witnessed a surge in talent over the past few years. While Pant, India’s initial choice before his unfortunate accident, is eagerly anticipating a return, the team is already brimming with alternatives. KL Rahul currently holds the top spot in ODIs and Tests, with Ishan Kishan and Jitesh Sharma vying for a position in T20Is. Additionally, Sanju Samson strengthened his case with a spectacular century against South Africa in an ODI last month.

Even at the ‘A’ level, Dhruv Jurel, Kushagra’s U19 World Cup captain, recently assumed the wicketkeeping role in South Africa during four-day Tests against their ‘A’ team.

Is too much competition a deterrent, too?

“Honestly, for me, the priority is to enjoy the game as long as I play. What level do I play at, whom do I play with… all of that comes later. I want to enjoy the game, first and foremost. I want to win tricky matches for my team; that gives me joy. Playing in knock-out matches, semi-finals and finals… that gives me joy.

“Even at my home, the mindset is the same. We don’t pick out a certain player and debate on why he is playing or why is he above me in the pecking order. Instead, they keep pushing me to win matches for the team,” says Kushagra with conviction.

Kumar Kushagra is a part of the JSW Sports roster, also associated with Delhi Capitals.

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