Comebacks are everything in sport. Often they are made in the middle of an athlete’s career, silencing critics and thrilling fans. Sometimes they are made at the end, proving the twilight years to be a false dusk. And sometimes, like in the case of Arshdeep Singh, they have to be made even before a career begins.
Arshdeep played his first age group match for Punjab as a 15-year-old in October 2014. But a nondescript tournament later, he found himself even out of the Punjab's team till as recently as three months ago. And now, all of a sudden, he finds himself in the India Under-19 team.
Kharar is approximately 13 kilometres from Chandigarh’s Guru Nanak Public School. The former is where Arshdeep’s family lives, and the latter is where he plays his cricket. It is a commute that Arshdeep and his kit bag took on cycle for about two years, partly to save costs, and partly because it would build strength in his legs and back.
“Bus timings were not suitable for him,” said Darshan Singh, Arshdeep’s father. “He would have to stand in the evenings as he would not get a seat, which made it very difficult.” So Arshdeep would pedal more than 25 kilometres every day, as he plotted his return into the Punjab side with coach Jaswant Rai.
Rai, who played 70 First Class matches for Himachal Pradesh, is extremely proud of Arshdeep’s development, not least because “despite being a left-arm spinner myself, I have nurtured a left-arm fast bowler.” The journey began with Rai identifying certain areas of Arshdeep’s action that needed minor interventions. “There was a problem in his action, in the loading,” said Rai. “We worked on that for a year. We got his arm to come more close to the ear, straighter. That made him more upright. Then he wasn’t completing his follow through. That we worked on.”
Arshdeep already had good pace, courtesy a 6’2’’ frame and a whippy action with good arm speed. But he really became incisive when the duo began working on his wrist position. “Then he started moving the ball both ways, and became a wicket-taker.” He was getting closer to achieving one of his goals: being able to bowl six different deliveries in an over. “Now, he has a good bouncer and yorker, and is working on his slower one.”
After his 18th birthday, the hard work put in over three years started to pay off. In the 2017-18 Vinoo Mankad Trophy, Arshdeep was second highest wicket-taker, with 13 wickets in four games, including a haul of 6 for 26 against Himachal Pradesh. Then, for North Zone Under-19, he claimed 5 for 41 against South Zone, finishing 4th highest wicket-taker.
“Rahul Dravid and Venkatesh Prasad were there for that mat,” says Rai. Arshdeep certainly seemed to have impressed them; when left-arm spinner Anukul Roy missed out from the India Under-19 team for the Asia Cup due to injury, Arshdeep was called up as his replacement, and made his debut there.
Saara jag jitt laina ae main vekh layin, Fer kadma ‘ch rakhun bebe bapu de (Just you watch, I have come to win the world, and then I will lay it at my parent’s feet).
These are lines from a song that Arshdeep often listens to before games, one that his father says he has heard a number of times. The song is Honsle, meaning courage or resolution. His father recounts one instance where this quality shone through.
“It’s very interesting,” said Darshan Singh. "In one tournament, he took only 2 wickets in two matches. So he was upset, and wasn’t talking much to us. He messaged us on WhatsApp that he will talk to us after taking five wickets in next day's match. And next day he took six wickets! When he makes up his mind he does it.”
Perhaps Arshdeep had made up his mind to make the Indian team for the World Cup, for that is exactly what he did, despite three of India’s top pace bowlers coming back into the side. But it looked unlikely when, in the first two matches of the Challenger Trophy in November, he went for figures of 0 for 51 and 0 for 48. But in the next game, he compensated, taking 5 for 19, three of those wickets coming courtesy bouncers on a slow pitch. He then followed it up with a brace in the last game, to finish joint third-highest wicket taker and book his seat on the plane to New Zealand.
Competition in the Indian squad for a place in the XI will be fierce, with Arshdeep being the least experienced of the fast bowlers. But there will be wider interest should Arshdeep break in and succeed: The senior Indian team is touring South Africa with one of, if not the best pace attack they have ever had. But that unit is still missing a key member: a left-arm fast bowler.