Millennials nowadays have a number of options when it comes to choosing what they want to do in life. Engineering and medicine are often discarded, for newer, less trodden paths. But sometimes, having too many options can be difficult, and it is better if you know exactly what you want to be as a child, and go out and do it. That’s exactly what Harvik Desai, wicketkeeper of the India Under-19 team, has done.
“Ever since he was two-years-old, he has wanted to play cricket”, says Kartik Desai, Harvik’s cousin. “He was least interested in studies, but would always say, mujhe khelna hai, mujhe khelna hai (I want to play, I want to play).” The Desais live in a joint family set-up in Bhavnagar in Gujarat, and Kartik, nearly 10 years Harvik’s senior, noticed the cricket bug in his brother right from childhood.
Harvik’s father Manish Desai played cricket briefly himself, and was also a wicketkeeper-batsman. So when he saw his son’s interest in cricket, he enrolled him in the Bharucha Cricket Club, one of the oldest clubs in Bhavnagar, where he played his cricket himself. Harvik was six at the time. There, his coach Narendra Singh Gohel began his formal training in cricket. “He has always been very sincere and hard-working. I always pushed him hard, but he responded well.”
Harvik’s talent was apparent, and his work on the field started giving it shape. But the biggest challenge lay elsewhere.
Manish worked as a cloth dealer and tailor, stitching shirts and trousers for a living. Theirs was a family of modest means with a son playing an expensive sport. “We always wanted to give him the best quality kit, since he was going ahead,” said Manish. “Yes, kit is expensive, and the costs would go to about 25 to 30 thousand rupees-a-year. Every tournament he would say, 'Papa ye lena hai, wo lena hai' (dad, I want this, I want that). Jab khel raha hai baccha, mana bhi nahi kar sakte hai na. (For a boy who is playing, we can’t deny these things.) That’s his future.”
His father did his best to provide every facility to Harvik, who also received support from the Bhavnagar cricket community. Senior players would pass on wicketkeeping kit to him whenever possible. Kartik singles out Sheldon Jackson, the only player from Bhavnagar to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL), as one of the major supports. But it wasn’t enough always.
“Once we were making a trip to Kenya,” recounts Gohel. “We have a reciprocal arrangement with a club in Nairobi, and were going to play there. Most of the kids paid for themselves, and for some, we used to gather sponsorships. We offered to sponsor Harvik’s entire trip. But his father said, 'When I can pay for him, he will go.”
Harvik quickly made his way up into the Saurashtra ranks, putting up consistent runs at the under-16 level. Aged just 13, he averaged 62 in the 2013-14 Vijay Merchant Trophy, his debut season, and 48 in the next. He was then picked in the Challenger Trophy in 2016, from which the squad for the 2016 under-19 World Cup was to be picked. Despite finishing among the top 10 run-getters, he missed out on the squad, with Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan given preference. But he was earmarked for the next edition, and has been a part of the Indian squad for every series since then.
India seem to be experimenting with the right fit for the wicketkeeper's role, and while Harvik is the current first choice, his place is far from certain. Despite having been a part of four series, Harvik has played only seven games, and returned a respectable average of 39. He seems to have been caught in a year-long game of musical chairs with other hopefuls like Anuj Rawat and Het Patel. With plenty of competition, it was important for him to have a good Challenger Trophy, and he returned scores of 40, 29 and 66 in his three innings.
Notably though, Harvik played as a fielder in two of the games in the Challenger. And while neither Rawat or Patel made the final squad, Harvik has competition for the gloves in the form of Aryan Juyal, who has had a better season with the bat. His experience in England, where he featured in the two 'Tests' and two of the 'ODI's, should earn him a spot in the starting XI though.
Harvik’s single-mindedness has brought him this far. For the boy who kept saying ‘mujhe khelna hai’, the under-19 World Cup represents a golden opportunity to play out his childhood ambition on the biggest stage.