There is a video on Anukul Roy’s Instagram feed, showing him hitting a six over the bowler’s head. The shot itself is textbook; good use of the feet smothering the spin, a crisp downswing, and a balanced head at the point of contact. But it is the follow-through that you should watch: those few extravagant steps towards point, and the audacious swing of the bat as he walks down the wicket admiring the shot.
You can easily imagine him continuing down the wicket — sans the helmet and pads — and exchanging bats with the non-striker on the way to the other end, like is common in tennis-ball cricket matches. And you would not be far from the truth. In an alternate reality, Roy is a star in tennis-ball cricket, sought after by the many cash-rich leagues that operate around the country.
But in this universe, he is a member of India’s Under-19 cricket team, and bound for New Zealand to play with leather ball.
Ask five people sitting around you if they have heard of Samastipur. Chances are you will get five 'no's'. Try 10. Probably the same answer. Roy’s anonymous home town lies about three hours northeast of Patna in Bihar. It was there that he was spotted playing cricket with some friends by Brajesh Jha, who ran Samastipur Cricket Club, the town’s only source of cricket coaching.
“He lives close by so I knew him personally as well”, said Jha, who felt that Roy had a future in cricket if he was given the proper direction, so he decided to broach the topic with Roy’s family. “I told his older brother that he has talent. I used to play cricket myself, so I said send him to me for coaching.”
So the young Roy, not even 10 years old then, started training at Jha’s academy, handling a leather ball for the first time, as well as playing with players who were considerably older. But true to his inner hellion, Roy would often sneak back to play with his friends. “He would say ‘bhaiya here I get only bowling, there I get to bat also and hit fours and sixes!” said Jha.
When he did turn up for training, Roy’s skills as a left-handed batter and left-arm spinner developed under Jha’s tutelage. According to Jha, his first taste of serious cricket came at school level. But around that time, there also came a major distraction for Anukul, now into his teens. Roy was nearly lost to the siren call of ‘hitting fours and sixes’.
“In between, Anukul would change tracks; He would go for 'cosco' balls matches”, says Jha. Tennis ball or 'cosco' ball cricket is more popular than leather ball cricket outside metros for simple reason: the cost-of-entry barrier is affordably low, all you need is a tennis ball and a couple of bats. Most towns and cities have a plethora of tennis-ball cricket leagues, the top tier of which offer cash prizes for winners.
“Anukul would go play matches and not come to academy to train," said Jha. “By that time his talent was really shining through; I knew that he can do something. We would try to explain to him that he should concentrate on leather ball. I was worried that his talent will not develop further.”
It took a two-pronged intervention to get him on a track that lead to national colours. Roy looked up to Jha, considering him an older brother. Some stern words helped nudge him back towards leather-ball cricket. Then Roy’s coach and his parents took the decision to send Roy to Jamshedpur, Jharkhand’s cricket capital, nearly 500 kilometres away.
With Bihar not being allowed to field a team in the Ranji trophy at the time, it was a logical but difficult decision. While his parents fully supported his career, Roy was the youngest of four children, and the most sheltered. Living in Jamshedpur in a small rented apartment with friends was a big change; it meant facing more mundane responsibilities like grocery, cooking and cleaning, as well as the loneliness that came with living in a new city.
“He has really struggled, coming from a place where there isn’t much cricket, to taking care of himself on his own here”, said V Venkatram, Roy’s coach in Jamshedpur. It took him a while, but Roy soon settled in to Venkatram’s Jharkhand Cricket Academy, and began polishing his natural abilities there
“He used to bowl very fast left-arm spin, almost medium pace, which you see from those who play tennis ball cricket”, said Venkatram. “We worked on his run up, then he slowed down a bit and learned to flight the ball as well.”
Besides his batting and bowling, Venkatram was also all praise for Roy’s fielding, which he described as "outstanding". Despite that, Roy could not break into the highly competitive Jamshedpur district team, and played for another near-anonymous district, Chaibasa. Once he impressed in age-group tournaments, he swiftly moved up to the Jharkhand junior team, and soon found himself on the national radar.
When England Under-19 toured India in January this year, Roy was named captain of the India Colts side that played a warm up match against them. In that game, he claimed 3 for 52 to go with an unbeaten 62 with the bat. He featured in the Youth ODIs in that series, picking up three wickets in each of the second and third games. And when India toured England in July this year, he had four scalps in each of the first two ODIs, the second of which was televised. He also contributed an unbeaten 43 in the first one-dayer.
Those performances clearly left an impression on the powers that be. He missed the Asia Cup and the Challenger trophy — the last two opportunities to impress the selectors — due to injury that was described by Venkatram as “a spur in his heel”. But Roy still found himself in the Indian team for the World Cup.
His success in England in particular would have counted for a lot; that was a tour where the fast bowlers and batters dominated. Also, those were the closest conditions to New Zealand India got in the last one year. And the tennis-ball cricket experience, where the lighter ball is more subservient to a breeze, may be handy in windy conditions found in New Zealand.
“You need to take the right things from tennis cricket”, says Jha. “Even Dhoni used to play with cosco ball”, he says. Most of the talk surrounding the Indian team has focused on Roy’s state-mate Pankaj Yadav, the son of a milkman. But Roy’s is yet another inspiring story that is threatening to emerge from Jharkhand. If Roy does well in New Zealand, Samastipur may not remain as anonymous as it currently is.