You might call him India's mystery spinner, despite the fact that Pankaj Yadav bowls conventional leg spin. He is the only bowler in this Indian side who is yet to make his Under-19 India debut. There are practically no videos of him available online, no material from which to study his leg breaks, googlies, and flippers. No way to spot a tick, a tell, until you actually face him in a match, and try and figure out which way the ball is going to go, whether it will kick or skid, spit or die. At the time of writing, his ESPNCricinfo profile doesn't even have his date of birth.
In an era where there are no secrets in international cricket, India seemed to have picked a wild card, one that they can play close to the chest.
Which is not to say that Pankaj was picked just because he was uncapped and unexposed. The young man certainly can bowl, and has the numbers to back his call up: He was top wicket-taker in the Challenger Trophy, the selection tournament for the World Cup, despite playing one match less than most others.
But none of this is the most remarkable or interesting this about Yadav's journey.
Some of Pankaj's teammates have Ranji Trophy cricketers for fathers. Many have fathers who have played cricket at some level, and serve as coaches for their sons. But the only cricket that Chandradev Yadav has a connection to is the insect that the sport shares its name with; their early morning chirping often accompanies him as he does his rounds at dawn delivering milk.
Pankaj was raised in Ranchi, and deliberately so. Two decades ago, his father Chandradev left his home town of Panki (Palamu district) seeking to distance himself from the Naxal militant activities that affected everyday life there. He started working as a milkman, delivering milk in the wee hours of the morning, even in the harsh Ranchi winters. Pankaj is his second child, bookended by two sisters. The family worked together in the dairy business, and eventually Chandradev was able to put together enough money to buy a house on the outskirts of the city, near Kanke Block Chowk. It was there that Pankaj discovered cricket.
Sice 2011, Pankaj started training under the tutelage of Yukti Nath Jha. Despite the penurious circumstances that Pankaj came from, Jha saw more than talent in him. "Usme lagan aur junoon thi. (He had perseverance and passion)", Jha told Firstpost. "At first he bowled medium pace, but I felt his height weight wasn't suitable, told him to bowl spin. Now he has worked hard and gone ahead. I'm confident that he will not look back if he gets a chance to play", he said.
Jha has supported Pankaj financially for over five years — as he does a number of needy students who train with him — buying him kit wherever necessary. With cricket gear being expensive, and Pankaj's family being of limited means, it was not uncommon for Pankaj to have a less than full kit bag. In one Under-14 practice game, Pankaj had to borrow someone else's shoes to bowl, but impressed with the ball and progressed to the Under-14 Jharkhand team. Soon he made the jump to Under-16.
In the beginning though, his father was unimpressed. "When he was seven, one of his friends gave him the form for admission to a cricket academy", recalls Chandradev. "I said to the friend, 'tum isko cricket me fasa rahe ho to padhai kaise karega?' (if he gets caught up in cricket how will he study?). I hid the form, but he got another one. His mother supported him, so eventually he went."
Pankaj's determination to make it in cricket meant that school was an unwelcome distraction. He would often leave home in his school uniform, take the bus, but halfway to school he would change course and clothes, and wind up on the ground instead, despite admonishments from both his father and coach.
Fortunately, he was showing promise on the cricket field. He was the third-highest wicket-taker in the Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy in the 2016-2017 season, including a bag of 7 for 40 against the formidable Bengal. Those performances earned him a call up in the Challenger Trophy. After not being included in the XI for the first game, he came in to take nine wickets in the next three matches, including a five wicket haul in the third-place playoff. The performance was good enough for him to pip Rahul Chahar, who played the IPL for Rising Pune Supergiant, and who was the team's first-choice leg-spinner over the past year.
"He is very street smart", says Jha. "Whatever he has learned, he has learned through experience rather than bookish knowledge, so he understands well." Pankaj is already something of a celebrity in his home town; the people of Ranchi love their against-all-odds success stories, and Pankaj's selection has given them another to celebrate. But he will be keen to give them more than just that.
New Zealand is known to be a seam bowlers paradise, thanks to the hint of moisture that is often found in the wickets there. But moisture also assists spinners, and a ball with enough revolutions will grip and turn. India play their first match in the group against Australia, their biggest opponents. Against a team that is traditionally more at home against pace, the stage is set up perfectly for Prithvi Shaw's team to unleash their only leg-spinner.