Water or willow.
Two paths were set out for Riyan Parag even before he was born, which is not to discount the countless others open to millennials like him. His mother had represented India in swimming. His father had had a long career in first-class cricket.
It is now abundantly apparent what choice Riyan subconsciously made: He is part of the India under-19 squad that will play a cricket World Cup. And he cannot swim.
After rejecting his mother Mithu Barua’s early (“.. he was three and a half months old”) attempts at introducing him to the pool, (“He never liked the feel of water”) Riyan wasted little time in making his affections clear. His father Parag Das was representing Assam in the Ranji Trophy at that time. Das would often stand in front of the mirror at home, bat in hand, practicing his drills. At sixteen months, Riyan picked up a bat and started copying him. By the time he was two-and-a-half, he was accompanying his father to practice.
“Many times I asked him, what do you want to do?” said Das. “I didn’t want him to play just because I played. Every time his answer was the same: cricket.” So Das became his son’s coach.
Riyan started to work his way up the cricketing ranks. He broke into the Assam under-16 team in 2013 at age 12, and the under-19 team at 13. Batting in the top order, he climbed the rungs one by one. “The biggest strength in his batting is his ability to leave the ball, and defend”, said Das. “Like all youngsters, he wanted me to teach him how to hit sixes. But this comes first for me.”
Raiyan’s breakthrough year came in the 2016-17 season though, and it wasn’t all down to his skills. His talent with the bat was apparent, but so was his puppy fat. As he entered his teens, Riyan had a rounded temperament for his age, but a rounded figure as well. Which is why his mother suggested something drastic. In consultation with Riyan and his pediatrician, they decided to switch Riyan to a Ketogenic diet; it essentially involved reducing his carbohydrate intake, and replacing it with protein.
“Riyan was a big foodie”, says Barua, who having represented the country, knows all about the sacrifices that elite sport demands. “But last one, one-and-a-half years he is on this diet, so now he has to sacrifice that. Now he’s very conscious eater; the foodie thing has also mellowed down.”
It was a big shift for the teenager, and it gave him the big results as well. When he started the 2016-17 Cooch Behar (under-19 four day) tournament, he was 14 years old. When he finished, he was its third highest run-getter, with a highest score of 202*. Six months later, he was on the flight to England on his maiden India under-19 tour.
While Riyan was picked only for the ‘Youth Test’ leg of the tour, he showed that he had more than just a good leave and defence. He scored 68 and 50 in the first 'Test', the former coming off 137 balls, and the latter of just 33, creating a record for the fastest Youth Test half-century (by balls, where recorded). He added another half-century in the next 'Test' as well.
His next outing in India colours though was a disaster for the entire team. An under-strength India were knocked out of the Asia Cup, suffering defeats to Nepal and Bangladesh. Riyan scored 25 and 19. So Riyan came into the under-19 Challenger Trophy — essentially a selection tournament for the World Cup — unsure of whether he would make the cut, and knowing that runs were the only solution. He responded with 207 runs in four innings, the standout being a century where he displayed excellent footwork against spin, and both timing and power against pace. That knock included three sixes in an over off left-arm spinner Abhishek Sharma, an India under-19 regular, and one hit that landed on the roof of Brabourne Stadium.
Not bad for someone whose biggest strength was his leave and defence.
“He was under pressure before that tournament”, said Das. “The whole team was after that Asia Cup. But he said he learnt a lot from it, more so than had they won; he said that if they had won in the Asia Cup, he would not have made those scores in the Challenger.”
You’ve probably noticed that Riyan’s surname is the same as his father’s first name. That isn’t customary, as is sometimes in the south, nor is it a coincidence. “Parag was a very talented cricketer, only some circumstances at that time stopped him from going higher”, explains Barua. “That is why I gave his name as Riyan’s surname, so he will carry his father’s vibes along with him and reach the zenith. That’s what the aim was.”
Before the Asia Cup, Riyan had to choose what name to put on the back of his shirt. He wanted it to be his surname and father’s name. “But his father said no”, said Barua. “’This is your glory, he said.”
Infancy had shown that Riyan would take after his father more than his mother. Now Riyan is a Ranji Trophy cricketer as well, having made his first-class debut this season. “Two sides of the same coin”, Barua calls them. But the family’s sights are set higher. No player from Assam has played for the senior Indian team. And the Das-Barua-Parag clan would love it if they could add a second international athlete to the family.