Riyan Parag’s Under-19 World Cup was burning as badly as his finger. Days before the first game, in a tournament where he was slated to bat in India’s middle order, Riyan jammed his finger into the ground while fielding. The resulting strain ruled him out of the first few matches of the tournament.
Riyan Parag’s IPL opportunity was spinning, as was his head. He had just been hit on the right temple by a bouncer bowled by someone considered among the most powerful cricketers on the planet. The knock prompted a concerned examination from his physio, and a stern talking to from the umpire. Go on only if you can.
In both cases, he went on. Riyan beat the odds, piled on the bandages, and played the later stages of the 2018 Under-19 World Cup, a tournament the Indian team dominated and eventually won. And on Thursday (25 April) at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium, he shook off the body blow, brought his team back from the brink, and eventually did enough to take them to a remarkable win.
It’s not really surprising, even when you remember that he is 17. The book SuperFreakonomics cited a rough calculation by the authors, which said that if a Major League Baseball player has a son, that son is 800 times more likely to play MLB than any other random boy. And Riyan is the child of not one professional athlete, but two.
Riyan’s father, Parag Das, played Ranji Trophy cricket for Assam. His mother, Mithu Baruah once held a national record in swimming. His mother gave her son her husband’s name as his surname, as she wanted him to feed off the elder Parag’s energy. It worked, but a bit too well. He’s now lighting up the IPL. And he can’t swim.
But many U-19 cricketers are lost after success at that level, and it could have been the same for Riyan. After impressing the Rajasthan Royals management at off-season trials in 2018, Riyan was looking at a strong Ranji season to cement the relationship. Instead, he suffered yet another untimely injury.
“It happened around September or October, and he was out of action for almost a couple of months,” remembers Baruah. Riyan tore a ligament in his left ankle; one moment his career was sprinting ahead, the next he was confined to crutches.
Baruah immediately took long leave from her job in North East Frontier Railway, and a period of bonding, both literally and figuratively, followed. “There was lots of taping and icing, and movies and chilling,” laughs Baruah. But she also talks about the positivity Riyan maintained through that period of uncertainty.
The break also gave him some time to study for his 12th standard board arts exams. Riyan eventually recovered in time for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2019, and then joined the RR camp for the IPL, books in tow. While most youngsters will relish every second they get to spend in the company of the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Ben Stokes and Steve Smith, Riyan had to take a few days off as he flew back to Guwahati on the days he had exams. He missed three papers, which clashed with the beginning of the IPL, but on Thursday, in front of thousands, he passed a sterner test.
He came to the crease at 63 for 3, and almost departed just as fast, lucky to survive a simple caught and bowled chance. That soon became 98 for five, leaving him 77 runs to get off the last seven overs. All that stood between RR and a certain defeat was a 12th standard student and couple of all-rounders.
He rode the impetus that Shreyas Gopal’s cameo provided, and then started unfurling his own shots in the company of Jofra Archer. From 22 off 21, he raced to 47 off 30. Streaks of luck were interlaced with the power that you associate with full-grown men. An ‘experienced 17-year-old’ is how Smith described him once, and he batted like that.
His dismissal was as much against the run of play as his innings was; Rajasthan looked set to lose, but Archer sealed the game with four balls to spare.
Baruah laughs happily as I congratulate her on her son’s performance, but ruefully brings up an old pet peeve. He can win matches, “but he still hates swimming. Only in four-foot pools he is fine, where he can touch his feet,” she says.
No matter. Riyan Parag is thriving in another kind of deep end.