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The curious tale of the IPL bench

Players who could be automatic picks for national teams are mere spectators at the IPL

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It was a bright, sunny day at the Toby Howe cricket ground in Billericay, east England, with a breeze bending the grass. The year was 2011, and I was a part of the Indian women’s cricket team playing a quadrangular T20 tournament. As the morning sun rose, it shone off the gold lettering on three caps as they were handed out. I cheered as my teammates Veda Krishnamurthy, Anagha Deshpande and Ekta Bisht made their T20I debuts. And, then we got on with our warm-ups and into the game, against Australia.

It was only after the game that we realised that I was making my T20I debut as well, but most of us, including me, hadn’t realised it. I had been in the squad for a while, warming the benches on and off since my ODI debut in 2008. The other three were making their first entries or comebacks into the team. An older player joked, “Tu to abhi senior ho gayi (you are a senior now).”

I wonder if Siddhesh Lad considers himself ‘senior’. After being picked by Mumbai Indians in 2015, he spent the next four years on the bench. This despite being a standout performer for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, finishing as their highest scorer in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He built a reputation as Mumbai’s ‘crisis man’, and his domestic performances earned him a spot in the India ‘A’ side this February. But, he had to wait until Rohit Sharma broke a streak of 133 consecutive IPL matches to get his first look-in on the big stage. Needless to say, no one forgot his cap ceremony.

The IPL bench is a curious place. Some of the biggest international talents come and grace it, sometimes never leaving it. In the 2009 edition, a photo of Glenn McGrath and Paul Collingwood sitting on the Delhi Daredevils bench did the rounds. One was an all-time great fast bowler, the other would lead England to the T20 World Cup the next year, but that season neither got a game. This season, too, some of the best in the world, who are automatic picks for their countries, will spend two months uncertain about whether they will play.

The upcoming World Cup thickens the plot significantly. Martin Guptill will open the batting for New Zealand in England but has played no games this IPL. Trent Boult will take the new ball for many ten-over spells in June, but he has played just one game in the last month. Shakib Al Hasan may be Bangladesh’s best all-rounder but doesn’t find a place in the Sunrisers Hyderabad squad.

These are the perils of having only four spots available for overseas players, and even within those, there is competition. An unheralded debutante like Alzarri Joseph can keep a T20 legend like Lasith Malinga out of the playing XI.

The bench is a difficult place for preparation, and a confusing one. Match days are often wasted. There is only so much training you can do in between innings or after the game. And, then there is the matter of what to do at training. Do you train for the T20 format, for the role your franchise has in mind for you but one that may never materialise? Or do you train for national team, preparing for the biggest tournament of your life, where you are certain to play?

Among Indians, too, you will find a menagerie of players sprinting on and off the field in fluorescent bibs, from greenhorns like Aryaman Birla to someone with a dozen Test centuries like Murali Vijay. Some, like Kamlesh Nagarkoti, don’t even make it to the IPL squads despite being selected; they exist on a different kind of bench, banished to the National Cricket Academy for rehab. And some, like Lad, wait patiently for their chance, soaking in the IPL atmosphere.

You may be the best of the Ranji Trophy but it is only in IPL dressing rooms do you get to learn from the best in the world.

As sides favour stability in selection, permanency on the bench increases. Strategic picks at auctions mean some players are chosen only for certain conditions. Should these conditions not appear, they may go the entire tournament without getting a game. Some are picked as shadow players.

Which brings us back to Lad replacing Rohit Sharma, a fitting swap. As children, both learned their cricket under the same coach, Siddhesh’s father Dinesh. Both attended the same school. And despite making an impression by starting his career with a six, Lad will know that it might be a while again before he gets a game. Just another day in the life of a long-term bencher — he will return to that place of perseverance, patience, learning and no small amount of yearning.

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