Couch Talk Episode 50 (play)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former Tamil Nadu Ranji player, Vikram Kumar. He gave up playing first class cricket to focus on his studies. He is now working towards a Doctoral degree in Economics in the united States. We’ll talk about his cricket career path, the pressure on teenagers, especially those growing up in India and wanting to choose cricket as their career, the way youngsters are cared and treated in the Indian domestic system and whether his decision would be any different in these days on T20 leagues.
Welcome to the show, Vikram!
Vikram Kumar– Thanks a lot, Subash! It’s a pleasure being here.
SJ– You played U-13 for Tamil Nadu from ’93 to ’95, U-16 for couple of more years, represented South Zone U-16 in ’96-’97 and made your Ranji debut in 2004-05 as a wicket keeper. How did you progress from your U-16 days to making your first class debut? What was the coaching and the guidance that was available to you at that time?
VK– My progress was very steady throughout. In some sense, I started out playing U-10 cricket. I must say that my school was extremely supportive in terms of promoting cricket and supporting students who wanted to play cricket. I was also quite lucky to have a coach at school who was extremely dedicated, and put in a lot of hours in trying to develop a cricket team. So, given that, I went through the ranks pretty much rung by rung.
Another extremely helpful, key formative process in my career was the league cricket in Chennai. There is a very well developed and organized league system where the young cricketers get the opportunity to play against cricketers that are much older. It is not necessary that I will only be playing with 16 year-olds. The Chennai League system, which has 5 divisions, gives the exposure to young cricketers to practice their trade with a lot of older ex-cricketers. It is not just school cricket, school cricket helps a lot and is probably the most important part of one’s early cricketing career, but I was lucky enough to be in a city that had to offer a lot more for young cricketers.
SJ– In your case, you made this progression, and then choosing career as an option was a very feasible option, a very viable option to pick. Can you elaborate- making the decision at such a young age? At 15, 16 and 17 (years of age), you have to choose whether you have to focus on your studies or you have to focus on your cricket? What was it like for you, and for other people of your age at that time?
VK– As a youngster, when I was in school, the only thing that I ever thought of was cricket. I absolutely hated going to school, and I think this is true with any kid anywhere in the world. It was quite hard trying to balance the both. In some sense, during my formative years, I did not give much importance to studies. I actually did pretty bad in school, except for my final year. I never really thought of doing anything other than cricket for the rest of my life at that time. It wasn’t really much of a choice. I was happy not to go to school. I was happy playing 4 cricket matches a week. It was not that hard!
I was very lucky when it comes to how much support I had from my parents. They were always worried about the fact that I wasn’t going to school much, but they realised that I was actually doing pretty well and I had a reasonably good chance of progressing through the ranks. They were extremely supportive. All they asked of me was to not completely neglect my studies, and when I had the time I put in a little bit of effort into studies. Kudos to my parents to have given me all the support. And it is very important. A lot of kids don’t get that kind of support from their parents. In my case, it really helped.
SJ– You were second in the pecking order behind Reuben Paul. But, Dinesh Karthik, who is basically 3 years younger to you, came to the Tamil Nadu Ranji scene after you and basically took over the wicket-keeping spot from of you and made his FC debut 3 years ahead of you. What was going through your mind at that time when Dinesh Karthik came in and went past you? In terms of cricket as a career option and a general passion for the game, what was going through your mind?
VK– I still had a lot of passion for the game. I had a great time playing the game. With Dinesh Karthik, the first thing I realised was, and I should be open about it, he is a much more capable batsman than I was. When he came into the scene, that was exactly the time I got into engineering college in Chennai. It was a time when I was trying to juggle being a professional sportsman and being an engineering student. I was 19 years old that time, and had the best chance of making to the India U-19 team which was going to New Zealand at that time. I was called for a stint at the NCA. John Wright, Balwinder Sandhu were there. i was looked upon as one of the promising wicketkeeper-batsman coming through at that time. So, when Dinesh Karthik came in, I was also trying to balance my engineering and studies along with being a professional cricketer. That certainly took a toll.
At least, in India, if you are going to an engineering school, to the university that I went to, although they were encouraging, they had a lot of bureaucratic issues which prevented me from giving cricket as much of the time that I wanted to give it. I don’t blame the university or the system there because people who want to balance both are willing to stay in college for 5 and 6 years and finish their engineering degree. I was not willing to do that, it was a personal choice I made when I did not want to be left behind and stay in college for 5 or 6 years only because I wanted to play cricket. I wanted to get out in 4 years, and so the amount of time I gave to cricket was much less than what one should have at that time.
That was the time Dinesh Karthik really made a mark. It is not to say that he made the mark because I was not playing enough, he would’ve still made the mark. He is exceptionally talented. Perhaps I could’ve put in more time and given him a more serious run for his money.
SJ– You were talking about the U-19 team touring New Zealand. And you were probably in line for selection. Dinesh Karthik got the nod ahead of you?
VK– Parthiv Patel, actually, got the nod. He went ahead of us. He (Dinesh Karthik) captained the Tamil Nadu U-19 team the year I refused to play, because I wanted to finish my engineering degree. And that is when he really made a mark in the Tamil Nadu scene.
SJ– You made your Ranji Trophy debut in the 2004-05 season against Uttar Pradesh. Tell me a little bit about the Tamil Nadu cricket team itself. How was it entering the team atmosphere, with nationally renowned names like Sadagoppan Ramesh, (Subramaniam) Badrinath, Sridharan Sriram, S. Sharath, Hemang Badani, etc. How were the younger players treated within the TNCA system and within the team itself?
VK– It was not completely foreign to me being around these players, because when one plays first-division cricket in Tamil Nadu, you play against a lot of these players. A lot of them are also your teammates. For example, Laxmipathy Balaji, Hemang Badani, Badrinath, Dinesh Mongia… We were all teammates, and we played for Chemplast Sanmar. When I made my debut, a lot of my teammates were actually the ones I grew up with in my age-group cricket. I always had a lot of friends around me, i.e., people of my age. Also, there were the older cricketers like you mentioned. Obviously you don’t hang out with them as much as you hang out with ones of your age!
When I made my debut in 2004, I had gotten out of engineering school, I decided to take a break and give everything that I had to cricket. I had a job at Larsen & Toubro, which I basically refused. I did not decide that I can only dedicate one year to it (cricket), but I decided to give it everything that I have. That year, I made my debut.
When I was a 17 year old, I travelled with much older players. The captain when I was 17 was Robin Singh, and there was Ashish Kapoor in the team. It was a very different group. They will treat you like a kid, I was basically the baby of the team- they would rag you, they will be pulling my leg. Not all of them, but some of the friendly older players would do that.
I was a little awestruck to be around many of the senior the players. Especially Robin Singh. I would never go say a word to him, except when he came and spoke to me.
SJ– Did that happen? Did the senior players seek out the youngsters and take them by their hands?
VK– Not so much. Some of them did, one or two of them. For example, Ashish Kapoor, I remember, was helpful at times. In India itself, when it comes to having seniors and juniors in any team, there is always a small divide. The younger players seem to hang out together. The older players who have been a part of the system for a while, will hang out by themselves. It is natural. I was probably like that with younger players, when I was a part of the team as a 24 year old. It is quite unusual for some of the senior players to come and be chummy towards you.
SJ– What kind of caring for the players exists within the Tamil Nadu Ranji domestic system? Both, health-wise and other-wise?
VK– There is a fairly well structured system. Of course, every team has a physio, but we also had a doctor and a medical team which was willing to look at injury that you might have. Coming up and revealing an injury, for a player, is always difficult. Especially for one who is trying to make a mark in the team. One can imagine that, for a new player it is important for him to grab any and every opportunity that he gets.
The first game that I was supposed to play, I did not get to play once Dinesh Karthik came back, because the test match between India and Bangladesh got over in 4 days. But, had he not come back, I would’ve probably played with a reasonably severe shoulder injury. Sadly, I did not fully reveal the extent of my injury because it was the first match that I was going to play. Looking back, it was a stupid decision because it is a team game and I can’t put the team’s chances at jeopardy only to keep my chances alive! It is not something that I am proud of, it is not something that I should’ve done, but the stakes were so high and I was tempted to take such decisions.
There is also this other notion when it comes to injuries, that the management not entirely trusting a player when he goes to the 9team) management with an injury complaint. This often happens because there have been cases when the players have feigned injuries because for some reason they do not want to play a certain game. As part of running a successful cricket team and establishment, one has to foster a lot of trust between all the players and the management, especially when it comes to injuries and sensitive issues. A player needs to be able to freely go and reveal any niggles or injuries that they might have.
I don’t know how it is now, but at that time, I wish there was more communication between the team management and the doctors and the physios. There were cases where players would have certain injuries that the doctors were aware of, and the doctor would recommend a certain kind of treatment. But, the doctor wouldn’t communicate that to the coaches. There were instances when there were miscommunication about some injuries. I’m reluctant to say this, but I think there was a little bit of…
SJ– Let me say it for you. You mean to say that if a player goes to the physio and says “Listen, I went to the physio/doctor and they tell me this is my injury and I need this many weeks of rest and rehab”, where as the coaches will ask you to suck it up and play? Is that what you are trying to say, that the coaches don’t really believe in these injuries?
VK– Yeah. There were a few cases of that happening. There were instances, which I wish did not happen. It goes both ways. You don’t want players to hide injuries, and you don’t want management to think that someone actually not have injuries and are just feigning it. it is unlikely for a young cricketer to feign an injury, but you don’t want older players to take up the challenge at times when they don’t really have an injury. So, it goes both ways in developing trust.
It has a lot to do with the environment of the team. There are some teams in which there is no trust between the management and the players, and there are teams with a lot of trust, a lot more open, which makes for a stronger culture in the team and probably contributes to the team’s success as well.
SJ– You played 3 matches for Tamil Nadu. What motivated your decision to forego cricket and pursue graduate studies in the USA?
VK– The 3 games I played, I made my debut against Uttar Pradesh. I had a very good game, I kept wickets very well. The second game was against Assam. I did not get to bat in the first innings. I did not keep wickets particularly well in that game, but I got 88 [Ed. 81] in the second innings in that game. The final game was against Punjab, where I was out first ball in the first innings. I got 6 victims during the time on the field. In the 2nd innings I was given out when I was not-out, I completely missed the ball but was given caught behind.
After that, we travelled to Baroda, Dinesh Karthik got to play the game, I was sitting out. I think during the Baroda game when I thought I probably wanted to stop playing cricket and pursue other avenues. You have to remember that even though I was playing cricket all the time, I was never really a bad student, I was able to scrape through, do average. I think I had given cricket a good shot. I had played age-group cricket, I had reached first class level. I could have probably spent a few more years as a professional cricketer.
I got really interested in Economics due to some influences by my friends, and one of my friend’s uncle, who is an economist. I got to talk to him once and was enamoured by the way he analysed things and I just thought, “ I want to be able to think this way”. So, I thought that Economics was really interesting.
What drove me more to Economics than cricket was because Dinesh Karthik was well established in the Tamil Nadu team at that time. If I really wanted to pursue cricket any further, I probably would’ve had to go and play for another state. I don’t think I had that kind of drive. Given that I had the option of going out and pursuing another career, and given that at that time I passionately felt that I wanted to study Economics, it was not that hard a decision to make. Maybe I could’ve progressed further and played Duleep Trophy, at a higher level, if I had played at another state. For some reason, I guessed that it was not the part of the equation for me. at that time, I wanted to make this decision and it was that I would stop playing cricket and pursue studies.
SJ– Wold your decision be any different if you were to make that decision now in the current climate where you have plenty of options in terms of playing career- you have the IPL with 9 different teams.
VK– As a continuation to my previous answer, another important thing was that, as a product of a South Indian middle-class family, we are much more risk-averse than other people from our country. As a part of my upbringing, I was always worried about what I would do once I’m past my playing age. Whether I had good options or not- that was a constant worry for me. Even though I was passionate towards the game, I was also worried about whether I would be able to make a comfortable living for myself once I stopped playing the game. I’d seen many cricketers who had given their lives for the game but were not in a similar position as what I would’ve liked to be at the end of my career. And so, that was always… being a risk-averse South Indian Brahmin. That certainly contributed towards my switching of careers.
Now, in this IPL where players make a lot of money, maybe I would’ve given myself another year or two. I don’t know, in hindsight, I don’t know what I would’ve done that time. Maybe I would’ve still have gone on to study Economics instead.
SJ– Looking back on your cricketing career, and the decision that you have made to pursue Economics, where you will be getting your PhD soon, any regrets at all?
VK– I miss playing the game, I certainly do because the level of players I got to play with, the challenges of playing with some of the best cricketers in the country and probably outside the country was quite exhilarating and I enjoyed every moment of playing cricket. Are there any regrets? Obviously I wish I could go into a first division game now and I could make a contribution. But, I think I’m equally excited about pursuing Economics in the future. I wouldn’t say I have regrets, but I would say that I certainly miss playing the game at that competitive level.
I think I made the right choice at that time, when I made the decision. It was very obvious to me that I did not want to play as a professional cricketer. Mind you, when I was playing, the pay wasn’t so bad. It was a reasonably good pay. They even had a pension plan for cricketers in Tamil Nadu, not just in Tamil Nadu, it was BCCI instituted. I also got a reasonably good severance package when I quit playing. It was not entirely for monetary reasons that i quit playing, but it was because I thought I found another passion. And, given that I was leaving out of my own choice, because I stopped playing only because I found a new passion, I don’t think I would say that I have any regrets. Only that, I sometimes wish i would middle a ball, and hit a straight drive or face up to a quick bowler or something like that. There is always a joy in it. I wish I could do that, but, no regrets, I don’t think I have any regrets.
SJ– Fantastic! Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Vikram, and I wish you the very best on the doctoral dissertation, and beyond!
VK– Thanks a lot, Subash! I enjoyed being on your show!
SJ– My pleasure!
Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman