It was nearly four years ago but Manoj Shukla remembers the day clearly. It was 7 am, he was getting ready for cricket practise when a phone call from his friend altered his plans. He was asked to come to Shyam Lal College grounds for a “throwing contest”. There, he saw practise nets had been erected and cricketing mats had been laid out. Shukla was asked to “throw the ball”, which he threw as fast as he could, clocking 83 mph on the radar gun.
For a country obsessed with cricket, a nationwide baseball contest in 2008, Million Dollar Arm, saw more than 38,000 youngsters audition for the fastest pitch to win a cash prize of one million dollars. The bonus was a chance to get drafted into a US major league baseball (MLB) team. Shukla was at one such audition. A book titled Million Dollar Arm (Simon & Schuster, Rs 399) written by JB Bernstein, US sports agent and curator of this contest and a movie by the same name, released earlier this month.
The movie tells the story of two winners, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Kumar Patel. Shukla, who came third in the finals of the contest in Mumbai, was to fly out with them to the US for try-outs for an MLB team. But he couldn’t go because of a delay in getting his passport.
An aspiring cricketer who has represented the district cricket team of Sirohi, Rajasthan, Shukla, 22, is the son of a fruit wholesaler. His home in Ghonda, Delhi, is in a part of the city where two-wheelers, pedestrians and cattle jostle for space. The mantel piece in his room is decorated with trophies from different cricketing tournaments and a special place is reserved for baseball memorabilia from the Mumbai finals — balls, a kit shirt, and an autographed business card by Bernstein. “I am wearing this after four years. I still haven’t washed it,” he says, pointing to the autographs from other participants on his T-shirt and stains from the Gatorade shower after he was declared second runner-up.
After he missed out on the opportunity to fly to the US, Shukla, then 16, was sent to Mumbai to train under a baseball coach Deepesh Solanki, (who was the designated translator for Singh and Patel in the US) “JB sir said that I should improve my pitching for two months and then I will be flown to the US. I left cricket and dedicated myself to baseball,” says Shukla, who was living in an apartment in Mumbai, funded by the Million Dollar Arm team. Two months became two years and he was nowhere close to getting to the US. He later learnt that his coach was swindling money, meant for his training and diet.
A distraught Shukla resumed playing cricket, his training sessions lasting 10 hours at the DDCA grounds in Dilshad Garden. However, the events of the past haven’t dampened his urge to play professional baseball. “Even now, I practise my pitching on the cricket field and a friend reluctantly keeps at the stumps,” says Shukla, who still tunes in to live baseball matches on ESPN. With the third season of Million Dollar Arm coming up, Shukla is hopeful of competing. “Who knows, I may fly to the US this time,” he says.