Mukesh Kumar’s father, Kashinath, was a taxi driver in Kolkata, when his youngest son was growing up in Bihar’s Gopalganj district. On November 28 last year, ahead of Bengal’s Ranji Trophy opener against Kerala, Kashinath passed away. Kumar’s finest hour in first-class cricket yet naturally had sadness mixed with pleasure. “Yeh six wickets papa ke liye hai (I dedicate this six-wicket haul to my father),” Kumar told The Indian Express after his six-wicket haul in the second innings took Bengal past heavyweights Karnataka and into the 14th Ranji Trophy final, their first since 2006-07.
Kumar, along with his fast-bowling mates Ishan Porel and Akash Deep, dismantled Karnataka for 177 for a 174-run victory. They fully capitalised after Anustup Majumdar took Bengal to 312 in the first innings with an unbeaten 149. The hosts were gasping at 67/6 at one stage. Then Porel starred with a five-wicket haul as the visitors’ celebrated batting line-up was bundled out for 122. The 190-run lead proved decisive despite Bengal managing only 161 in their second innings.
In 2015, when Kumar was selected for Bengal for the Buchi Babu tournament, he didn’t have a cricket kit. “Manoj bhaiya mereko bat, pad aur gloves diya tha (Manoj Tiwary gave me a bat, leg guards and gloves),” the medium-pacer recalled. A year previously, when Kumar had been drafted into the Cricket Association Bengal’s (CAB) Vision 2020 programme, he didn’t have proper bowling boots. “Rana da (Bengal team bowling coach Ranadeb Bose) ne Debu da (CAB joint secretary and Town Club official Debabrata Das) ko bol kar woh arrange kiya tha (Rana da requested Debu da to arrange it for me).”
The 26-year-old’s six wickets in Karnataka’s second innings included Manish Pandey, Karun Nair, and Devdutt Padikkal. His strategy against Pandey was clear. “The idea was to bowl full in the channel and confuse him by mixing outswingers and inswingers. Whenever he came forward, there was a gap between bat and pad and my plan was to keep him confused. I was determined not to pitch it short and give him room to play the pull and hook.”
Pandey eventually fell to an away-goer but even in defeat the Karnataka star was gracious. “Every time I beat him,” Kumar said, ‘well bowled.’”
Kumar liked playing local T20 matches because every game gave him Rs 400-500. In 2011-12, when he joined the second division ICI Club, he got bored with the league’s multi-day format and stopped turning up after a few matches. “Mein yehi socha ki utna time ka cricket kaun khelega. T20 hi accha hai (I thought who would play a cricket match that lasted so long. T20 is the best thing).”
Things changed after he got into the Vision 2020 programme. His father gave him one year. Without satisfactory progress, he had to quit cricket and search for a job. “Mein bahut mehnat kiya. Ek saal mein mere ko yeh prove karna hi tha ki mera cricket mein future hai (I worked my socks off. I had one year and I had to prove I have a future in cricket).”
Along the way, two excellent pieces of advice furthered Kumar’s career. The first one came from a mali (grounds staff) at Kalighat Club. “Mein pahele Kalighat Club mein gaya tha khelne keliye. Toh, woh mereko bola, ‘yahan pe start karoge toh zindagi bhar pani hi pilate rahoge’ (I went to Kalighat Club and he told me, ‘if you start here you would be carrying drinks all your life). He advised me to try my luck at a smaller club.”
The next piece of advice came from then Vision 2020 fast bowling consultant, Pakistan great Waqar Younis. “At the camp, I wasn’t consistent with my line and Waqar Younis told me to bowl from close to the stumps to get rid of the problem. It helped me a lot,” Kumar recalled.
With 30 wickets from nine matches, Kumar is the highest wicket-taker for Bengal, along with Akash Deep and Shahbaz Ahmed, in this Ranji campaign. He credited head coach Arun Lal for conducting a gruelling pre-season that raised the team’s collective fitness level.
Brief scores: Bengal 312 and 161 beat Karnataka 122 and 177 (Devdutt Padikkal 62; Mukesh Kumar 6/61) by 174 runs
Meanwhile, Wriddhiman Saha has been included in the 16-member Bengal squad for the final. He will play as the wicketkeeper, while Shreevats Goswami will be a specialist batsman.
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