Ankit Soni's subtle variations made him one of the finds in a forgettable season for Gujarat. © BCCI

Ankit Soni’s subtle variations made him one of the finds in a forgettable season for Gujarat. © BCCI

Already 23, Ankit Soni, the lanky legspinner, did not have an online profile until he finished with figures of 3-0-28-1 on his Indian Premier League debut for Gujarat Lions against Royal Challengers Bangalore at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on April 18.

Figures of 4-0-16-1 helped take the home game against Mumbai Indians into the Super Over, and he kept Mahendra Singh Dhoni quiet to finish with 4-0-16-0 against Rising Pune Supergiant in an away match.

Soni only picked up two wickets in seven games, but his subtle variations made him one of the finds in a forgettable season for Gujarat after he was signed up as a replacement for an injured Shivil Kaushik, two weeks into the tournament. There was added mystery around Soni, who has not represented Mumbai Cricket Association even in age-group tournaments, because he had requested Gujarat’s media manager to not expose him to the press till the IPL ended.

“I have seen instances in past IPLs where players were in the limelight, but now they are nowhere,” Soni tells Wisden India, two days after Gujarat finished seventh on the points table. “So, I just wanted to focus on my game and perform, and think about appearing in the newspaper after the tournament.”

“I had heard that people get nervous in IPL and in the first match there was a bit of nerves, but after that I did not feel any pressure. My advantage was I had not played any representative cricket, so there was no expectation from me. I learnt how Suresh Raina, Brendon McCullum and Dinesh Karthik handle different situations.”

Rajasthan Royals – one of the franchises suspended for two years following the spot-fixing scandal – deserve credit for enabling Soni jump ranks and appear on television.

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The selection of Dinesh Salunkhe, the legspinner, in Rajasthan’s squad for the first edition of the IPL after he won the Cricket Star Contest – a talent hunt programme jointly run by the franchise and Dainik Bhaskar – was initially seen as a branding ploy. Little would anyone have known then that it was a pioneering moment in the landscape of talent-scouting in India.

Soni ended second in the contest in 2013 from more than 500 participants, just behind Kumar Boresa, a left-arm spinner. He impressed Monty Desai, the talent scout for Rajasthan who has worked in the same capacity with Gujarat for last two seasons.

As a net bowler, Soni held his own against Shane Watson and other Royals batsmen during centre-pitch practice for the next two years. The feedback from the players kept Desai interested in Soni.

Unable to break through into the age-group teams of the Rajasthan Cricket Association, Soni, who hails from Suratgarh on the Rajasthan-Punjab border, shifted to Mumbai. He trained at the Venus Cricket Academy in Goregaon under Desai and completed the cooling-off period to be registered with the Mumbai Cricket Association.

Desai handed him his debut with Yogi Cricket Club in the ‘D’ Division of the Kanga League, before Dinesh Rao took him to Masketi Cricket Club in the ‘B’ Division.

After Gujarat lost Qualifier 2 last season, Desai and Brad Hodge, the head coach, identified the need for legspinners in 2017 to fill in a gap. Immediately, Desai put Rao, his childhood friend and a former offspinner himself, and Santosh Singh in charge of preparing Soni specifically for the demands of Twenty20 cricket. Desai calls it “role play”.

Monty Desai and Zubin Bharucha (R), seen here with Rahul Dravid, have done an exceptional job as talent scouts since the start of IPL in 2008. </span><span class="s2"> ©</span><span class="s1"> Monty Desai</span>

Monty Desai and Zubin Bharucha (R), seen here with Rahul Dravid, have done an exceptional job as talent scouts since the start of IPL in 2008. © Monty Desai

Amid all this, Soni got to work with Ramesh Powar at MCA’s spin camp, tasted success for Repro in the Times Shield, and came close to being named in the Under-23 team.

“Ramesh Powar’s view on Ankit was that he had the potential. That’s the feedback we were looking for from someone who has been successful at different levels,” reveals Desai. “Ankit playing in different tournaments, getting positive feedbacks and being picked in the spin camp were good benchmarks to tell us that he was progressing, and we are on the right track.”

Soni was not bought in the 2017 auction, but he bowled to established players in Gujarat’s open nets before the IPL.

“When I am committing someone to an IPL team, I need to have the conviction, have to feel that now he is ready,” adds Desai. “Rao and Santosh were constantly training him, and then we exposed him to some quality players including Dinesh Karthik in the open nets to see how well he could bowl with the new ball, between the 7th and 14th (overs) and also compared him with other legspinners who were coming through.

“With his height and bounce, we felt that he had the Rahul Sharma (the legspinner who played for India in 2011-12) element,” Desai opens up. “He was able to turn the ball as well. We felt that he was good enough against recognised faces.”

When Shivil got injured, Soni and Rahil Shah, the Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner, underwent a three-day trial. Gujarat preferred Soni to someone with 82 senior matches across three formats. Such had been the “role play” for one year that he hardly felt any jitters when he made his debut.

Dinesh Karthik on talent scouting

“It’s important for these kind of kids to be discovered and given the opportunity through a fair trial process. It’s a sad thing that sometimes consistent Ranji performers are overlooked, but it is not the fault of the player or the system.”

“I had heard that people get nervous in IPL and in the first match there was a bit of nerves, but after that I did not feel any pressure,” Soni says. “My advantage was I had not played any representative cricket, so there was no expectation from me. I learnt how Suresh Raina, Brendon McCullum and Dinesh Karthik handle different situations. It was a great experience to play with such big cricketers for the first time.

“My coaches tell me that on the ground, no one is big or small across the 22 yards. You are on equal terms with the batsman. Yes, Dhoni is big but if I am playing at the same level, then I can definitely get him out,” he adds. “I have a natural trajectory because of my height, so I don’t have to worry about flight. Because of my high-arm action, I derive bounce off the surface, making it difficult for the new batsman to play shots against me.”

Karthik, Gujarat’s wicketkeeper, says Soni’s googly is good. Soni’s economy rate of 7.92 may not be exceptional, but he became the team’s lead spinner after Shivil (9.54), Tejas Baroka (9.42) and Shubham Agarwal (10.50) had not impressed.

“Hodgey and I had Ankit in mind, and when the opportunity came, we got him as a replacement. Credit goes to the management for backing him for seven matches, and to Suresh for seeing Ankit and saying he is better, let’s play him,” explains Desai. “He had mixed results. He did well as a surprise element initially, but then skills are equally good on the other side also. So, you will have that learning curve of missing out at times, and not being able to execute the right balls.”

Soni has been told to play more matches in different conditions to continue to get mentally stronger. With the season over and Soni still a club cricketer, the question is how much IPL-equivalent exposure he will get before the next auction to improve his skills.

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Soni’s story is not unique. There have been many overnight stars in the IPL who have faded away. It is a danger that lurks when you are not a part of the traditional system. The risk is higher for someone like Soni, who stays with his uncle in Mumbai and was funded by his father, a government servant, till now.

The story of how Pravin Tambe was snapped up by Rajasthan Royals offers good insights into how data-driven scouting has evolved. © BCCI

The story of how Pravin Tambe was snapped up by Rajasthan Royals offers good insights into how data-driven scouting has evolved. © BCCI

Yet, every year, the IPL has accommodated talents from outside the structure, and that keeps the hope alive.

“If it was not for the IPL and the open-mindedness of the franchises who are willing to take risks, this would not have been possible,” Desai offers. “It started with Rajasthan Royals, and every franchise has started believing in this. Pravin Tambe’s success has given a lot of people the confidence that this is possible.”

While Salunkhe and Kamran Khan, in 2009, started the trend, Tambe’s success was the game-changer. The story of how Desai and Zubin Bharucha got Rajasthan to snap up Tambe, who had been playing Times Shield for more than a decade, offers good insights into how data-driven scouting has evolved.

“We had seen Tambe get the ball to drift for 20 overs in a row from the same end for many years. That’s a successful ball in the IPL,” Desai remembers. “Shane Warne had retired and it was Rahul’s (Dravid) last season as captain. Tambe was a great risk and the management was questioning us. Credit goes to Rahul for backing our conviction about the balls we were talking about. We would make him stand behind the wicketkeeper during centre-pitch practice and explain him about particular balls and whether the batsmen were able to hit him out. Rahul himself batted against him and said we guys made sense.

“We have collected a lot of background data on all these boys. Those lead to questions in your mind,” he goes on. “You start comparing these small skills of different players and then have the conviction, for example, that Ankit has got the same skills. Then the next question is why can’t he represent at the same level. The next step is to try to let him perform.”

The other side of the debate is that talents coming through the unconventional route disappear once the opposition decodes them. But before that, they are given a long run, keeping regular performers of the domestic circuit on the bench. It could be unfair at times, but Karthik feels it is important to have the right balance.

Monty Desai on talent scouting

“We have collected a lot of background data on all these boys. Those lead to questions in your mind. You start comparing these small skills of different players and then have the conviction, for example, that Ankit has got the same skills. Then the next question is why can’t he represent at the same level. The next step is to try to let him perform.”

“It’s important for these kind of kids to be discovered and given the opportunity through a fair trial process. It’s a sad thing that sometimes consistent Ranji performers are overlooked, but it is not the fault of the player or the system,” Karthik says. “Sometimes it is just that some people think that fresh talents are good. There has to be a mix. There are a lot of consistent performers in the Ranji Trophy but sometimes they are overlooked because they don’t do well in a game the scout is watching. Then you will have an unknown commodity who comes just for the trials and does well enough. Some of these players have obviously struggled, so it is a mixed bag. It’s all about the player and what the talent scout and franchise think about him.”

So, why cannot state associations nurture those emerging in the IPL, a pathway that has still not been completely adopted, and introduce them into the bigger ecosystem?

“I have no specific answer to this. I am not a selector, so I cannot play a role there, but selectors are looking for skills like this. The question then comes back to them – can this boy be groomed? Can he now have better access to state academies with constant guidance?” asks Desai. “We do that at our level, but for anyone to go to the next level, they need constant exposure.

“It’s the same scenario for the India Under-19 boys. So many of them come out every two years, but there are many who fade away and few who make the next grade,” he adds. “I think in Ankit Soni’s case, there is hope. He has just started. Last year, he was in the reckoning for Mumbai Under-23. Hopefully, he is able to cash in on these performances, improve and be taken seriously.”