Even if you are one of those rare people who watched every ball of the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League, read all you could about it, backed your team to the hilt against the barrackers on Twitter and Facebook – in short if you’re the dream viewer of the IPL’s marketing men – chances are you don’t know S Thiyagarajan.
A right-hander who opens the batting with the stated aim of hitting the ball far, and who also bowls handy medium-pace, Thiyagarajan has never played first- class cricket, and given that he’s 28, is unlikely to do so in the future. Thiyagu, as the well-built but not especially tall cricketer, is known in Chennai circles, where he plays most of his cricket, was probably the unlikeliest recipient of an IPL contract ahead of the 2012 season.
The Royal Challengers Bangalore, left with a couple of gaps to plug in their squad, and keen not to splash the cash, conducted trials for aspiring players.
In the first of five matches, conducted under the watchful eyes of Ray Jennings, the coach, and Anil Kumble, RCB’s chief mentor, Thiyagu came to the crease with six needed off one ball, and was disappointed to strike only a boundary. But the RCB management clearly liked what they saw and slotted him at the top of the order for the remaining matches. The move worked, and Thiyagu ended with 161 runs from five games, being dismissed only once. A contract worth one million rupees, the maximum permissible amount for someone who hasn’t played first-class cricket, was offered and gleefully accepted.
While that story is interesting enough in its own right, what makes Thiyagu unique, and his situation the perfect metaphor for the IPL generation, is the route he took to bag a contract. After six seasons in the highly competitive first division in Chennai, where some of the country’s best cricketers ply their trade, Thiyagi decided to drop down to the second division. “I am going to be honest here,” says Thiyagu. “I did not look at a Ranji cap nor did I train my thoughts on three-day matches (first division). All that I wanted was an IPL contract and I am happy to have got one. Receiving that news from RCB was the happiest moment of my life.” The move to a lower division was made specifically with the aim of shifting from three-day cricket to 50-over games. “After playing six seasons in the first division, I decided to shift to 50-overs cricket to improve my ball striking skills. There is a certain responsibility you carry when playing in three or four-day matches. I thought it curbed my attacking style,” says Thiyagu. Geoffrey Boycott, the former England opener with 8,114 Test runs, would be forgiven for choking on his Earl Grey if he ever read that explanation. After all, from time immemorial, the skill most coveted by opening batsmen was that of leaving the ball. Here was an opener who was worried that playing three-day matches was getting him into the habit of leaving too much alone.
When you consider that Thiyagu’s ultimate ambition was an IPL contract – it’s another matter that he did not make the playing XI even once – and that his move paid dividends after just one year in the second division, you can’t fault his method. “I had taken a big risk. I gave myself one last chance to get something meaningful. If I had failed to get a contract my only option would have been to start some sort of business,” explains Thiyagu. “I had to achieve something, at least for my family. I come from a middle-class background. My father is an engineer who works in a private firm while my mother is a homemaker.”
Thiyagu’s honesty is disarming in an age when most cricketers are coached to say the right things. Every second day you hear about how nothing is more important to a cricketer than Test matches, the most pure form of the game.
Then you have someone like Kevin Pietersen wanting to play a full season of the IPL rather than do battle with New Zealand in England in the early season. When the backlash duly arrived Pietersen backtracked, but it’s hard to believe he’s alone in wanting to make a pretty packet for two months’ work rather than spend the year slogging through uncertainty.
Chris Gayle’s world travels as a freelancer – he has turned out for Barisal Burners, Jamaica, Kolkata Knight Riders, Matabeleland Tuskers, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Stanford Superstars, Sydney Thunder, Western Australia and Worcestershire, though not necessarily in that order – and subsequent travails are well documented.
But, while Pietersen and Gayle are established international cricketers, it is the Thiyagus of the cricket world that have pundits most worried. While his situation is unique at the moment, the time when young players will choose to make their mark in T20 leagues rather than do the hard yards may not be far away.
Rahul Dravid, who plays in the IPL but chose to stay away from international T20 cricket when the opportunity arose, conceded that the cricket landscape was fast changing. “There are more options now,” says Dravid. “It’s very hard for me to be judgmental about kids of today. It’s unfair. I had gone through a commerce degree in college, and not very successfully. When I grew up, if I wanted to be a successful professional cricketer – and making a living out of the sport became a part of that – the only option for me was to be a successful Test cricketer. There was no other way in which you could make a professional living out of the sport. I would have still played it, but I would have looked to do something else professionally if I wasn’t good enough.”
Dravid turned out to be not only good enough on the field but eminently marketable off it, but he urged against taking the easy way out. “People now have the option of not necessarily playing Test cricket but making a living out of the game,” says Dravid. “Who’s to blame kids for taking that option? Who’s to blame kids for using that opportunity if they feel they are not good enough for Test cricket? I won’t judge them on that, but I would like to challenge them. What I’ll tell kids is that the greatest satisfaction you are going to get is by playing Test cricket. That will give you the greatest personal satisfaction, so don’t sell yourself short.”
Is Thiyagu selling himself short or making the most of the cricket market as it exists today? In another era, he would have had no option but to give the game up and focus on the business of making a living. Today, he’s spent time in a dressing- room that includes a batsman with two Test triple-centuries and another who looks most likely to become the next star in India’s batting firmament. Cricketers such as Thiyagu are the latest shade of grey in a landscape once dominated by black and white, and for that they can thank the IPL.
From the Wisden India Almanack 2013. Buy it here.