Kulwant Khejroliya, the left-arm pacer, loved cricket dearly, but hadn’t watched any game on television or in a stadium until his early 20s. He would eagerly wait to read the match reports and brief scores in newspapers, the next day. “Watching matches on TV would hurt a lot,” he tells Wisden India. “As a kid, I would always aspire to be a cricketer, but due to financial constraints and with no support from my family, I had made peace with the fact that I would never be able to pursue it professionally, so I never watched it since childhood.” Coming from a strict Marwari household, the self doubt stemmed from the boundaries set by his father, a farmer who strongly opposed Khejroliya’s decision to take up cricket.
In January this year, the 26-year-old was picked by Royal Challengers Bangalore for Rs 85 lakh following his brilliant efforts that helped Delhi win the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy. Khejroliya ended with 14 wickets in ten matches at an economy of 6.56 to be fourth on the overall wickets tally. But his journey from the hinterlands of Rajasthan to the glitzy world of IPL has been a bumpy ride.
Hailing from Churi Ajitgarh, a nondescript village in Jhunjunhu district, Khejroliya, the youngest among two brothers and a sister, would sneak out to play gully cricket when his father was away at the fields. Soon after graduating in commerce, Khejroliya tried to get into the Army and even Railway Police Force in vain. The various competitive exams for government jobs were “too tough to clear”, and he was branded a no-hoper, especially considering his successful siblings – an older brother who was pursuing CA and a sister who was studying to be a teacher.
With no job, and cricket still a distant dream, Khejroliya started working as a waiter at restaurant in Goa, on his friend’s insistence. “We desperately needed money as my father had taken loans for sister’s wedding,” he says. “It was year end, a lot of tourists were expected and since I could speak a bit of English, my friend said I had a good chance of being tipped heavily by foreigners.”
But sometimes, expectations don’t align with reality. A month into the job, Khejroliya felt a void; “woh cricket ka junoon kabhi gaya hi nahi.” [the obsession to play cricket never died]
Khejroliya has never read Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, but believes in the laws of attraction. Many inspirational WhatsApp video forwards from friends motivated him further, and Khejroliya returned home to reconsider his future.
Still without a job at 23, and a burden to his family, he was left with two choices: he could either resign himself to a less-than-pleasant reality and work at his uncle’s garage, or try to change his destiny. Made of sterner stuff, he chose the latter.
A call from a friend who was enrolled at a cricket academy in Delhi was the “turning point” of his life. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to convince his father, Khejroliya lied about bagging a job at a friend’s transport company in Ahmedabad and fled to Delhi.
“I had read that Shikhar Dhawan, Ishant Sharma and Rishabh Pant were a part of the Sonnet Cricket Club and was really keen to join,” he says. “Since I had never played with a season ball until then, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. So I joined the Uday Bhan Cricket Academy for a couple of weeks, it was more like an audition to prepare myself just to ensure that I could impress Tarak Sinha sir when I would meet him
“I didn’t even own a pair of sports shoes, I went to his club wearing the fancy shoes which I wore for my sister’s wedding…I was so naive.”
Although Sinha was impressed, players would train at his club only on weekends, so Khejroliya decided to join the LB Shastri academy (where Gautam Gambhir trained) under Sanjay Bharadwaj’s tutelage.
Already a month in Delhi, the pressure to part with his earnings to repay his father’s debts, was more than ever. So Khejroliya started officiating corporate cricket tournaments on weekends, earning Rs 500 per game. “Sanjay sir was kind enough to adopt me and take care of my expenses without expecting anything in return. I would officiate in 3-4 corporate matches per day on weekends and send it to my family.”
He recalls how he had erred in his line and lengths as he was “very nervous” while bowling to Gambhir for the first time at the academy. As the 2016-17 domestic season approached, he was called on to bowl to the Delhi team at the nets, and impressed the selectors who put him on standby for Ranji Trophy.
In December 2016, he attended the Mumbai Indians trials in Vadodara, and just two overs were enough to get noticed by Robin Singh, the batting coach, and Kiran More, the former wicketkeeping coach. A month later, Rahul Sanghvi, the Mumbai manager’s invitation to represent Reliance in the DY Patil T20 tournament came as a huge relief for Khejroliya, and served as a perfect audition for the IPL 2017 auctions.
All the while, his family was unaware of Khejroliya’s secret tryst with cricket. It was only after he was picked by Mumbai for Rs 10 lakh that Khejroliya returned home and informed his parents. “My father finally accepted that I can make a career in cricket, that allowed me to play with a lot of freedom,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about lying or making excuses anymore.”
Khejroliya didn’t get a game during his stint with Mumbai, but eventually made his Ranji debut in October last year. In seven matches, he took 18 wickets, including a match-winning six-wicket haul against Bengal in the semifinal.
With two wickets for 107 runs in three matches so far, Khejroliya hasn’t had the best of outings for Bangalore and was replaced by Mohammad Siraj in the XI. But there is hope, especially with his state mates Aniket Choudhary and Navdeep Saini, who are also warming the bench for Bangalore, constantly egging each other and training harder than ever.
While hard work seldom goes unrewarded, many players from small towns are lost to the game as they try to overcome an inferiority complex and the fear of failure. If he can channel his junoon and emotions in a positive way, Khejroliya’s tale could perhaps turn out differently.