In the 1980s, Kuldeep Sangha was an upcoming athlete in Punjab representing the state in 800m and long-jump. Around the same time, Jayanand Nair had made the shift up from a promising university-level hockey player to donning Kerala colours. But both their sporting journeys were cut short prematurely. Nair travelled to Australia for higher studies, Sangha moved in search of greener pastures. Their curtailed dreams though would be revived Down Under in unexpected fashion and incidentally at the same time through their sons. Even if it was in a sport that neither of the two expats ever pursued.
And if not for their country’s withdrawal from the U-19 ICC World Cup in Bangladesh owing to security concerns, both Jason Sangha, whose father moved from Bathinda, and Arjun Nair, whose family hails from Thrippunithura near Kochi, would have been part of the Australian junior team. Sangha, a talented batsman who’s already been rated very highly by Australian great Greg Chappell, is 16 while 17-year-old Nair is a mystery spinner desperately hoping to meet India’s No.1 tweaker, R Ashwin.
And recently on a tour to Dubai, the two second generation cricketers not only formed a close friendship, they also made quite an impact in their first major overseas outing.
It was Chappell, the former India coach, who first spotted Sangha while overseeing a school championship tournament in his role as Cricket Australia talent manager.
“Jason is a very talented cricketer, he is an elegant stroke-maker with a touch of class that is the hallmark of the very best players. I look forward to watching his game develop over the next few years,” Chappell had said then about the right-hander who bats No.3.
Nair, meanwhile, has been making waves with his off-spin, especially owing to his ability to produce the carom ball.
“Junior Narine is what I call Arjun,” says Jason before proudly revealing how his teammate learnt to bowl the highly deceptive delivery after spending hours watching videos of Sunil Narine, the Trinidadian, dishing it out on YouTube. His mother Sylvia, a fourth generation Indian, sits beside him smiling.
Arjun, in fact, has been named as the development rookie with the Sydney Thunder, who will play the Big Bash League final on Sunday, and boast of the likes of Michael Hussey and Jacques Kallis on their roster. Jayanand reveals that his ward started as a batsman during his time with the New South Wales Grade 1 side but spent most of his time bowling once he got promoted to the senior team though he started off as a leg-spinner.
“When Arjun was four years old, I used to bowl to him and his reflexes were naturally good. I decided that he should take up cricket. He was good with the bat but was coming very low in the senior team. So he took up spin. He started bowling leg-breaks, too, but his coaches asked him to choose between the two, and he picked off-spin,” he says.
These days, Sylvia accompanies her son to every practice session and match. But Jason’s tryst with cricket wasn’t so straightforward, she reveals. In fact, his love for the sport began with a touch of serendipity when he once saw Australian legend Adam Gilchrist bat on television.
“He kept mumbling that he wanted to bat like Gilly. But no one in our family had been to a formal cricket training centre before,” she says. But the very next day, the Sanghas were at the sports store buying the entire kit for their son.
“I thought like football, basketball, he will leave this sport too but after couple of years, his interest stayed put. The first day in the nets he was just trying to swing his bat with no technique. He then realised that batting is not simply about hitting each ball but to survive, for which you need technique,” she adds.
Ever since, Jason’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. It happened in the space of six months last season. He led the NSW team that won the national under-15 school sports’ tournament in Darwin. That earned him a place in the Cricket Australia XI to play the under-17 national championship and before long he was in the U-19 ranks.
In contrast, Arjun has had to grind it out at the U-17 level and has gradually made his way up. When the Australia U-19 team traveled to Dubai for the tri-nation tournament featuring teams from Pakistan and New Zealand, Jayanand and Sylvia too accompanied their children.
“My father can’t see me bat. He gets distressed. When I scored a hundred against Pakistan, he claimed to get a cramp on his leg. I told him I’m playing the game and you’re cramping up? He is very superstitious,” says Jason. While they have become great mates, there is one obsession of Arjun’s that Jason is taking a while to get used to. The off-spinner is a Bollywood buff and is always looking for an excuse to watch a Hindi movie, much to his teammate’s chagrin. “Many times he has made me wait for dinner because his movie has reached its climax,” says Jason.
Meanwhile, at Pennel Hill, a Sydney suburb which is home mostly to a number of Sri Lankans and Indians, Arjun has quickly turned into a household name. Back in the land of their ancestors, their relatives are just getting over the disappointment of not getting to catch the two Indian-origin Aussies in action during the U-19 World Cup, which will be telecast live there.
The boys have made peace with missing out on the great opportunity, and they do admit that one can’t compromise on their security. For now, Jason who would have been the youngest member of the squad, is simply happy to be playing with the big boys.
“Getting into the Australia U-19 squad itself is an achievement. Life has suddenly changed drastically for me in the last six months. The other boys are upset on having missed out on this opportunity but luckily I will still be eligible to play in the next junior World Cup,” he says. Sylvia though is at least pleased that her family in India will get to read about her son.
The Nairs, Jayanand and Arjun in particular, though are only looking forward to one event now — an introduction to and meeting with Ashwin.
Written by Devendra Pandey for Indian Express