New Delhi, Jan 4 (IANS) ‘Someone should pick me now’, muttered Kumar Kushagra, sitting in his room at 5:30 pm. It’s December 19, 2023, and the IPL Auction ahead of the 2024 season is happening at the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai. Amongst the auction list of 333 players, Kushagra’s name features too – he’s an exciting wicketkeeper-batter from Jharkhand earmarked by many to get a good deal.
The auction starts from 1 pm India time and Kushagra, attending a Ranji Trophy camp in Ranchi, is watching the proceedings right from the word go. Sitting alone in his room, he couldn’t tell anyone to get food or water for him.
When an advertisement interrupts live streaming, Kushagra, 19, gets agitated and wonders, ‘my name should have come by now and I am not able to see it yet’. Nevertheless, the live stream returns shortly, and on spotting his name, Kushagra is eager to see which team picks him for IPL 2024.
“CSK raised their paddle and soon the amount raced to INR 65 lakhs. Suddenly, 10-15 calls came as many felt it would be great to congratulate me on IPL selection. I was not responding to the calls, as I was watching the auction on my mobile via JioCinema. Suddenly the video paused and when I played it, I saw the bid amount had risen to 7.2 crore,” recalls Kushagra in an exclusive conversation with IANS, facilitated by Delhi Capitals and JSW Sports.
There was an initial competition between Chennai Super Kings and Gujarat Titans for his services, but the former withdrew. Delhi Capitals jumped in and eventually staved off the challenge from Titans’ to acquire Kushagra for a life-changing INR 7.2 crore.
Kushagra was stunned and left in disbelief as the hammer hit down to confirm the signing amount, while everyone else in the camp eagerly awaited entry into his room. “On seeing that (amount), I felt surprised and wondered, ‘How it increased so much?’ But then, it was a very exciting feeling and suddenly, everyone came inside the room – Ranji Trophy players, support staff, as well as players and support staff of the U-23 team,” he adds.
In this moment of sheer delight, Kushagra asked everyone in his room for five minutes to talk to his parents in Jamshedpur. “When I spoke to my mother on video call, she was crying and I also got very emotional. The talk was around, ‘The hardwork you have put in for so many years, you are getting the reward of it. You don’t have to let go of it as this is the first step towards playing international cricket. You have to play by dominating from here now’.”
Kushagra’s cricket coaching began at home under his father Shashikant, a District Commissioner at the Goods and Services Tax department. Although he didn’t play cricket, Shashikant was an enthusiastic follower of the sport. When Kushagra was five, Shashikant took it upon himself to coach his son the A-B-C of playing cricket. Crowd in the evening meant 5:30 am to 6:30 am was the practice time before Kushagra left for school at 7 am.
Shashikant relied on books like “The Art and Science of Cricket” by Bob Woolmer and various technical coaching books, including the ones from the National Cricket Academy (NCA) to teach Kushagra at home. Shashikant would keep paper cutouts of good batting techniques in a book and have Kushagra study them to enhance his understanding of textbook strokeplay.
“He would keep a lot of paper cuttings from the newspapers by saying ‘yeh dekho kitna acha technique maara hain (Just look at how good a technique he plays with)’. I really hope that he continues to teach me as if a bad phase comes, then I can ask him on how to overcome it. I sometimes send my batting videos to him and ask for his suggestions on making improvements,” he adds.
Cricketing wisdom says one gets to learn a lot from playing matches, which Kushagra followed. But Shashikant noticed he was getting out a lot in matches and wasn’t taking much learnings from it. That paved the way for Shashikant, saying, ‘Learn in such a way in the nets that you don’t get out in matches’, leading to a shift in mentality and training for Kushagra.
“After that, I reduced the time of playing matches and increased my learnings. I practised a lot in the morning, afternoon and even in the evening. By reducing match time, limiting myself to playing specific board matches and increasing the practice, I took a lot of learnings about myself and my game. When I played those board matches, I could see the difference myself. If you want to earn, you have to learn, all the time.”
Kushagra soon became the highest run-getter in the 2019/20 Vinoo Mankad Trophy, amassing 537 runs in eight matches at an astonishing average of 107.4. It propelled him to land a spot in the Indian team for the 2020 U-19 World Cup in South Africa.
Before being named in the India U-19 team, Kushagra was included in Jharkhand’s squad for the Ranji Trophy. He had to give those matches a miss to attend India U-19 team-bonding camps organised by Rahul Dravid, the then-head of cricket at the NCA.
At the U-19 World Cup, Kushagra played just one game against Japan. He remained unbeaten in that match but remained on the sidelines majorly as Dhruv Jurel was the first-choice wicketkeeper-batter. After the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt and once play resumed, Kushagra moved towards transitioning to senior cricket in November 2021.
“It was difficult as to play at a certain level and instantly you have to play with a good pace, good bowlers and good wickets. Plus, playing against good opponents and big senior players like Ishant Sharma, Nitish Rana, Himmat Singh (on Ranji Trophy debut in February 2022), your aggression also reduces. But I continued with it and whatever the things I was thinking of since childhood, I just focused on doing that, which gave me a feeling that yes, I can dominate here,” he adds.
A month later, Kushagra would make a gritty 50 off 121 balls for Jharkhand to chase down 212 after being reduced to 49/4. In the pre-quarterfinal against Nagaland, Kushagra, then 17, smashed a mammoth 266, breaking Javed Miandad’s record to become the youngest player to score 250 or more in an innings of a first-class game.
In 2023, Kushagra’s rise continued as he became the sixth-highest run-getter in the Deodhar Trophy. He amassed 227 runs in five innings at a strike rate of 109.13, including hitting a fifty for East Zone, though his team lost to South Zone in the final.
In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Kushagra caught eyeballs again by smacking a 37-ball 67, laced with four fours and five sixes, after coming at number six, in Jharkhand’s successful chase of 355 against Maharashtra.
According to Joydeep Mukherjee, the former Bengal cricketer now with Delhi Capitals as Team Manager-cum-Scout, Kushagra was on their radar for a while because of his impressive white-ball performances.
“He had a superb Deodhar Trophy, where he and Riyan Parag were instrumental in East Zone going into the final. I watched him play first-hand as I was a member of BCCI commentary teams. Though his Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy campaigns weren’t as good as it was to be, he did play some very crucial knocks there.”
“Those meaningful knocks came when it mattered a lot, as its difficult to bat in the middle in T20s, with very little to gain. His keeping has been very good too and he’s been in the India U19 team. So, he’s a sort of boy anyone would have his eyes on. At the auction, Chennai was after him and them being behind anyone means they know he’s a good player. Plus, their scouting is very good,” he said to IANS.
Kushagra attended the trials of six IPL teams, including of Capitals and Kolkata Knight Riders twice, all of which were successful. He performed impressively in the matches at Capitals’ trials, scoring 65 off 25 balls and then hitting over 60 runs in 23 deliveries, boosting his confidence and belief.
“I got lots of confidence as almost all (main) players like Ishant Sharma, Khaleel Ahmed, Lalit Yadav and Pravin Dubey were there too. The confidence and belief I took from playing those matches was that if you can hit against them, then you are there (at this level). My performance there meant that I had expectations of being picked for the IPL.”
Kushagra admitted he was a bit of a defensive player in his U-16 and U-19 days and preferred to play for long. Realizing the importance of dominating bowlers at the highest level, he dedicated himself to improving his big-hitting skills as a middle-order batter.
“If you see at the Ranji Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy levels, a bowler should have this fear that if I bowl in a bad area, then I will be hit for a six. If you don’t improve that aspect of your game, then the bowler will come hard on you and dominate you as well. He will be more capable of dismissing you.”
“I feel if I can hit him on whether he bowls bad deliveries or even the good balls, then you can force him to change his whole plan. For making that happen, I have put in a lot of hard work. Alongside my father, I have done a lot of six-hitting practice against various kinds of balls – like heavy ball, wind ball, sand ball, light ball and tennis ball. So, there’s been a lot of effort put in to get it right.”
Joydeep mentioned how Kushagra’s performance made him stand out among 12-14 players at the trials, leading for the Capitals to be determined to go all out for him at the auction. “He had a lot of time playing fast-bowling and was superb against the spinners. He had a lot of power, which you need in T20 cricket along with the timing and technique.”
At the auction, Capitals made it a priority to acquire a good Indian wicketkeeper-batter. In IPL 2023, they faced challenges in filling the void left by Rishabh Pant, who could not take part due to injuries sustained in a car accident in December 2022.
“We were always keen on players like Kushagra, who’s an Indian wicketkeeper-batter, as Pant is injured and then there’s a question mark over his fitness and how much or whether he can keep over 14 games. Kushagra is an out and out proper keeper, not a makeshift one.”
“His wicket-keeping is very sound and it’s something which is very important to us as to keep wickets to someone like Kuldeep (Yadav), who has a bag of tricks. Also, the Delhi wicket can sometimes be a little bit on the slower side and turns too, so your keeping is really tested,” adds Joydeep.
The state Kushagra hails from has given two wicketkeeper-batters to the Indian team: the marvellous MS Dhoni and the explosive Ishan Kishan. It comes as no surprise that Kushagra sees Dhoni as his wicket-keeping idol and wants to learn from him about his unique keeping abilities.
“It has been written in a lot of books that you have to catch inside the hip, gloves to be down and be at the balls of your feet. But his technique is very unique and he’s been very successful across all formats in varied conditions. I try to copy his unique technique, but it doesn’t happen.”
Inputs from open-hearted discussions with Kishan, described as a humorous individual off the field by Kushagra, remain etched in his memory. “When it comes to playing, he becomes very serious. One of the things he said was, ‘If you are not getting any time for your practice, then you come early and begin your practice before all players arrive on the ground. By doing this, you get your work done before others arrive and that gives you an edge’.”
According to Kushagra, an opportunity like IPL is an enormous deal as few people get the chance to play on such a big platform. Yet, he also wishes to keep his happiness of being in the IPL to a certain level so that his focus remains undisturbed by external noise.
“You have to know what your aim is as if you go in that flow, then it will become very difficult to dominate at that level due to public pressure and playing against international bowlers. There will be a lot of pressures, but for overcoming it, you have to be yourself. I will try to back my shots, keep my mindset focused and maintain my fitness.”
Joydeep acknowledged the impressive clarity of thought in Kushagra’s mind. “He comes across as a very sorted person and his maturity is beyond his years. He knows what he needs to do; his thoughts are very clear. He’s a very hard-working boy, quiet, confident and that’s a great combination to have.”
“He went at that price because then it becomes about the team who really wants you. That augurs well for the boy because he must have done something right to get that sort of attention. For someone who’s 19-20 years old and big teams being after him just shows that he’s a very good cricketer and has a very bright future.”