African Safari: Patience pays for Mukesh Kumar, Bihar's gift to Indian cricket
Ashwin finds shades of Shami as the team management keeps the faith in him across all formats
When the Indian contingent embark on the African Safari on Wednesday, 6 December, for a full series, there will be three players named in all three formats on board — Shreyas Iyer, Ruturaj Gaekwad and seamer Mukesh Kumar.
It’s largely due to the big names staying out of the white ball leg of the series, but it’s also an endorsement of the management's faith in Kumar — the Bengal bowler who has won their confidence through this year.
At 30 years old, the affable Kumar is no spring chicken but rather an example of what perseverance and hard work can achieve.
Hailing from the remote village of Gopalganj in Bihar, Kumar’s story bears shades of similarity with Mohammed Shami — the senior pro who relocated from Amroah in Uttar Pradesh to Kolkata, where he earned his stripes for Bengal through club cricket.
Reviewing India’s first T20I win against Australia in the just concluded series on his Youtube channel, Ravi Ashwin lavished such words of praise on Kumar that it would embarrass this unassuming sportsman no end. Calling him ‘Junior Lala’ (Shami is nicknamed Lala in the Indian team), Ashwin said: ‘’Mukesh Kumar has a similar build, similar height, outstanding wrist position — he has that great whip of the wrist and terrific back spin on the ball.’’
Flattering words, but Kumar — who has done the hard yards in domestic cricket since his debut for Bengal eight years back — is unlikely to be swayed off his sensible feet by them.
He had been the quintessential late bloomer as, despite being fast-tracked into the state squad after being spotted by Waqar Younis, the Pakistan legend under the Cricket Association of Bengal’s (CAB) Vision 2020 programme, Kumar had to bide his time on the sidelines due to injuries.
A major breakthrough came in the 2018–19 season when he reaped a haul of 6-61 against the star-studded batting line-up of Karnataka, including K.L. Rahul, Karun Nair and Manish Pandey — a haul which helped Bengal power into the final. He did not have to look back in the subsequent domestic seasons, and was eventually being called up to the national ODI side against South Africa in 2022.
Not a stranger to waiting patiently, Kumar finally broke through during the tour of West Indies earlier this year after being named as a reserve pacer in the World Test Championship final.
The 2022 IPL auction saw a financial windfall for him when the Delhi Capitals forked out a hefty purse of Rs 5.5 crore for him, the highest yet for an uncapped seamer, but he has vindicated the franchise’s faith in him so far.
Asked about his strengths, Sourashis Lahiri, assistant coach of Bengal and an accomplished off-spinner who has closely watched Kumar’s career soar, said: ‘’His advantage is he has graduated from red ball cricket to white ball, and not the other way round. He can be quite a workhorse in the longer format, while he can be economical in the white ball variety, as he has shown in recent times.’’
Prior to his departure for South Africa, Kumar said in an interview that he had picked up the nitty-gritties of the slower delivery from Bumrah during a pre-World Cup camp to sharpen his armoury in the shorter formats. ‘’Bumrah harped on the fact that it should come out of the hand without any perceptible change of action,’’ he said.
However, understandably, Kumar himself wants to hedge his bets in white ball cricket as he seeks to establish himself as a contender for the T20 World Cup next year.
He took a break for one game during the T20 series to get married, before rejoining the squad. But then, as he says, the honeymoon has to wait. Right now, it’s Mission South Africa that's pinging on his radar…