“All it took was one ball in the nets for me to be convinced.”
Coach Sanjay Bhardwaj is recounting the first time he saw left-arm spinner Kumar Kartikeya bowl. Kartikeya, now 24 and the second highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy this season with 27 scalps for finalists Madhya Pradesh, was around 16 and had been struggling for more than a year to find an academy in Delhi where he could hone his cricketing skills.
The boy had moved to the Capital from Kanpur and couldn’t afford the hefty fees academies in the national capital were demanding. That’s when Kartikeya was taken to Bhardwaj, a reputed coach who has trained the likes of Gautam Gambhir, Amit Mishra and Nitish Rana.
“When he moved to Delhi, he had to toil for a year or so before he met me,” recalls Bhardwaj. “He was working as a labourer in a factory in Masuri, Ghaziabad during nights to make ends meet. Around that time, he happened to meet Radheshyam, who is also a cricketer and my student. He put him through to me. I had a look at him at the nets and immediately told Radheshyam to leave him with me. I decided to train him free of cost. He had such a smooth run-up and a lovely high-arm action. If he worked hard, I knew he would become good.”
Kartikeya—his father is a constable in Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC)—was only in his late teens when Bhardwaj started training him, but he had already become familiar to struggles and rejections.
“I started my journey in Sitapur near Lucknow. From there, my family moved to Kanpur. Bachpan se cricket ka shauk tha (I was interested in cricket from childhood). I was 8-9 years old when I started playing. I attended trials in UP, but didn’t make the cut. That’s why I moved to Delhi all alone when I was 15,” Kartikeya says.
Under the guidance of Bhardwaj, Kartikeya soon began making an impact in the Delhi circuit. He took around 50 wickets in the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA) league and excelled in some of the big tournaments.
“Even then, he wasn’t selected among the top 200 boys in Delhi,” says Bhardwaj. “I then got in touch with my friend Ajay Dwivedi, who was secretary of the Shahdol Cricket Association in Madhya Pradesh. I asked him to give Kartikeya a chance in division cricket in MP.”
Keen to carve a professional career, Kartikeya was ready to grasp any opportunity that came his way. Just like he had done in Delhi, he instantly began claiming a bagful of wickets and was duly rewarded with a place in the standbys for Madhya Pradesh’s U-23 team.
“I was performing well in Delhi, but the turning point came when I moved to MP. I was named in the standbys. That was when I felt there was hope,” says Kartikeya.
He went on to make his debut for MP in all three formats in the 2018/19 season. A left-arm orthodox spinner who relied on pinpoint accuracy, Kartikeya wasn’t content. Around six months ago, in an effort to become more sought-after in the shorter formats, he decided to expand his repertoire. He also bowls wrist spin, googly and the carrom ball now.
“There is nothing that is difficult in my opinion. I am very confident about my bowling. I started bowling wrist spin to become an asset in T20s. If I wanted to play at a high level, I thought I will have to do something different. I saw the likes of (Akila) Dananjaya and Mujeeb (Ur Rahman) bowl and felt I could also bowl finger spin and wrist spin. It is important to have variations in T20s. I started developing all these deliveries together. I practised by bowling at a single stump in the nets in Bhopal,” he says.
The decision to do so has reaped rewards. He had his maiden IPL stint with Mumbai Indians this year, taking five wickets in four matches, including the scalp of Sanju Samson in his first over of the tournament.
Kartikeya, though, is pragmatic about his variations. In first-class cricket, he sticks to bowling orthodox spin. “I focus on the demands of each format and bowl accordingly. In the longer format, I focus more on bowling in good areas. In the shorter versions, I look to focus on variations,” he says.
If Kartikeya can deliver another impactful performance in the final against Mumbai from June 22-26—he took seven and eight wickets in the quarters and semis against Punjab and Bengal respectively—it will only vindicate Bhardwaj’s instant conviction.