From U-19 cricket in Bihar and Ranji Trophy for Bengal to India A: Mukesh Kumar’s unique story. Mukesh Kumar took 5/86 on India A debut and 20 wickets from 5 games in Ranji Trophy 2021-22.
The story of Mukesh Kumar, who is originally from Gopalganj in Bihar, is an incredible tale of rising through toil and persistence. The son of a taxi driver, Mukesh had once thought of getting admitted to a school and study further but felt a different sort of connection with cricket which propelled him on a unique journey of rising through the ranks where his dreams were matched by consistent efforts to get better at his primary skill which is fast bowling.
Mukesh has played cricket at the Under-19 level in Bihar in his early days. But after meeting an accident in 2011-12, Mukesh had to shift base to Kolkata where his father works as a taxi driver. Mukesh primarily shifted base to the eastern metropolitan to get a job but had a different course charted out for him and cricket never took a backseat.
Mukesh initially played club cricket in the second division league in Kolkata followed by a stint in the first division league. It was not long before the Bengal set-up realized that there was potential in this young pacer and in 2014-15, he was drafted in their Vision 2020 plan where he started putting in the hard yards under the able guidance of former Bengal seamer and bowling coach, Ranadeb Bose.
The passion for cricket drives Mukesh from an early age
Mukesh used to play for a first division club Shibpur Institute and he was having a great ride there; he wanted to chance his luck at trials for higher levels. Since it wasn’t one of the richest clubs, Mukesh used to get paid peanuts.
So, there were days when he would play a couple of ‘khep games’ to supplement his income. To brief out the word ‘khep’, in Bengal, it means playing some unauthorized private club games which is generally being played with tennis-ball where one could earn something between Rs 500 to Rs 5000 for a game.
Being from a family in Bihar, Mukesh always had the added pressure of getting into a stable job for a secure future. He did appear for the para-military forces selections thrice but faced tough luck on all occasions as he didn’t secure a selection.
“I had appeared for CRPF exam thrice, but probably cricket was my calling and I could never bring myself to believe that I needed the job,” stated Mukesh who wanted to be Bengal’s most consistent red-ball bowler.
Earning the basic platform in ‘Vision 2020’
The Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) charted a project called ‘Vision 2020’ and held open trials for the same where hundreds of young players turned out on each day at the Eden Gardens under the supervision of bowling coach Ranadeb Bose and cricket director Jaydeep Mukherjee.
Mukesh was at the end of the queue for the trial and due to a washroom break, he left the queue for a couple of minutes but by the time, he came back to his place, the processing for the event was completed and he saw a red cross besides his name. He pleaded to the authorities and Ranadeb Bose finally threw an old SG Test ball at him.
“I bowled an in-swinging yorker and the batter lost his balance; Rano Sir (Ranadeb Bose) went to Jaydeep Sir and I saw the red cross turn into a red tick,” expressed Mukesh, thanking Ranadeb Bose for that elusive opportunity.
A little help from CAB changed the life of Mukesh Kumar
The next trip for the right-arm medium pacer, Mukesh Kumar was to Kalighat club but they already had Ashok Dinda playing for them with a set team. Kumar was quick compared to the other second division pacers and as a result, the edges derived from his outswingers were flying over the slip fielders or the balls burst through their hands making it tough for the fielders especially on a chilly morning.
But his style of play was revolutionized after the trials for Vision 2020. Once his medical test was done, Mukesh Kumar was found to be malnourished as he didn’t have a proper diet which was difficult to be arranged by him on his own.
It had not been a very easy ride for Mukesh because he had the skills but fitness issues were proving to be detrimental to his growth. He was pronounced anaemic by the doctors; Mukesh was suffering from bone edema. Ranadeb Bose had said to ESPNCricinfo that Mukesh was not ready to play 10-12 first-class games in a season when he first came into the squad because of his fitness issues. But Bose had faith in his abilities and what the former saw in the Vision 2020 trials. The bowling coach of Bengal convinced Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) authorities, in particular the then secretary Sourav Ganguly to give Mukesh an opportunity.
“It was Rano sir, who spoke to the then CAB secretary Sourav Ganguly, who arranged for my stay at Eden Gardens and my diet was taken care of,” Mukesh Kumar who has 109 first-class wickets in just 30 games at an impressive strike rate of 48.9, recalled his hard days. “I had come through the ranks having played Buchi Babu and then waited for my turn; the endeavour would be to keep working hard.”
“With Mukesh, we know that the bulk of his wickets will be from the top five and not tailenders. He has tremendous control with both the new and old ball,” Bengal’s assistant coach Sourasish Lahiri said.
The beginning of an excellent Ranji career
One of the reasons for the growth of Mukesh Kumar at such a speedy rate has been the guidance of bowling coach Ranadeb Bose who again tried his best to convince Sourav Ganguly, the joint secretary of CAB to hand Mukesh a Ranji debut against Virender Sehwag-led Haryana at the Chaudhary Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium in Lahli in 2015-16. The tough call was taken and with a beautiful delivery, Mukesh dismissed Sehwag who left the ball only to see his stumps cartwheeling.
“My job was at stake and then at the end of the day, the first wicket Mukesh got was that of Sehwag in Lahli; it saved his career and my job,” Bose told PTI about the Ranji debut of Mukesh Kumar who finished the game with figures of 5-99 in 33 overs.
During the second semifinal between Bengal and Karnataka in Ranji Trophy 2019-20 at the Eden Gardens, Mukesh displayed his skills in the second innings of Karnataka’s batting. The first innings saw lethal bowling of another Bengal pacer, Ishan Porel who picked 5/39 but when he looked a little fragile in the second essay, Mukesh Kumar stepped up with a resplendent show in the second innings.
Out of his six wickets, three were those of Karun Nair, Manish Pandey and Devdutt Padikkal. With a powerful array of outswingers and in-swingers, Mukesh returned figures of 6/61 in the that innings to lead Bengal to the final of Ranji Trophy 2019-20 with a 174-run victory.
“He should immediately play India A; he is better than anybody who is playing India A,” Bose said before Mukesh’s India A debut and went on to add that with his skill, the 28-year old pacer is going to make a number of records in the future. “He has got a fantastic release and he is very good off the wicket; one ball goes in and another out and that’s the biggest quality of a fast bowler if you can move the ball off the wicket.”
Mukesh’s immediate impact playing for India A
When India A were put in to field against New Zealand A in the first unofficial Test of a three-match series at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, all eyes were on the duo of Yash Dayal and Arzan Nagwaswalla perhaps for some known reasons, but hardly anyone predicted how 28-year-old Mukesh Kumar, who had 100 first-class wickets in 27 games before the start of the series, would turn the tables in his first attempt with India A in his career.
Mukesh bowled with credible pace throughout the whole day and his experience proved useful on that day, given he bowled more balls to the batters compared to other bowlers. The Bengal pacer finished with a five-wicket haul (5/86).
The dismissals showed that the batters were not too comfortable with the shots; New Zealand A opener Chad Bowes tried to play a pull shot but the ball hurried on to him and it took the top edge of the bat as Ruturaj Gaikwad grabbed a fine running catch. Mukesh also trapped New Zealand captain Robert O’Donnell and wicketkeeper batter Cam Fletcher in front of the stumps.
“My plan was to pitch the ball as far up as possible and make them play,” Mukesh Kumar spoke about his plans at the end of the first day of the first unofficial Test. “I aimed to get at least four of five balls in each over right up, so that the batter was forced to play rather than leave.”
Even in the third unofficial Test of the series at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, when India A stamped their authority over their Kiwi counterparts to win the series 1-0, Mukesh Kumar didn't fail to make an impact. To be precise, it was the stellar performance of Uttar Pradesh left-arm orthodox bowler Saurabh Kumar which was the clear match-winning effort (match figures of 9/151) for India, Mukesh too did his bit. He dismissed the series top run-scorer NZ A opener Joe Carter for a well made 111 on the final day.
Carter was the ninth man out and India were certain to win the match; but we have all been witness to the events in the Kanpur Test between India and New Zealand in 2021-22, where Rachin Ravindra battled hard through a period of 29 overs for his 18*(91) and along with Ajaz Patel braved around nine overs at the end of the final day to save the game for the Kiwis. In that context, Carter's wicket was crucial and Mukesh didn't disappoint India's fans.
Over each of the past three Ranji seasons, Mukesh has collected 20-plus wickets at an average of less than 25. And with his pace and a sharp action, he is going to stake claim to the Indian jersey sooner than later. With some of the India players approaching the end of their careers, the doors might open for Mukesh Kumar to be a part of India’s Test team. Some of the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises too have a close eye on him.
From days spent playing in the maidans and narrow lanes near Eden Gardens to his efforts to boost his fitness while following a specific diet to treat his malnourished body to doing wonders in Ranji Trophy to earning the India A cap, Bengal pacer Mukesh Kumar’s story is one that will inspire all young pacers to excel in their domain, whatever be the situation at hand.