Saturday, February 24, 2024

Saumy Pandey: the cricketer who cried at the thought of being anything else

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Saumy Pandey was brought up in a household where the emphasis was on academics. His parents are teachers at an intermediate college not far from their house, in a small town called Bharatpur in Madhya Pradesh. His sister is preparing for the IAS (Indian Administrative Services) examination, and his maternal uncle and aunt are officers in the PCS (Provincial Civil Services).

When he was a kid, the cricket would be turned on on television at home only by chance. When he was about five years old, his family priest had predicted – much like his scholarly relatives – that Saumy would excel in his studies and go on to become a doctor or an engineer. On hearing this, though, Saumy started to cry: despite the focus on academics all around him, he was already into cricket and wanted to make a career out of it.

Fast-forward a decade and a half, and now the entire extended family got together – with planning, not by chance – to watch the cricket. They wanted to watch their own Saumy bowl left-arm spin at the Under-19 World Cup in South Africa, where India finished runners-up on the weekend. Saumy finished as the joint-second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament, with a tally of 18 from seven innings, at an average of just 10.27 and an economy rate of 2.68. This was the best bowling performance for India at an U-19 World Cup – Saumy went past Ravi Bishnoi’s tally of 17 from the 2020 edition.

“Like with any kid, we used to buy him a lot of toys but Saumy only used to play with a plastic bat and ball,” his father Krishna Kumar tells ESPNcricinfo. “We didn’t even realise when he got attached to it. When our family priest gave his prediction, Saumy broke down and said, ‘All I want to become is a cricketer’. And see, now he is representing India.”

Saumy was physically weak as a child, often ill with a cold, the flu, even pneumonia. Seasonal weather changes routinely made him ill. During one of these bouts, a doctor, while prescribing medicines, told Kumar to engage his son in some form of physical activity. And so Kumar decided to enrol Saumy in a cricket class. There were no proper cricket facilities in Bharatpur, though, so Kumar moved with his family to the neighbouring town of Rewa and put Saumy in Aril Anthony’s Vindhya Cricket Academy, which has produced players like Pooja Vastrakar, Ishwar Pandey, Kuldeep Sen and Nuzhat Parween.

“Saumy came to me when he was seven or eight,” Anthony says. “He was very sharp and would pick up things very quickly. He was serious about his game and disciplined too. Even when I was travelling with the senior team, he would train with the same amount of seriousness and discipline. He was inclined towards bowling from the start and would try out variations too. He had the talent and moved up gradually. “

Anthony says that when 15-year-old Saumy was on the Under-16s circuit, the then MP selector Kirti Patel named him in the list of 30 probables for the state’s Ranji Trophy team. Saumy picked up over 100 wickets in the U-16s that season, and even though a Ranji debut didn’t come, he made the transition to the senior division.

In the recent U-19 World Cup, 12 of Saumy’s 18 wickets were lbw or bowled, mostly with good-length balls. With his disciplined, stump-to-stump left-arm spin, some in the cricketing fraternity have already started drawing comparisons with India’s star allrounder Ravindra Jadeja.

“He has variations which he uses by coming from different angles, not just by changing his line and length,” Anthony says. “He knows when to go wide of the crease, when to bowl from close to the stumps, when to flight the ball from over the wicket and when to bowl flat from around the wicket. He has a simple action and along with taking wickets, he also knows how to stop the flow of runs.”

Both Anthony and Kumar don’t encourage the comparisons with Jadeja, pointing out that Saumy has a long way to go and the U-19 World Cup is only the first step. Success at the World Cup also fetched Saumy a few offers from IPL teams to be a net bowler in their preparatory camps, but he turned these down after consulting with his father and his coach. Kumar says Saumy should target a spot in first-class cricket before going to the IPL, and the coach is with him on that.

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