Krunal Pandya with Lukman Meriwala.
Krunal Pandya with Lukman Meriwala.

Lukman Meriwala, Chetan Sakariya and IPL's enduring hinterland story

  • After T Natarajan, two left-arm pacers from poor rural families aim to make a mark in the glitzy T20 league.
By Rasesh Mandani
UPDATED ON FEB 21, 2021 09:17 AM IST

Back in 2006, when Lukman Meriwala cut and weld metal, shielding his eyes from the sparks off the cutting torch, he would tell friends: “Aapro ne cricket no mel nahi pade (cricket is not meant for us).” After repeated struggles to break into the playing eleven of club sides in Baroda, his aspiration to play higher grade cricket had faded into a distant dream.

Elsewhere in Gujarat when schoolboy Chetan Sakariya was doubling up as salesman in his uncle’s bookstall to fund his cricket, seeing his father compelled to drive a goods tempo to make ends meet, despite one side of the body left numb after a road accident, would leave him dispirited.

On Thursday at the IPL auction, when the gavel went down on the names of Meriwala and Sakariya, they had earned their ticket to the game’s richest league. Both are left-arm fast bowlers–Meriwala, 29, was picked up by Delhi Capitals at his base price of R20 lakh while Rajasthan Royals won a bidding war for 22-year-old Sakariya and will pay him R1.2 crore.

Gujarat’s Sarnar village in Bharuch district where Meriwala stays and Vartej, a small-town in Bhavnagar district, where Sakariya resides are the latest additions to IPL’s geographical outreach in uplifting the lives of families from humble background in rural India.

The cheers for T Natarajan are still ringing, reinforcing IPL’s power to help script great underdog stories. The left-arm pacer from a poor family in rural Tamil Nadu found IPL success, became a net bowler for India, ended up making debuts in all formats in Australia, and signed off with the Gabba Test triumph.

Meriwala and Sakariya watched the auction drama with their state team-mates ahead of the Vijay Hazare Trophy. At home, the Meriwala family was overjoyed. At the Sakariyas, tears of sorrow mingled with joy as they are still mourning the death by suicide of Chetan’s younger brother.

Jaydev Unadkat with Chetan Sakariya.
Jaydev Unadkat with Chetan Sakariya.


EARLY STRUGGLES

“My father wasn’t making much money being a small farmer (for a family of five). Cricket wasn’t working out. With the sheer urge to help the family, I took up fabrication,” Meriwala recalled. “But my parents convinced me to give cricket another try. A distant uncle, Zakir bhai, showed me around Baroda and I began to play again. After the focus was back, I began to do well. I earned a place in the Baroda U19 side, and in 2013 I got in the Baroda one-day team.”

The Sakariya family, as far back in generations as Chetan’s mother Varsha could recall, was into all sorts of labour work. “Sometimes Chetan’s father’s wages would take six months to come. He would even ride big vehicles to faraway places like Bhuj…wherever he would get a fare,” she said. “I got engaged in sari stone-work, from which I would make 500-700 rupees.”

“My brother, Mansukh who lived in the neighbouring Desai Nagar village offered to bring up Chetan. I had three children and little money. I couldn’t say no, and from when he was very little, that’s where he grew up. Whenever possible, he would come home. Desai Nagar-Vartej was a 10-rupee ride,” she spoke with moist eyes.

CRICKET’S LIFE LESSONS

Despite the struggle, Sakariya never gave up cricket. For him every wicket taken was a step towards a better life. “I got my break when Jaydev bhai (Unadkat) got injured in Saurashtra’s 2018 Ranji Trophy match against Gujarat. I picked up a fifer and got 29 wickets in eight matches,” Sakariya said.

Stars aligned for Sakariya to be picked up by RR where Unadkat, his state captain and go-to man, is a senior bowler. “I am happy that we will get to work together,” said Unadkat. “From what I see, he does like me a lot. But he speaks very little. So, I go and have a word with him every now and then in net sessions and even during matches. I generally speak with him when his rhythm is not going right or when he is doing well, just to remind him not to overdo things in training.”

While Sakariya gets to bowl in tandem with Unadkat, Meriwala has benefitted from the advice of former India left-armer Irfan Pathan, who was in the Baroda side in his early days of domestic cricket. “He has been a consistent performer for Baroda in white-ball cricket since the last 4-5 years. He has finally got what he deserved,” said Pathan. ”He has got decent zip and great control of his yorker, which makes him useful with the new as well as the old ball.”

Meriwala always wanted to be a fast bowler. But he would spray the ball around in his early days. With the help of mentors, he polished his bowling. In 2013-14, he became the all-India highest T20 wicket-taker. In 2017, he made his Ranji debut. Now, he believes to be in a space where he can bowl exactly where his mind tells him to.

Taking wickets against established batting stars in IPL is a challenge he is keen to embrace. Something else bothers him. “I had opted out of English when I passed 9th grade. That’s how far I studied. I wonder what I would reply if Ricky Ponting (DC coach) asked me something,” he said. “But Munna bhai (Munaf Patel) is helping me out on this.”

Former fast bowler Patel, India’s 2011 World Cup winner who also comes from a remote village, Ikhar in Bharuch, also had the trepidation like Meriwala. “He comforts me saying they speak in Hindi as well in IPL teams. He has asked me to catch hold of some teammates who can translate what the coach says,” he said, spelling out Patel’s advice to deal with the language barrier in the dressing room.

Patel, who has played for three IPL teams, gives him life lessons and mentors him on fast bowling. Meriwala speaks with excitement of the slower bouncer he has now developed. “Now, I can double guess what the batsmen would do,” he said.

Sakariya, predominantly a swing bowler, is happy he has sharpened his back-of-the-hand slower ball, wide yorker and bouncer. His stints with the MRF Pace Foundation and with Royal Challengers Bangalore as a net bowler in the last IPL in the UAE have been a big help. “He is a lot fitter and stronger. He is a very keen learner, and I can see he has matured a lot,” said Unadkat.

Both Meriwala and Sakariya know they can’t get carried away by the IPL money. They have to make it count. They want to move their families to Baroda and Rajkot respectively to live the good city-life.

“I will pick the brains of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav. I will use the nets to impress all Indian batsmen who are there in DC,” Meriwala’s IPL wish-list is ready. “I just hope I get matches.”

That’s all he ever wanted, when they wouldn’t pick him in club cricket in Baroda.

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