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Jan 2, 2020

  • Shashank Kishore

It can be hard to make inferences from domestic cricket scorecards. You need match footage, a live telecast or, better still, be there to watch in person.

The scorecard of Ishan Porel‘s Ranji Trophy debut in November 2017 will tell you this: Vidarbha’s openers put on 259 in the first innings, laying base for a total of 499. Bengal lost by 10 wickets, after following on. Faiz Fazal, an India international, made a century, and Wriddhiman Saha, the India wicketkeeper, missed one by three runs.

It would be easy to miss the figures next to the name of a 19-year-old debutant playing for the losing side. But India’s junior selectors were at the venue, and didn’t miss a thing.

They were in the midst of narrowing down the India squad for the 2018 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand. They had watched Porel before, but hadn’t been enthused by his fitness history. He had already gone through a side strain, a medial collateral ligament injury, an anterior cruciate ligament injury, and a partial tear in his left knee while fielding in a selection match.

But Porel’s bowling had always been talked of highly. So the selectors watched him bowl 22 wicketless overs on the first day. On day two, they watched him bowl unchanged between lunch and tea.

“He was sharp, accurate, and generated bounce from a docile track,” Venkatesh Prasad, the junior selection committee chief, said at the time. In 35-degree heat and sapping humidity, Porel sent down 47 overs in Vidarbha’s first innings, nearly a third of the 138.1 overs Bengal bowled, and finished with figures of 4 for 139. It was enough evidence of his fitness.

Porel was soon part of India’s squad for the Under-19 Challenger Trophy, and eventually the Under-19 World Cup. He returned from New Zealand in February 2018 as a World Cup winner. His story could have been a lot different if he hadn’t been noticed that day.

Two years on, another set of selectors, the ones who pick the senior India team, are keeping a close eye on Porel. He’s been part of India A squads, bowled a title-winning spell in the Deodhar Trophy, featured in the Duleep Trophy, and will return to New Zealand in January 2020 with the India A team that is shadowing the senior India squad’s tour of the country. Later this year, he will share a dressing room with his Bengal senior Mohammed Shami at Kings XI Punjab.

In 2014, Porel was categorised as “underweight” at the National Cricket Academy. He had a wrong-footed action – “somewhat like Sohail Tanvir,” he says – that played a part in sparking his spate of injuries. The basic assessment was that he was unfit. “Not overweight, unfit,” Porel stresses.

For a year, he worked on his fitness in his own way. Running. Not in air-conditioned gyms, but from his home in Chandannagar to the railway station, a 30-minute journey, with his kit resting on his shoulders. From there, he’d board a train to Howrah and then take a bus to Salt Lake or Eden Gardens. On his way home, he’d repeat the run back.

“For one year, I worked on my fitness without going to the gym. Just running, some hand and shoulder exercises, good diet,” Porel says. “I wanted to prove I could bowl fast. In my first year at NCA, batsmen used to hit me all over the park. It hurt me that I was classified as medium-fast. I wanted to be ‘Ishan Porel, fast’ or Ishan Porel, fast-medium’. That was my goal.”

A year after the NCA snub, he was part of a Bengal Colts team in Bangladesh. “That tour, I did really well,” he says. “I played with a lot of the current Bangladesh Under-19 players. One of the coaches complimented me also. He said ‘why don’t you come to Bangladesh and play for our club? We don’t have fast bowlers.’ I’m sure they said it jokingly, but it was a good compliment.”

The Colts tour helped Porel establish himself in the Bengal age-group teams, and from there he worked his way up until he was playing in an Under-19 World Cup. That high was followed by what could have been a crushing low, as a heel injury forced him to hobble off 4.1 overs into India’s tournament-opener. He would be out for two weeks. “I was crying every day,” he says.

Rahul Dravid, the then India Under-19 head coach, understood that this was the moment Porel had trained for. Sending him back home would crush a young dream, even if it may have been the easiest thing to do. Instead, Porel was given confidence and recovery time. An injury reinforcement was called in, but Porel stayed on and worked, sometimes overtime, with Anand Date, the trainer.

He returned for the quarter-final against Bangladesh, bowled a match-winning spell of 4 for 17 in the semi-final against Pakistan, and ended the tournament with a tight opening spell, and the wickets of both openers, in the final against Australia.

He came back to a “Chandannagar hero returns home” headline, keys to a brand new motorbike – a Royal Enfield Classic 350 – and the promise of a big future, which is what he continues to pursue.

“Ranji Trophy teaches you patience,” he says. “I have been in the circuit for three years. No two wickets have been the same. You can’t bowl the same way in Eden like you do in Bangalore or Hubli. I hadn’t figured this out earlier, but playing domestic cricket allows you to learn on your own and figure things out.

“Back of a length isn’t something you can bowl on good tracks in India, and that is my natural strength because of my height. So I’ve learnt to bowl up, swing the ball. Earlier, I used to do it at 130kph. Now, I’m close to 140. That has also made a difference.”

Porel’s ability to swing the ball at a good pace, and his improving death-bowling skills, made an impression on the IPL’s talent scouts. He had been snubbed twice earlier – “when I wanted to badly get into the IPL” – and was understandably cautious when the player auction got underway in December.

“Last year, Kolkata Knight Riders were impressed and asked me to be ready, but it didn’t happen,” he says. “Even before that, I had my hopes high. This year, Sunrisers Hyderabad called me on trials on 15 December. I would have had to travel on 14th, come back on 16th and play a Ranji game from 17th.

“I’ve learned from my past injuries. Also, Ranji Trophy is a different league altogether, the emotions are different. I didn’t want to take a risk and start a game tired. If I do well, I will be picked. If I don’t, I won’t. For two years, I wanted to play badly, but I didn’t get a chance. Even this year, I hoped to be picked but it wasn’t like I was constantly thinking about it, and it worked.”

It did, and Kings XI picked him up at his base price.

Either side of the auction, Porel has taken eight wickets in two Ranji Trophy games at an average of 17.38. In Ashok Dinda‘s absence for disciplinary reasons, he has become the de facto leader of Bengal’s pace attack. He relishes the responsibility.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “Every match I play, be it for Bengal, India A or Board President’s XI, I approach it with the same intensity. The goal is to win matches, get the team into a better position than they were at earlier. It’s that simple. If we all do that together, we will all be moving in the right direction.”

Asked to pick a favourite spell, Porel says nothing has come close to the rhythm he felt in the second Ranji Trophy game of his debut season, against Punjab in Amritsar. “I bowled badly in the first innings because I got carried away looking at the wicket,” he says. “Then in the second innings, the ball was reversing, and I came back really well to pick up five wickets in the second innings and we won the game. That was something.”

Indeed it was something. He was full of confidence, having just been told he would be playing in an Under-19 World Cup. It’s this confidence he hopes to carry with him to become a flagbearer for Bengal, and maybe India, for years to come.