Praveen Kumar poses at his village

My home town: Praveen Kumar in his village, Barnawa, near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh

Sharda Ugra / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd


In PK country

Praveen Kumar emerged from the fringe, sparkled briefly, and returned to the sidelines. But he is far from finished

Sharda Ugra  |  

It is one of those blinding north Indian summer afternoons, where nothing can be seen against the glare of the sun and the white-out of brightness it creates. The hot wind that rushes over these baking plains is called loo and it can kill people.

The interview is over. The couple of hours of hospitality have also included lunch. By now the polite visitor should have offered thanks and skedaddled. That has not happened and the host, Praveen Kumar, is being exceptionally patient and considerate. We are driving towards fields around Barnawa, where his family grows mostly sugar cane, and in some parts, rice, mustard, vegetables and pulses.

They own 200 bighas of this land. In metric terms, that is about 50 acres. This is prosperous countryside, Praveen says, where villages look like little towns. A small truck passes by, people piled on top of their household possessions - bundles of clothes, a tricycle, large aluminium utensils and a satellite dish. Migrant workers, Praveen says, from the brick kilns that dot the road leading to his fields; the bricks are baked, their work is done.

From inside a Toyota Fortuner, this is India in rural idyll, on a slumberous afternoon. Praveen points out the local sights - a hillock said to be the location of the mythical Varnavat Lakshagraha (House of Lac), the story of which is told in the Mahabharata. Around us, the loo is stirring the sugar cane, currently less than halfway to full height. In cropping season, the cane towers over the tallest men, as high as ten to 12 feet. That is when, Praveen says, every sugar-cane field becomes a dense jungle, where brigands roam, and so it's only sensible that men carry guns.

This is "PK" country.

The Fortuner passes his yesterdays, in the shape of three teenage boys squashed onto a motorcycle. They are puttering along, a pair of cricket bats lashed to the carrier.

"That's how we were."

The news that PK would be playing would gather the crowds. He's not boasting when he says everyone knew him

His full name is Praveenkumar Sakat Singh and everyone believes he is tied to the heart of Meerut, and therefore a product of the place and its reputation. Except he isn't really from Meerut proper, that jumble of north Indian town and old British cantonment. Praveen belongs to Meerut's outskirts, to the wider land around it. He belongs to that slab of western Uttar Pradesh (UP) wedged in between the Ganga and Jamuna rivers, which produces, what he calls, "strong, tough boys". Giant skies, remorseless sun, intermittent shade and flinty edginess - it is his true provenance.

Praveen came into Indian cricket from this fringe. He remained on the distant boundaries of attention and today finds himself on its sidelines. For a magical period between the 2008 CB Series in Australia and the end of 2012, he was very much in the mix. He was a bowler of eyebrow-raising skill and variety, among India's leading ODI bowlers at the time, and a batsman capable of rousing the lower order. Between 2009 and the end of 2010, he was a key element in a three-man pace attack, with Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra. Among all Indian pacers - and he is medium - he took 36 ODI wickets, second behind Nehra. He could have been a World Cup winner had he not broken down with injury and missed the 2011 tournament.

Later that summer he played the first of six Tests - strangely his only ones to date - and put his name on the Lord's honours board. He played three Tests in England, busting his ankle after bowling 40 overs in England's only innings at Edgbaston. Despite not playing the fourth Test, he still ended as India's highest wicket-taker in the series. Had there been one more bowler for company, never mind two, the Pataudi Trophy might not have been so miserably one-sided. From the very first day, he was a man undaunted - by occasion, location or opposition.

Then, as swiftly as he arrived, Praveen left the main stage, and returned to the oblivion of domestic cricket and the background whirl of the IPL. There were rumblings and mumblings and grumblings - about his ready temper, his plain-speak, his defiance; about everything except his cricket. Praveen was never told why he was dropped.

Son of the soil: if he weren't a cricketer, Praveen Kumar says he might have been a farmer

Son of the soil: if he weren't a cricketer, Praveen Kumar says he might have been a farmer Sharda Ugra / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Nine months after his last match for India, another bowler from UP made it to the Indian team, a bowler of discipline, swing and metronomic accuracy. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was shepherded through in part by coaches and, ironically, Praveen, who sent word to the UP Ranji team that a good young boy had come through. In many ways Bhuvneshwar is PK-lite though he owns a preternatural calmness that is as far away from Praveen as Meerut is from Miami.

Praveen doesn't see his cricket in the past tense. "I still have that… to play for India. I tell myself I can do more. Whatever work you do, do it all the way. Final, complete." So, season after season, he cussedly returns to where he started - corners of the town where he grew up, where he learnt through cricket to - coaching cliché here - "express" himself.

He is working towards the new season using his "own system". Gym work, nets and running on roads around Meerut. A few times per week, he is up at dawn to run five to six kilometres at breath-busting pace. He is eating "motaa khaana", strong food, home-grown, all vegetarian, and fresh buffalo milk.

Praveen's decade inside Indian cricket has convinced him it contains a bit too much "hawa-baazi"

He has done the math. "Sixty-five to 70 days of training and by the time the season begins, I know I will get strong." We are in June and he reckons it will take him three months to reach peak physical condition, enabling him to bowl as many overs as asked, a muscle memory bank to produce wicket-taking balls and fitness to see him through eight first-class matches. By his calculation he can pick up between 40 and 50 wickets. He's that confident? "Bilkul." Absolutely. "I've been playing for so long. You've got to motivate yourself, no one else will do it. Look at your own bowling and try to get better." Praveen speaks the patois of contemporary India, with its mash-up of languages: "Comeback ka confidence hai." No interpretation required.

In Victoria Park they call Praveen jaadugar, or magician, a nickname that salutes his skill and nous. He still turns up there to train. When the jaadugar is at work, the 100-odd kids in the Victoria Park Cricket Academy are told to keep away from his nets. Ten years ago he arrived at this park like mysterious magicians do in towns.

Praveen was in his late teens when local coach Sanjay Rastogi pulled him into mainstream club cricket. He never really belonged to Victoria Park. He had avoided it growing up. For Praveen there was an innate hesitation in going to the park because of what its leafy expanse represented: the spit and polish of wealth in the well-kitted-out sons of well-heeled families.

His cricket was played around the edges, in matches between Meerut's mohallas, like Multan Nagar and Kishanpura, or other neighbourhoods around the countryside. He dived into the unstructured commotion as a 12-year-old, cycling ten to 12 kilometres to play matches. For games further away, he would jump onto buses, in the hope that a kindly driver would let him ride for free. These were pick-up matches, four overs an innings, eight a side, with quirky rules - if the ball couldn't be found within five minutes, runs were deducted from the batting side's total.

On Lord's, where he took a five-for in 2011:

On Lord's, where he took a five-for in 2011: "I just thought the dressing room was a little small, but the culture around, I liked it" © Getty Images

It was like recreational cricket everywhere in India, except always with a hard ball. "No tennis, no plastic." It was cork first and leather since he was 14. "You win, you get to take both match balls home." This was tough-guy cricket, batting with a single pad, minus helmets, copping hits on canvas shoes; cricket - and here's what made it sharper still - for cash.

Praveen and four friends grew into a tight band of talented 16-year-olds who negotiated terms with local teams. Pay us Rs 10,000 and we'll win you a game. It gave him early training in pressure: "You take money from someone, it means you have to perform, that's tough work." Like IPL? "Exactly like IPL. Seriously." More often than not Praveen and his team pulled off wins, adding layers to their legend. For a son of a police constable, any income helped. "You would put Rs 500 petrol into your Pulsar [motorcycle], give Rs 1000 to Mummy and keep the remaining 500 for yourself." What of that rest? "At that age, what do you do? What do you need? Good clothes, good shoes, good food. We didn't have any bad habits, so you eat well, treat yourself, eat fruit, eat chaat."

We are sitting inside the reception area of Praveen's Restaurant and Banquet, one of a string of function venues on one side of the Meerut Bypass on National Highway 58. On the other side is the educational strip, of technical colleges and management institutes. In the far distance are fields of men, head to foot in white, and cattle, the sites of his cricket wanderings.

"Everybody knew me."

"These days, people who speak English are given more importance. The guys who speak Hindi are thought of as anpadh [uneducated], like they don't know anything"

Everybody? He waves his hand around and reels off a string of names: Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad, Baghpat, Bulandshahr, everybody in a sweeping arc of 60 kilometres around Meerut. It was his "ilaaka" [turf]. The news that PK would be playing would gather the crowds. He's not boasting when he says everyone knew him.

At a Ranji Trophy game in November 2012 in Ghaziabad, UP faced a Delhi line-up comprising Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Nehra and Under-19 star Unmukt Chand. On a Sunday, 10,000 turned up and chanted "PK aa gaya, PK aa gaya" [PK has arrived] as he crunched the second new ball with the bat. In his ilaaka, Praveen was well known for his ability to hit the ball hard and long; when he opened the innings for UP many seasons later, he tried, Sehwagesque, to hit the first ball he faced for six over third man.

Part of Praveen's legend is his ability to bowl whatever he wants at will; he can announce he will bowl four yorkers and then do so. Even though he is hardly bashful, such hype embarrasses Praveen. Bowling is a practical business, requiring a DIY mindset.

The spell of 4 for 46 at the Gabba won Praveen Kumar the Man-of-the-Match award and with it the 2008 CB Series for India

The spell of 4 for 46 at the Gabba won Praveen Kumar the Man-of-the-Match award and with it the 2008 CB Series for India © AFP

He remembers a biting cold, cloudy winter morning at Meerut's Ramlila maidan, the ball looping out of his wrist in a steep arc and cutting off the matting wicket. It was movement to a degree he had never experienced, so much that even the umpire pointed it out. "He told me that's what they call inswing. I started to think about it. What I had done, where my arm had come from and how I could do that again." In bed at night, he would toss the ball up, against the wall or ceiling, to work out what his wrist could produce. "Forty-five minutes, an hour maybe… helped strength in the wrist, for sure!" He began watching the Pakistanis on TV, Waqar Younis in particular, wanting to learn how to bowl the outswinger. "Those boys who stand outside TV shops in the middle of the day and watch live matches - I was one of them."

With coach Rastogi and Victoria Park, Praveen discovered his calling. He thought himself "poora paka hua" [fully ripe] when he first arrived but he had never played on turf and didn't own proper boots. Bowling on turf was a delight, but batting on it was hell for the first month. The simplicity of matting had been to see ball, hit ball. On turf, it asked questions that Praveen thought he was taking too long to answer. One afternoon he smashed his bat in frustration. "I said, I've had enough, I'm going home. Sanjay bhaiyya took me to one side and said that's not done. He said I'd have to keep returning and keep working."

What if he had paid no heed, chucked it and returned to his freelancing about the countryside? What if Rastogi had not spotted him? "Who knows? I would've played here and there in villages, then looked for a job. Maybe a salesman in a clothing store. Or I would've tried to join the army or police. I would have had to do something. Kheti [farming]?"

Every sugar-cane field becomes a dense jungle, where brigands roam, and so it's only sensible that men carry guns. This is PK country

Unlike the magicians who pass through small towns, Praveen did not vanish. He stuck around, bewitched by bowling and its physical, twisted demands and the mysteries it contained. He found his outswinger by listening, watching and trying to moderate his action between two simple Hindi words: bandh [closed] and khula [open]. "I heard people say you should close your action a little to bowl the outswinger. So I practised with a plastic ball. It required a lot of strength, but if you can start swinging the plastic ball, then it is only natural the regular ball will swing."

His action is now more open-chested, "an inch of difference" from when he started. It is a physical realignment brought by age, but the temporary alterations are format-specific, giving him the flexibility to switch lengths. "When you train, you have to keep that in your zehan [consciousness]: where you will land your foot, where you want the ball to land and what will happen when you land it there. It's your work, you must know what you do."

Four yorkers in a row? Just bowl it every day, four times if need be, again and again. Till your torso and arm and shoulder and hand can conjure it with eyes closed.

It is not quite the pathway approach. These days the predominance of biomechanics ensures that there are carefully calibrated, supposedly injury-proof bowling workloads. "There's this funda today that bowlers must bowl 36 balls, 40 balls… I think this is wrong, you're not going to get any stamina that way." His pathway is the Herculean. Ninety minutes at one go in the nets. "In the first 30 minutes the coach says, do this, do that, you say okay. In an hour, your own mind starts to work, you're thinking let me try this, what if I do that. In 90 minutes, you're learning and you're building your stamina."

Our conversation has continued through endless cups of tea, as people potter around sorting business at Praveen's Restaurant and Banquet. It is not a restaurant anymore but a venue for weddings, receptions, birthday parties, kitty parties. His older brother Vimal manages it, while Praveen sticks to cricket and occasional journeys to the farms where hired labourers tend the fields. Cricket consumes his time but it has not leached the country out of him. Like many country people, he speaks in the language of common sense.

Drive by the Meerut bypass on National Highway 58 and you will come across a banquet venue named after a Test cricketer

Drive by the Meerut bypass on National Highway 58 and you will come across a banquet venue named after a Test cricketer Sharda Ugra / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In a previous interview he crafted a beautiful description of the general environment around Indian cricket - he calls it hawa. Hawa covers a gamut of meaning - wind, breeze, a current of air, atmosphere. The closest translation for his usage is "gas", or hype. Praveen's decade inside Indian cricket has convinced him it contains a bit too much "hawa-baazi".

He picks up his cup of tea. "Take this cup for example. We can turn it into the best cup in the world with hawa… like we do with fielders or academies. The fielder may not get to the ball, but if he dives over or around it, it's wow." Or endless net sessions: "When I hear young boys say I'm practising, I say pick your kitbag and go to Delhi to play. It will give you a chance to learn, to sweat a bit. When you get off the bus in Delhi, you'll think, 'I'd better make some runs now or the entire day will be wasted'."

He casts a sceptical eye over academies. "Never mind what they do or who they produce. The big deal is the soil has come from Australia and it's said to be terrific. It's really not." In such a kingdom, the person who speaks the truth, he says, becomes the bewakoof [idiot]. "That is the problem with people like me. If we speak the truth, we're told, is he crazy?"

Is the issue one of language? Praveen will not be separated from his language, even if Indian cricket's discourse is formed, controlled and dealt with in English. "These days, people who speak English are given more importance. The guys who speak Hindi are thought of as anpadh [uneducated], like they don't know anything, so let's not talk to them." His dealings in English are rudimentary, functional: "I know I can talk to umpires. If I go abroad I will be able to survive." The rest, he believes, is peripheral.

"Yes, I do what I think is right - whether it is against God, against the law or against the entire system"

It may have created what Praveen calls the hawa around him: "That I have a very bad temper, that I get very angry, am rude, mannerless and I will say anything to anyone. I'm not mad, am I? I will respond in the way I am spoken to."

The stories abound; that where there is PK, there is a pangaa, a fight or scrap. There's the one about the gun, or about the trashing of a door and injuring himself before the 2011 World Cup, or the one about having a go at umpires or fans, or that "incident" that got him suspended three seasons ago.

There's his ringtone, a dialogue that Amitabh Bachchan's character delivers in the film Sarkar: "Yes, I do what I think is right - whether it is against God, against the law or against the entire system." Praveen smiles. "This ringtone is who I am. Simple."

He is comfortable talking at length about each pangaa. Yes, he owns four guns and has licences for each. He has a rifle and a .357 Magnum that he tucks into his jeans when he is out near the farms and feels he may need it for security. In his free time, he heads out for practice to the local shooting range. His childhood sweetheart and wife, Sapna Choudhary, was a shooter who competed at international level.

The incident in question involved a skirmish outside a gun store, after he had bought a gun with a licence. Neither the weapon nor alcohol was involved. It was sparked by an argument with a driver who had splashed mud over Praveen's clothes and, in response to his protest, pushed him. His brothers and friends happened to be around and Praveen says he stepped back from the ensuing melee.

The man with the short fuse: PK has become infamous for flying off the handle

The man with the short fuse: PK has become infamous for flying off the handle © Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The injury that ruled him out of the 2011 World Cup had nothing to do with smashing doors, but a bone growth in his elbow after a bout of dengue fever. He says he has only got into one argument with an umpire at an international match: Marais Erasmus, Nottingham 2011. "He didn't give Pietersen out." There was what he calls, some "garma garmi", or heated exchanges.

He has a precise memory of what happened in the 2013 Corporate Trophy match in Raipur, after which he was suspended from the Vijay Hazare Trophy. At the time he was attempting a comeback to the Indian team, but the match referee deemed him "mentally unfit to play". He tells the story. In sum and substance: there was a skirmish, an apology to the referee and a strangely delayed call for a hearing. And there is no way anyone, no matter how enraged, would headbutt a helmeted batsman.

Of the video of him unleashing profanity at a fan standing behind the Indian net in Australia in 2012, he explains: "That guy was going after Rohit [Sharma] non-stop, mother, sister everything. It went on for so long. Rohit lost it. I told the guy why don't you go away and mind your own business. Have you come here to just abuse people or to see a match?"

He says he is wiser now to the perils of the "do minute ka gussa" [two minutes of anger]. "That is very dangerous, anything can happen in those two minutes. Now I try not to get caught in it." With hindsight, what does he think lit those flares? "Just the environment, the match situation, I suppose," he says, with the smile of an impish five-year-old. "No wickets, you're getting hammered, hit for two fours, you're really pissed off standing at fine leg, behind you taunting is going on… in the middle, annoyance turns into anger."

Giant skies, remorseless sun, intermittent shade and flinty edginess - it is Praveen's true provenance

He believes cricketers are asked to endure, like Hindu sages. "It's like a cricketer must have the most tolerance… he's standing forever in the sun, his team is getting clobbered, his mother and sister are getting abused and he must still be quiet. It's wrong. Because if he turns around and answers back to a spectator, you will read the next day that he did the wrong thing… and it will get written up and exaggerated five times over."

Over the last three decades Indian cricket has swept most of the country along with it. So much so that the small-town Indian cricketer is not a type. Increasingly he is a prototype, rewriting the demographic of the Indian team, adding variety, distinction and colour. Some, like Praveen, have questioned hierarchies and orthodoxies. They have brought a more pragmatic approach to cricket, treating it like their work and destiny. Cricket, for them, is not about a painstaking legacy. Rather, to use the word Praveen would use instinctively, cricket is karma.

He is grateful for what the game has given him but not sentimental about it. He does not fuss about formats. "I want to play. Whatever form of the game. I'm not going to say, 'Oh, I want to only play Tests.' Why don't you want to play one-day? That is also cricket. Why not T20? That is also cricket. Is that because you are scared because you get whacked in T20? Cricket is cricket. Play it however you can, as much as you can."

Praveen's world of cricket contains neither the grandeur of the game's history nor the limitations of its trappings. It is why he is neither overawed by his name on the Lord's honours board nor detached from its enchantments.

"I just thought the Lord's dressing room was a little small, but the culture around, I liked it. All that old woodwork... the people were nice to me. After you took five wickets, the members stood up and clapped for you. I liked the special noise of the crowd. If you get after their players, they boo you," he chuckles.

"But the weather was cool, my body felt good while bowling, I could have bowled forever. The other guys were saying, 'Abey, ruk jaa' [Hey, now stop]."

But ruk jaa has never been a part of Praveen Kumar - neither his cricket, his temperament or his life.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo