A young cricketer wearing his Indian Premier League (IPL) team kit roamed around the hotel lobby with kit bag hanging on his back. All while thinking of his debut, which was to happen almost eight hours later. He had, understandably, not slept the night and had all kinds of thoughts entering his mindspace – good, bad and ugly – as he walked aimlessly in the lobby.
He was Shreyas Gopal, all of 20, about to represent the defending champions Mumbai Indians in a crucial match against Rajasthan Royals in Ahmedabad.
Before the tournament, he had played a few of domestic matches but IPL would be the first time he would be brushing shoulders with some great players and playing in front of thousands.
“I remember (Kieron) Pollard and Rohit (Sharma) coming to me as I roamed around in the hotel, three hours before our team meeting and an hour before we were to get inside the bus to go to stadium, and said, “What are you doing here? You should be sleeping in your room at this time.” I replied, “I can’t sleep. I will not be able to sleep.”
“I don’t blame them for making fun of me that day. They also understood what was going in my mind,” said Gopal, chuckling at while sharing his IPL debut experience with Firstpost.
Both Rohit and Pollard must have understood what was going on in his mind and let the young man enjoy the moments before the big moment arrived. After all, the nervousness before a big game, is also earned. Gopal had earned his and this is something which reflected in what his team owner Akash Ambani had told him when they met for the first time, “I am sure you are going to play a big role for us. We would not have picked you, if you were not good enough, so never think like that.”
Gopal shared Mumbai Indians dressing room with the likes of Rohit, Pollard, Michael Hussey, Harbhajan Singh and there would be flashes of Sachin Tendulkar every now and then as well. It would not have been easy to settle down so easily in such a starry dressing room. Here, the then MI coach Anil Kumble came to his rescue and prepared him not only mentally but physically for the battle ahead.
“Anil sir was a backbone. He ensured I did not mess around in training. He used to make me do extra stuff. The moment I used to go back to dressing room or hotel room, I did not have energy to walk down to the dinner table. I used to get that tired. He ensured I was putting everything in my training. That was the time I was learning to play white ball cricket as I had no experience,” recalled Gopal.
Kumble also talked a lot to ensure he settled down well with the team. Gopal said, “He knew that I had no experience at that level. He guided me and gave me small pointers. To make it as simple as possible for me.”
The news of inclusion in XI came to him a day before the match.
On the matchday, Gopal was happy that Mumbai batted first, as it gave him some more time to calm his nerves. He was thankful that he was not fielding or bowling straightaway.
However, that hugely awaited moment was not far away. Mumbai posted 178/2 in their 20 overs. Rohit threw the ball to Gopal, in the ninth over, making sure he did that with some encouraging words.
“Go for it”, Rohit’s words till echo in Gopal’s ears. However, the going got tougher. The first ball was a bit short and was pulled away for two runs. Not an ideal start and this led to him bowling one wide down the leg stump line.
The stadium was buzzing with screeching noise. Gopal had been off with a terribly short delivery and it was followed by a wide. He knew he was far from his best.
“I just wanted to get through the over and I ended up bowling another wide I think,” he said. But the fact is he bowled another short one, which was cut away for two runs. Yet that does not change the fact that he was under the pump at the big stage. One wide in the very first over off the first three balls. He could feel the pressure and Hussey, fielding near the ropes, could sense it too and ran in from the deep to give some encouraging words, pass on some wisdom to his teammate.
“‘Take your time, nothing is going to happen. The worst thing will be that you are hit for a six. The best thing is it will give you a wicket, be confident and bowl,'” recalls Gopal were Hussey’s words.
Here was his idol, someone he grew up watching, giving him support, at a very crucial stage of his IPL debut.
“Growing up I have been a big Hussey fan. When I was picked up by Mumbai in the auction, I was looking forward to spending time with Hussey. He was my childhood hero. He is full of positivity.”
Throughout the tournament, Gopal spent time with Hussey and picked his brains, learning about his preparation before a big game, his memories of first Test match. Some much needed advice also came his way: “You are not different, we have gone through the same emotions.”
Other seniors like Rohit and Harbhajan also cheered him up and it calmed the young man down. He then told himself: “Whatever games I had played in domestic cricket, I am going to bring all the experience of that together and bowl my best delivery”.
Gopal bowled a Test match length and Rajasthan’s Ankit Sharma, who was facing him, attempted a slog sweep and failed. Ambati Rayudu completed a fine catch in the deep and Gopal had his first IPL wicket on just the third ball of his IPL career.
“That was my first IPL wicket. And that was a lot of relief. That wicket just got me into a thought that ‘Okay I got him out and I can get others out as well’,” Gopal remembers.
Thereon, Gopal has risen in the IPL finishing with 20 wickets last season, and 38 from 31 overall matches played. This IPL journey will continue for some more years but Gopal will always remember, it all began with a tense walk in the hotel lobby.