The trophy shelf in Rinku Singh’s room is out of space. The latest addition to the collection is his Man of the Match award for an enterprising cameo against Rajasthan Royals. “It was my first Man of the Match award, so it is special,” the Kolkata Knight Riders’ batter says. There’s another trophy that dates back a decade and is very dear to him. He took home a figurine of a cricketer for being Man of the Series during a ‘School T20 World Cup’ held in his hometown Aligarh.
Rinku was also given the keys to a motorcycle by the organisers of the tournament. The two-wheeler was a blessing for Rinku.
“That was the day my father stopped caning me for playing cricket. I used to get whacked everytime I returned from a match because my father thought I was wasting my time. The motorbike brought about a change of heart in him because he realised that I could actually play the game. Also we couldn’t even think of buying a motorbike back then because we could not afford it. So it was a big day for me and the family,” Rinku recalled.
The motorbike made life easier for his father Khanchand Singh, a gas cylinder delivery man. He hauled cylinders onto it and his older sons would help him meet delivery targets.
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Khanchand, followed his third son’s breakthrough 2022 season on an old tube TV. Though his son has moved up in life, Khanchand and his wife Vina still stay in the two-room ramshackle shack on the premises of a gas cylinder stockyard. Rinku, on a short break between the IPL and the start of the Ranji Trophy has moved to a newly-constructed three-storey house in Rambagh colony. He drops by everyday for family time and for a meal before practice in the evening.
“I told Papa to stay in the new house. But papa wants to stay here in the stockyard. He has been working here for 35 years so he is comfortable in this environment,” Rinku said. The stockyard is full of childhood memories.
Khanchand points to a gate where he used to wait for his cricket-crazy sons to return home. “I didn’t want them to end up like me. I wanted them to study and get proper jobs. That is why I was against them playing cricket. Rinku will always remember this as he used to get most of the whacks because he was the most enthusiastic cricketer in our family,” Khanchand says.
He watched the live telecast of each of the seven games Rinku played for KKR, his longest run of matches in a season. Since his 2018 debut for KKR, Rinku made a name for himself as a sharp fielder with a safe pair of hands and as a reliable 12th man. His batting hadn’t clicked still though.
This season, batting at No.6 and No.7, the 24-year-old grabbed the opportunity of being a finisher. He scored 174 runs at a strike rate of 148.71. Rinku’s smart shot selection, six-hitting and faster than a run-a-ball knocks has made him a contender for the ’emerging player’ award. “I am proud of Rinku. He has worked really hard and been so patient to get to where he is. He has done a lot for the family too and has been so responsible. He has seen some tough times but he didn’t give up,” Khanchand said.
Rinku’s career almost derailed in his early teens. He doesn’t remember exactly how old he was when he accompanied his brother to a coaching class centre to look for a job to help the family make ends meet. “I think this was in 2010. I had just started playing but mummy asked me to look for a job because we had to earn money. At the coaching centre they asked me to sweep and clean. I was told to do it early in the morning so nobody would see me. I decided not to take it up. I came home and told mummy that I would help the family by playing cricket,” Rinku said.
Overcoming mental barriers
Abhishek Nayar, the assistant coach of KKR, had informed Rinku about being part of the Playing XI for the game against Gujarat Titans. Rinku pinched himself. “Was I hearing it right? That was my first reaction,” Rinku said. Then he quickly went through names of bowlers he could face the next day. Three of them were express pace, Mohammed Shami, Alzarri Joseph and Lockie Ferguson. Rinku experienced butterflies in the stomach and was also apprehensive because he was wary of 145kmph-plus bowlers.
“It wasn’t fear but at the back of my mind I always had this complex about facing international fast bowlers. There are no bowlers who are really fast in Aligarh. Even in domestic cricket it is rare for someone to bowl 145. I got hit a few times too and once even fractured my jaw. So that was at the back of my mind. Somehow before this season I was not confident about batting. Dab dab ke khelta tha,” Rinku said. He would be restrained when facing the quicks.
Once the nerves settled and after facing a few balls in the middle, Rinku dispatched Joseph over fine-leg for a six. He struck four fours, two of them against Ferguson and finished with 35 off 28. “After this innings I felt like I could score runs against these fast bowlers. It was just a question of confidence.” Two games later, Rinku won the man of the match award for an unbeaten 42 not out against Royals. A paddle scoop for a six over fine leg against fast bowler Kuldeep Sen after he cut Trent Boult for a four, set the tone for the innings.
Nayar says Rinku’s batting has been work in progress for the past four years and this season everything fell into place. A three-month stay in Mumbai also made a world of difference, Nayar believes.
Mumbai would be Rinku’s second home after he underwent a knee surgery (meniscus tear). While going for a second run during a Vijay Hazare Trophy match last year, Rinku had heard a cracking noise. “I faced another five to six balls but felt that there was something wrong. I knew that I would miss the IPL. I was out for seven months as I had to get a surgery done and also recover,” Rinku said.
He recalls his father going into depression and not eating for two days when told about the injury.
During his recovery period, Rinku spent a lot of time in the company of Nayar at the KKR Academy.
“Over the past three-four years we have been working on technique and skill. When you make changes sometimes it takes time to evolve. I feel that he had a lot of time in the off season to work on technique. What normally used to happen is that in First-Class cricket he could perform, but under pressure he kind of lost what we worked on. This year, he felt the technical improvements were in place and that kind of gave him the confidence during the IPL,” Nayar said.
A change of attitude also contributed to Rinku making an impact with the bat.
“He has grown up in a small town with a mindset of being a follower rather than a leader. I think this whole period in Mumbai when he was alone and not having anyone around and just practicing, it made him evolve a lot as an individual. I saw a lot of changes. Small things like how he made friends with a rickshawala who used to pick him up from the hotel and then to my home everyday and then we used to go for practice. He tried to enjoy life in Mumbai, where it is fast-paced and that made a difference.”
In what was to be KKR’s final game of the season, Rinku came close to taking the side to an unlikely victory against Lucknow Super Giants. He made 40 off just 15 balls with KKR chasing 211 for victory. With 21 needed off the last 6 balls, Rinku scored 4, 6, 6 off a Marcus Stoinis over before a one-handed catch by Evin Lewis in the deep cut short his innings.
“I almost pulled that off. Another day that shot could have gone for a four or a six. But that is the nature of T20. You have to back your skill set even if it does not work all the time,” Rinku said.
He hopes to be a regular in the KKR team after having to bide his time for a few years. He had played 10 games before this season with just 77 runs to show for it. A string of seven games in a single season helped boost his confidence. In addition to being consistent, Rinku also wants to pick up more English words.
“Sometimes communication with foreign players can be an issue. I talk a lot but English is an issue. Whatever I know, I say, they understand I think. If there is something important (Brendon) McCullum wanted to tell me, I would get someone to translate.”
Away from the spotlight of the IPL, Rinku is taking time to talk to age-group cricketers at the Aligarh Cricket School where he trains. Coach Masooduz-Zafar Amini says there has been an uptick in enrollments.
“He is the first player from Aligarh to play in the IPL so he has become a role model. Parents of children want his advice. Young cricketers are eager to talk to him. The good thing about Rinku is that he is still down to earth. He gives time to everyone who wants to talk about cricket,” Amini said.
Rinku tells budding cricketers about the importance of being patient and working hard. “These words sound like simple things but they work. Look at how long it took for me to make an impact in the IPL. But even when I didn’t get games my attitude was the same, I was always cheerful. I wanted people to be happy when they were around me. Ask anyone, they will say Rinku was always smiling.”