Cricket did not happen to Priyam Garg by chance. It could never have been. Growing up in a small town near Meerut, in a family of seven with their share of struggles, sport was expected to be just a past-time, a sideshow at the most. For the young member of Garg household, however, it was much more. He feared getting injured by leather balls, had to face his father’s ire for choosing bat over books, travelled 40km daily from his residence in Quila Parikshitgarh to attend training . All of that effort, only to play the game he loved. Nothing came easy to Garg, each time he had to reach for it.
Garg’s journey is yet to hit the crescendo, but it touched an important milestone on Monday when he was named the captain of the India U-19 team for the World Cup in South Africa, starting January 17. His shoulders will have to take the same responsibility that was once carried by the likes of Virat Kohli (2008), Mohd Kaif (2000), Prithvi Shaw (2018), all of whom went on to play for the senior national team.
“Nothing less than winning the fifth World Cup for India is my target. We have been four-time champions and I would like to follow the footsteps of what my seniors did at the previous editions, including the last one where we were champions,” he said in an interview. “It’s a big responsibility as we would be carrying the hopes of millions of people.”
India are the most successful team in U-19 cricket followed by Australia, who have won three titles. “I was sure of my selection as captain in the side as I have been doing well, even in the under-23 teams. I was expecting a call in a day or two, and I got a call only this morning. Certainly, a great honour and a big opportunity for me,” Garg, who is a middle-order batsman, added.
When a teenager talks of ‘carrying the hopes of millions’, one ought to sit up and take notice. More so, if the boy in question has amassed 800-plus runs in his debut Ranji Trophy season for Uttar Pradesh. And yet the kid in Garg shows up quite often in his unassuming nature and ever-smiling face.
“We couldn’t afford a television at home, so I used to skip studies to watch Sachin Tendulkar at a nearby ‘paanwala’ shop. That was a routine and I faced my father’s ire on a number of occasions. For him, cricket was not a priority,” Garg said.
His father Naresh is a happy man. “If he comes back with the World Cup, I would be happiest,” Garg’s father says, as his sisters Pooja, Jyoti, Reshu and brother Shivam sits beside him. The Tendulkar reference comes up quite often in Garg’s statements. Just like any other dreamy-eyed cricket-crazy boy in India, the maestro fuelled his dreams without ever meeting him. “Whatever I am today is because of Sachin Tendulkar. Had I not seen him play, I wouldn’t have come this far. I grew up watching him. Before every game, I think of Sachin. That gives me courage and strength to score runs,” said Garg. “Even when I used to play with the tennis ball in local tournaments, I always tried to copy Sachin Paa ji’s strokes.”
Yet, in the midst of a cricket-filled childhood, it was not all smooth. The financial constraint aside, Garg had to cope with the demise of his mother at an early age.
“I could have quit the game after the death of my mother as things weren’t easy for me. It was a really tough time for me and my family, but dad never let us feel her absence,” says Garg, who hit a half-century in his first season with the Uttar Pradesh under-14 side, when he was just 12.
Garg’s father did odd jobs, like driving a school van and loading goods in trucks, to run his family. “Those tough days gave me the resolve and courage to handle any situation. My father became my role model,” said Garg.
Growing up in a small town like Parikshitgarh threw its own sets of challenges. The Victoria Park Ground where many budding cricketers from Meerut, including Praveen Kumar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, took baby steps to bigger stage was 20km from Garg’s hometown.
With four ‘paranthas’ packed in a tiffin box, Garg used to leave for six hours of practice every morning and return in the evening. “Holding my kit bag, I waited long hours as the bus timings were erratic. Rest was out of question as I didn’t have the luxury of going back home midway during the training break,” Garg said.
There was early inhibition too. “I was afraid of getting hit by the leather ball. But when I played at the Victoria Park Ground in Meerut, it was an altogether different feeling. After the initial hiccups, I settled down at the nets and started stroking the ball well. I always had Sachin in my mind. Those exquisite drives on the back foot and front foot in the cover region are my favourites and I enjoy hitting them,” the fanboy in Garg again comes up.
It did not take Garg long to get noticed. He rose through the ranks fast and made his debut for the Uttar Pradesh senior side in September, 2018 in a Vijay Hazare Trophy match against Saurashtra. The next month he was playing in the Ranji Trophy, and scored a century in his debut game against Goa.
By the time the top domestic competition ended, Garg had amassed 814 runs in 10 matches. It was second highest tally for Uttar Pradesh in the 2018-19 season, where they entered the quarter-finals. In 12 first-class matches so far, Garg has 867 runs, with two centuries, at an amazing average of 66.69. His highest score is 206. In 15 List A matches, Garg has 539 runs with one century. For a prolific batsman like Garg, he started out as a fast bowler. But coaches Ashwani Sharma and Sanjay Rastogi advised him to pay more attention on batting.
“Priyam’s coach in the UP junior team, Kanhaiyalal Tejwani, has been instrumental. He (Garg) started as a bowler but Ashwani and I shifted his attention on batting as he was much better suited for that,” recalls Rastogi, who is also the coach of Praveen and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Garg agrees. “When I look back, I feel I did the right thing. I am progressing well in my career and I wish to score as many runs as I can for myself, and my team in all formats of the game,” he said.
A right-hand batsman, Garg is extremely strong on the off-side and has a knack of scoring big.
“Rahul Dravid Sir taught me how to keep my hunger for runs growing and that’s why I always look to score 200-plus runs. I admire the patience of Cheteshwar Pujara. When he was batting against UP in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final last season, I had a close look at his technique, especially his calmness in shot selection,” he said.
“The long format helps a batsman check his patience as one needs to do a lot of homework to stay calm. I also try to stay calm in the middle, but my scoring doesn’t suffer on account of that.”
For his next big score, South Africa will be a good venue, says Garg. “The World Cup will be a big opportunity. That’s the event where you are noticed, get everyone’s attention and I’d love to play a big innings there,” said Garg, who turned 19 on November 30. “It’s a balanced side. We have been playing together. This would help us in South Africa.”
Before the World Cup, India will be playing a quadrangular in South Africa where along with the hosts, New Zealand and Zimbabwe will also be playing.