Somewhere between facing Ishant Sharma as an opening batsman in a U14 age-group game in Vijayawada, representing Punjab, to opening the bowling against KL Rahul in Dublin, representing Ireland, Simi Singh grew up. Last week, we caught up with the all-rounder to shed light on his inspiring story.
Making it as an international cricketer is no mean feat. You’re out there competing with thousands of other fellow inspired and driven athletes, knowing very well that the probability of your dream coming true is indeed pretty low - unless, of course, you’re a wonderchild. On top of that, you’re expected to make sacrifices and tough choices at a pretty young age and forced to accept the fact that your life simply cannot be the same as the other kids in your neighborhood. While they are strolling back home after the school bell rings, you’re rushing to change your attire to sweat it out in the heat; by the time they wake up at 10 am on a Sunday morning, you’ve already spent four hours at the ground, now contemplating whether you should continue or go back home.
Now, this is just the life of an average aspiring cricketer in the world. If you’re a kid in India who aspires to be an international cricketer, however, the enormity of the task is thousand times more difficult; there you are, in a country of 1.3 billion people, hoping to be amongst the best eleven players in the nation. Born in Bathlana, Punjab, Simi Singh, growing up, had the same dream as a million other kids in India: to play international cricket. Eventually, on May 14, 2017, Simi realized his dream - he made his ODI debut against New Zealand. However, his story comes with a twist: him having taken a detour at the age of 18 meant that it was Ireland, and not India, for whom he made his international debut.
We were lucky enough to get hold of the now-well-established all-rounder last week and, speaking exclusively to SportsCafe, Simi gave an account of his journey as a young cricketer in India and how it all started.
“Like everyone else in India, I picked up the sport by playing street cricket. So I joined an academy in Mohali around the age of 11/12. I lived close to the PCA stadium, so I joined the academy there during summer holidays - in the year of 1999, to be precise. The Cricket World Cup was on, so obviously when you’re watching the World Cup, you want to play cricket. So that’s where it all started,” Simi told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat.
Cricketers often tend to switch their skill of specialization while transitioning from the youth to the senior level and Simi Singh was no different. Now a versatile all-rounder whose trump card is his off-spin, Simi revealed that he was, in fact, an opening batsman when he started off. He also revealed that the realization that he could make a career out of cricket came at a very young age, in an under-14 school tournament in Vijayawada.
“The turning point for me, when I actually thought I can do something in cricket, was an under-14 tournament; it was a school national tournament in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. I did well in that tournament, I was the best all-rounder, and actually that’s where I started bowling off-spin regularly.
“And then I came back to Mohali and played BCCI age-group state-level tournaments (under-14, under-15 and under-16) where I was more of an opening batsman. At that point, my bowling took a step back, because in India, the culture back then was more specialist, so I was a specialist opening batsman.”
So what made a prolific teenager give up hope on state and national selection at just the age of 16 and contemplate pursuing a career in Ireland even before turning 18? According to the Bathlana-born all-rounder, it was non-selection in the Punjab Under-19 state team after a fruitful 2003/04 season which triggered his move to The Land of Saints and Scholars.
“In the year of 2003/04, I scored a lot of runs in the local tournament but did not get picked for the Punjab Under-19 state team. After that, the following year, I did not do great and thus did not get into the state sides. So that was the turning point for me,” he spoke of his frustration.
“Knowing what the situation was, I realized that it would be difficult for me to get into the team. So I had two options at my disposal: either I could have changed my state and gone elsewhere, or changed the country. So I decided to move to Ireland because I had a friend over there (from India) who played cricket.”
At the tender age of 18, where a vast majority of kids in India are busy re-checking their 12th board exam marks in order to enroll themselves into a college of their choice, Simi found himself in an entirely different country, having to deal with the rigours of life all alone. And as if that wasn’t enough, when he started off playing club cricket in Ireland, he was looked down upon by several people at his club, who passed off young Simi’s ambitions to play for Ireland as a joke.
However, years on, Simi did get his revenge on those men, proving them wrong, and, as he recalls, it was ‘a good story’.
“When I came to Ireland as a student, things were completely different - there were no parents to help me out; I had to do everything on my own - I had to go to college, I had to cook and work part-time. This was a couple of months before the cricket season. When the cricket season started, I went to a club to join it.
“The club asked me what level I’ve played and I spoke about my experience. I told them, “Look, I want to play for the Irish team one day,” and they looked at me and laughed, almost to suggest “What’s he saying? He’s only new.” That was kind of an inspiration for me, as I thought to myself, “One day I’m going to show these people.” and luckily enough, it was at the same ground I made my debut for Ireland. That was a good story.”
Starting off at the lowest of tiers in Irish cricket, the all-rounder slowly but steadily made his way through the system and, remarkably, made his international debut for Ireland at the age of 30 - 12 years after moving to the country. Simi shed light on his frustrating yet inspiring journey and, interestingly, revealed how months prior to making his international debut, he’d completely given up hope on playing for Ireland.
“Initially I played at the club level, but only for the second team; they didn’t even put me in the first team. I then worked my way into the first team then slowly, after 3-4 years, I made my way into first-class cricket and got selected in the first-class team. And after that, after a few years, I got picked for Ireland A team. At this stage, I had almost given up. It had been almost 12 years since I had moved to Ireland and I was almost 30 years old, so I had given up hope,” the 33-year-old recalled.
“I thought of getting picked for the ‘A’ side as my last chance. I just wanted to enjoy the trip as I thought that it could be my last ever cricket trip, but that’s where things changed. I did well on that trip and I got my Irish Citizenship in the same month and then I made my Ireland debut the next month. It was a pretty amazing couple of months for me.”
However, it was not just his early days in Ireland that were interesting. Playing at a pretty high level in a talent-rich country meant that in age-group competitions, Simi rubbed shoulders with some of India’s finest - including Ishant Sharma and skipper Virat Kohli. Reflecting on his bouts with big names in Indian cricket during his teenage days, Simi recalled an under-16 game in the mid 2000s versus Delhi, where he came up against both Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma. The all-rounder, however, was pretty honest about his assessment of Kohli as a youngster, admitting that he’d not heard much about the now-Indian skipper back then.
“I played against Virat Kohli, did not play with him. I played against him at the Under-16 level; it was a North Zone state tournament. So we (Punjab) played against Delhi. To be honest, I had not heard of him (back then). Ishant Sharma was playing, so I faced him in the very first over. Facing Ishant was a really good experience and eventually, I ended up getting 40-odd in that game. But Virat did not get runs in that game.
“We hadn’t heard of him (Kohli) that much and there were a few other players whose name was more out there; we’d known someone like Piyush Chawla more, for instance,” he recalled his meeting with Kohli and Ishant.
The all-rounder, however, expressed his admiration for Kohli’s remarkable journey since then and added that he looked back on that U16 game against Delhi when he bowled to the Indian skipper in a T20I clash against India at Malahide in 2018, his first-ever game against his country of birth.
“I didn’t know him (Virat) that well (back then), but next year, I think he scored a double hundred in the under-17 tournament and that’s when everyone knew who he was. After that, he just kept on progressing from there. So when I played against India, it did strike my mind that I had already played against Virat, and now he’s a superstar. It was a pretty amazing feeling.”
The summer of 2018 was a breakthrough season for the Irish all-rounder, for it saw him pick 17 wickets in 15 international games. Of those 15 games were a couple of T20Is against India, where the visiting Indian side paid a brief visit to Ireland before their blockbuster tour of England. After bowling a solitary over for 12 runs in the first T20I, which Ireland lost by 76 runs, Simi was interestingly summoned upon to open the bowling in the second game by skipper Gary Wilson.
Things did not quite go according to plan for the off-spinner, who finished his spell with figures of 2-0-32-0, but interestingly, he revealed that it was only 10 minutes prior to taking the field that he knew that he was going to bowl the first over. Simi shed light on the challenge of bowling with a brand new Kookaburra ball and against a quality batsman like KL Rahul and revealed that his thought process heading into the over was to just contain the runs.
“I didn’t know I was going to open the bowling till we went out to bowl. So I only found out a couple of minutes before we took that field that I was going to open the bowling. I was surprised, but at the same time, I was happy. I knew that it was going to be difficult, as at that time, I was only bowling off-spin, especially with just two fielders out.
“The thing with the kookaburra ball also is that when it’s brand new, it’s slippery. So for a spinner, it’s hard to grip the ball; you can’t really get enough grip on the ball to make it do something. I knew it was going to be difficult as there was Rahul, who loves to take the game on from ball one, but I was happy in a way as I knew I was opening the bowling and that the captain had entrusted me to do the job. Rahul played a couple of good shots over mid-off; I think I ended up conceding 9 or 10 runs off the over - you’d take that in T20.
“I was just looking to contain. I was just looking to bowl into batsman’s pads because I had a long on and a deep mid-wicket. So that was my plan and thought process: if the batsman decided to take the long-on fielder on, then I had a chance. But Rahul played against the spin - there wasn’t much spin because the ball was new - and hit it over mid-off; not all players would do that, they would try to hit with the spin.”
However, as is the case in life, in sport, too, some failures end up teaching you many a valuable lesson and for Simi, the two wicketless encounters in India turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for he learnt the importance and necessity of adding more variations to his armoury.
“It was a learning experience for me. It was disappointing because after the match, I got a lot of negative messages, but it was a learning experience. I learnt that I can’t just bowl conventional off-spin - i.e spin the ball one way - and expect success, especially in T20 cricket, because now the players are too good; doesn’t matter if you’ll bowl a good-length delivery, they’re good enough to come down the track and smash you. So that was a turning point for me to bring in more variations into my bowling,” the off-spinner said of the lessons he’d learnt in the India series.
So what are the variations he has since added to his arsenal? The off-spinner revealed that he’s been actively working on developing both the conventional leg-spinner and the flipper, and stated that he experimented with leg-spin in the recently-concluded limited-overs series versus the Windies and Afghanistan, where he managed to outfox both Pollard and Nabi with that very delivery. Simi further claimed that for a conventional finger-spinner, in white-ball cricket, it is necessary to have multiple options up the sleeve to keep the batsman guessing.
“Since then, I’ve been working on bowling leg-spin in the same action. It took me a year or two to develop that. I used to bowl leg-spin when I was younger so I had the wrists to do it, but the key was to be able to practice and be able to land it right. In the last couple of series, actually, I have got a couple of wickets (bowling leg spin): I’ve got Kieron Pollard out in the series against West Indies and I got Mohammad Nabi out against Afghanistan.
“The idea behind is more about getting into the batsmen’s mind - now they can’t just come down the track; now they’ve to think If I’m going to bowl off spin or leg-spin. I’ve been working on the flipper as well, so I’ve got a few variations now, which gives me more options. That’s the way the game is, now - you cannot just bowl conventional finger spin in T20 cricket.”