Ishan Porel's Under-19 World Cup was nearly over even before he realised he was playing in one. In India's tournament opener, against Australia, he landed awkwardly in his followthrough and hobbled off after bowling just 4.1 overs. For the next 12 hours, he'd be extremely anxious. The extent of injury would be known only in the morning, after which a call was to be taken on his immediate future. Just one thought kept replaying in his mind: 'Would I fly home or would I stay back and train with the squad in the hope of being ready for the second half of the tournament?'
Three weeks on, after picking up a four-wicket haul against Pakistan to bowl India into the final, a much calmer Porel looked back at the night of January 13. He is training hard for the final and should make the XI. When he does, it will be one of the biggest moments in his career, as in the case of all his team-mates.
"I was shattered," Porel said of the injury. "The doctor had a knock over my feet and it pained horribly just by touching it. I thought all my hard work will go waste. I felt my World Cup was over. But Rahul Dravid sir and others are very experienced and know how to handle the situation. They didn't talk much about the injury, and tried to deviate my mind.
"Paras Mhambrey sir (bowling coach) gave me examples from his Ranji days, how a piece of glass from the window pane fell on his feet and resulted in a ligament tear in the middle of a first-class season. I was hurting, because I had prepared so much for this World Cup and got injured in the very first game. Two-three days later, I gained my confidence. It was tough, I wasn't feeling good, but slowly gained it back. My mom started crying [over the phone]. There's a corner in the dressing room where I sat and cried for two hours. Alone. Nobody saw me."
It needed immense dedication from Anand Date, the strength and conditioning trainer, who put him through the paces and keep a watch on him every day for the next week or so, to bring Porel back to his cheerful best. At training, Porel was carefully monitored, but it was dealing with his emotions off the field that proved to be a challenge. Date, however, had seen it all.
When Date first came across Porel, at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) four years ago, Porel was puny, weighing just 58 kgs, seven less than the prescribed weight for a bowler of his height - six feet and three inches. Over time, the two have developed a strong working relationship, with each trusting the other wholeheartedly. This trust has been key to Porel returning every time he's suffered injuries.
"Anand sir has been all through my career, from first NCA camp to now," Porel, who made his Ranji Trophy debut for Bengal earlier this season, said. "He helped me a lot, how to lift weights and all. Only then I took it seriously. Himanshu Rana was there in the first camp with me. He says even now, 'what change in this guy'! When I think back to those days, where I am now, I've improved tremendously in terms of fitness, bowling, confidence, fielding and everything."
It's this first NCA stint that Porel looks back on fondly as he traces his short journey as a cricketer so far. "When I first went there, I wasn't very fit," he said. "I was different from the other guys. I was only 14 when I got my Under-16 NCA call. Others were fitter, stronger and used to hit me all over the park. I also kept bowling here and there."
Then, during an Under-16 tour of Bangladesh, everything changed, so much that he even received an offer to play for them. "There, I got to know what I wanted to do with life and how to progress," he said. "That tour, I did really well. I played with a lot of the current Bangladesh Under-19 players back then. They gave me a compliment, which I still remember: 'why don't you come to Bangladesh and play for us?' I didn't think about that offer."
Over the last four years, Porel has already suffered multiple injuries: side strain, medial collateral ligament injury , anterior cruciate ligament injury, and partial tear on his left knee while fielding at an Under-16 game. While he has emerged fitter after each injury, there have always been nagging worries about recurrence. It wasn't too different when he returned for the quarter-final against Bangladesh. "I started with some pain, and it took a while for me to get into bowling rhythm. Once I was in the flow, it worked well and I started feeling good."
Porel seems a natural fast bowler, not just in the way he bowls and generates bounce, but also in the number of injuries he's suffered. However, cricket wasn't his first fancy. Coming from a family that played Kabaddi - his grandfather played for the country in the 1950s and his father was a state-level player - he naturally started playing it, only to realise he wasn't cut out for it, and turned to cricket.
"Initially, my parents would ask - 'you quit other sports, what's the guarantee you won't quit cricket?' I'd say no, cricket is my dream. It's different. Then I started going to coaching camps in Chandan Nagar. Then again, I got bored and my family taunted me saying they knew I'd quit. That motivated me.
"Then my club, Cricket Clinic, sent me to Kolkata (aged around 11-12). My coach there said I'm weak but I bowl well and will have a good future. I had trials and got selected for the Under-14 team. I started as a batsman. Then, in the club, they made me a fast bowler because of my height. I used to have a wrong-footed action - like Sohail Tanvir - and had to change it. It took me a week to change the action, and I had to keep working on it. Then I played in Bangalore in an Under-14 team, where I performed well. That's when I started getting more interested in cricket."
Whether it was his family's taunts or the several injuries that strengthened his resolve to become a better cricketer, he isn't quite sure. What Porel is thankful about is the experiences he has had in his nascent career so far, ones that he wouldn't trade for anything because of the life lessons he has learnt. An Under-19 World Cup medal on Saturday will make all the pain and sacrifices more than worth it.