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Harpreet Brar's slow road to the top

Harpreet Brar roars after taking a wicket BCCI/IPL

"Whenever people ask me about it, I tell them, jokingly, that this is a photo of me from childhood."

Harpreet Brar, the Punjab Kings spin-bowling allrounder, is referring to a tiger tattooed on his right forearm.

Like many things in his life, the tattoo didn't come easily. His father was in the army and later in the police. In other words, he was a disciplinarian and not the sort to look favourably on tattoos. When Brar approached his mother about it, she put down a condition: that he first make a career in cricket. If he wasn't successful at that, his back-up was to look for a job in the Punjab Police, and a tattoo could have been a hindrance there.

"After my first year in the IPL, I told my mom, 'Now I want to get a tattoo.' Even then she didn't say yes. She said it was my call. So I said, 'Okay I will get one.'"

Brar has two tattoos now. Next, he wants to get his parents' and grandparents' names inked on his body.

***

Brar was born in Meerut, where his father was posted at the time. Now he lives in Zirakpur, a satellite town near Chandigarh. He played district cricket for Ropar, about 55km to the north. But his true home town is Hariewala, a small village in Punjab's Moga district, about 100km from the Pakistan border. He was only a few days old when his mother and he moved there from Meerut. The family eventually moved to Zirakpur when he was five, but at heart he is still a Hariewala boy.

That's why when Harsha Bhogle asked him after he received the Player-of-the-Match award in the Punjab Kings vs Royal Challengers Bangalore game, Brar's first in this season's IPL, if he was from Moga, Brar explicitly mentioned his village's name.

"On the eve of the match, I was told to be ready," he says. "That night I prepared myself mentally - thinking about how I would bowl to each batsman. I didn't want to concede too many runs because in my earlier game [in the 2020 IPL], I had ended up going for 40. I knew if I could restrict the runs, wickets would come automatically."

The Kings batted first. They were 118 for 5 when Brar came to the crease and struck two sixes and a four in an unbeaten 17-ball 25. KL Rahul and he added 61 in the last 5.2 overs.

"I believe a fingerspinner at his peak is more dangerous than a wristspinner because a fingerspinner has more control over his bowling"

Brar's stronger suit, though, is his left-arm spin. But when he came on to bowl, Virat Kohli launched his first ball for a straight six. Brar focused on not conceding another boundary in that over and was successful. On the first ball of Brar's next over, Kohli again used his feet to hit him over extra cover for four.

"I told myself if Virat Kohli is on strike for the next over, I have to be extra careful. I didn't want to concede another boundary on the first ball."

He did better than that. Anticipating Kohli might use his feet again, Brar shortened his length and kept the ball on the stumps. Kohli danced down the track again but this time failed to connect and was bowled. Halfway into his third IPL season, Brar finally had a wicket to his name.

Feeling confident, he started to put more body into the ball. Next ball, he beat Glenn Maxwell's outside edge to hit off stump. The over was a double-wicket maiden.

On the first ball of his fourth over, he had AB de Villiers too. In seven balls Brar had turned the game decisively towards the Kings.

As a fingerspinner Brar is aware of his strengths and limitations. He doesn't have many variations, so he focuses on hitting a good line and length. His 6ft 2in frame also helps extract extra bounce.

"I practise a lot of spot bowling," he says. "I believe form can be good or bad but if you land the ball on a good spot consistently, you can do well irrespective of form.

"These days there is the carrom ball and all. Wristspinners are in fashion. But I believe a fingerspinner at his peak is more dangerous than a wristspinner because a fingerspinner has more control over his bowling. Even in a pressure situation he can bowl the way his captain wants."

At 25, Brar is no longer young by cricket standards. "Life has taught me to wait for your chance," he says. "I had only thought of taking one wicket. I never thought of taking Virat Kohli's wicket, or AB de Villiers', or Maxwell's.

"It was only after the game, when I was sitting alone in my room, that I realised that there were three main wickets and I got all three of them. As they say, when God gives, he gives in abundance. You need to keep working hard and have patience.

"Have patience - that's the biggest lesson I have learnt in life."

***

Brar started in age-group cricket with the Ropar district team in 2011. In his first year he went on to represent Punjab at Under-16 level. However, for the next seven years, he couldn't make it to the state team, though in the meantime he played a lot of club cricket in Punjab and Delhi. That helped him develop his game and earn some money, which ensured he was not lost to cricket.

"The first time I was called up for a club game, they gave me Rs 500 [about US$11 at the time]," Brar says. "I was like, 'Wait, do I get paid as well?' Until then I didn't know about that. I told myself, if so, I could play two games a day.

"So it started like that. I got Rs 500 at one place, was Man of the Match at another. Sometimes somebody would say, if you hit two sixes in one over, you will get some money as a reward. That way I was earning at least for myself, to buy a bat or clothes. I like good clothes."

Around 2015-16, Air India contracted Brar on a monthly stipend of Rs 3500. He was playing for them in the JP Atray Memorial Cricket Tournament when the Mumbai Indians scouts noticed him.

"I was over the moon when the Mumbai Indians called me for trials. But when I went there, they allowed me to bowl just one over. Next year they called again. Again for one over. It felt like they were doing it just for the formality. How can you judge a player in just one over?"

Brar wasn't picked for the IPL but he kept playing club tournaments. At one of those tournaments, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, the Punjab allrounder who played three ODIs for India in 2016, spotted him.

"Brar told me he was playing for a minor district, Ropar, and wasn't getting a chance to represent the state team," Mann remembers. "I saw he could win games with bat and ball. I thought if he played for Mohali, a lot of doors would open for him. And the move would also have helped the Mohali side."

Brar went to trials for Mohali U-23s but the selectors picked him for the senior team instead. From there, he could have been selected for the Ranji Trophy camp but he wasn't, and so another year went by.

Seeing that things were not working out in cricket, his father wanted him to apply for a job with the police but Brar asked for one more year.

"The first time I was called up for a club game, they gave me Rs 500. I was like, 'Wait, do I get paid as well?"

"That was my last year for U-23; the next year, I would have been over age. That year, in the inter-district U-23 tournament, I scored around 350 runs and picked up 31 wickets in five games. Our team reached the final as well."

That performance opened the door to the state team. Around the same time, the Rajasthan Royals invited Brar to try out for the 2019 IPL.

"One more over and some batting. Then they said, 'Don't worry beta [son], you should try next year.' That brought a wry smile to my face. I was like, 'It's my third year and still everyone says I should try next year.'"

Brar was playing for Punjab U-23s in the CK Nayudu Trophy, an age-group four-day tournament, when he got another call. This time it was the Kings XI Punjab.

"Once you have been rejected so many times, you only go half-heartedly," he says. "But the Kings XI had said they would conduct a practice match. I thought that was better, because in a match it won't be just one over."

The trials were to be run across two days. Brar went on the second day but when he got there, the groundsmen were watering the pitch. There was no match that day.

"I asked around and realised they were taking the trials in the nets. I was again like, how would they know in nets how good or bad I am? But I went to the nets.

"They asked me to bowl. They liked what they saw. So I bowled for quite some time.

"When I batted, I started connecting well. They liked my batting too. After that they created some scenarios: 'Now you have to make this many runs in two overs.' One time I nailed it. Another time I couldn't. Another time, it was a tie, sort of. At that time Mike Hesson was the coach. He liked me, even captured me on video. That gave me some confidence that I could be selected."

Satisfied that he had finally had a proper chance to show his stuff, Brar returned to join his side in the CK Nayudu Trophy. When auction day came around, the Kings XI picked him up at his base price of Rs 20 lakh (about $28,000).

"I remember we were in Jaipur then. Arsh [Arshdeep Singh, Punjab and Punjab Kings fast bowler] and I were room-mates and we both were picked. I was happy but at the same time I knew people would be expecting more from me.

"Earlier, if I didn't score or didn't take any wickets, no one really cared. Now I knew the Kings XI management must also be keeping a watch, so that brought a bit of pressure. But thankfully that tournament went very well. I got a bagful of wickets."

Brar finished the CK Nayudu Trophy as the highest wicket-taker among the Elite teams, and third-highest overall, with 56 wickets at an average of 16.41 and a strike rate of 32.91. That included a 12-wicket match haul in the final, which Punjab won.

***

When Brar made his IPL debut, against the Delhi Capitals in April 2019, R Ashwin, the Kings XI captain then, introduced him as a "mystery spinner" at the toss.

"I was a mystery spinner only because no one had heard of me," Brar laughs.

Until the game against the Royal Challengers this year, Brar had played just three matches in the IPL, bowling nine wicketless overs for 89 runs.

Did he think he was spending too much time on the sidelines?

"Of course," he says. "Before every match, I used to think, now I will get a chance, now I will get a chance. But once I was back in my room after the game, I would tell myself, even if I am sitting out, I need to have the same attitude as if I am playing. If I drop my shoulders now, I won't be mentally ready when I get a chance.

"I have watched 30-35 games from the outside, but even from those, I have gained some experience. Whenever the team was in a pressure situation, I used to think about what I would do if I were in the middle."

"R Ashwin introduced Brar as a mystery spinner in his first IPL game. "I was a mystery spinner only because no one had heard of me," Brar laughs"

Recently, a fan messaged Brar on Instagram, saying he resembled Akshay Kumar's character from a Bollywood movie. Brar replied saying he didn't wear a turban for money, as movie stars do.

It caused something of a stir on Twitter, with people trolling Brar, calling him the designated water boy for his side (he hadn't played in any of the Kings' five games in IPL 2021 until then).

"Whenever someone says something like this, I get motivated even more," Brar says. "And when the same people praise you [later], the success tastes even sweeter. I have made it till here with great difficulty, after giving four-five trials. There are so many more like me, who don't even get picked at the auction.

"I tell my mom also the same thing. She used to ask me why I was not getting a chance. I would tell her, we are 25 in the squad and only 11 can play. The mothers of those 11 would also be hoping their sons don't sit out. But then a mother is a mother. You cannot win an argument with her.

"I have always told myself that this is the biggest league in the world. It's a huge thing to even be a part of it."

On the field too, Brar is not easily flustered. Mann, who has now seen him from close quarters as a team-mate at Punjab's senior side, agrees. "I think Brar's main strength is his temperament," he says. "Also, he knows how to bowl in what situation, especially in the shortest format as he has played a lot of those matches in club cricket.

"He works a lot on his game too, both on his batting and bowling. Bowling is obviously his main strength but he has the capability to be a match-winner with bat as well. All he needs is a bit more confidence."

For Brar, what is his next goal?

"India khedna hai [I want to play for India]. And not for just one series, for long term."