Aligarh: A stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of Aligarh’s Ramghat Marg stands an Indian Oil godown. A series of thuds greet ThePrint on approach, all coming from dozens of LPG cylinders being unloaded from trucks, carts, bicycles, and personal vehicles.
Marked by faded violet walls and a tiny park that hasn’t been tended to, this godown complex is significant not only for its convenient location near the Maharani Ahilyabhai Holkar Stadium — the city’s primary sporting venue — but also because it’s home to the family of Kolkata Knight Riders batting sensation Rinku Singh.
Ever since its inception in 2008, much has been made of the impact of the Indian Premier League in giving prospective male cricketers across India a shot at lucrative earnings through its auction model, but very few appear to typify this more than 24-year-old Rinku Singh.
At an impressive average of 43 from five matches with a strike rate of 134.38, and nine catches in his kitty, Rinku has been a revelation in the 2022 edition of the Indian Premier League, despite the misfiring KKR team. The left-handed batter has mostly featured at No.5 or below, with his best performances coming in a match-winning 42 not out from 23 balls against Rajasthan Royals.
Rinku lives in a tiny two-bedroom house on the premises of the godown with his parents and four brothers. His father, Khanchandra, delivers gas cylinders for a living; one of his older brothers, Mukul, works at a local coaching centre; and the oldest brother, Sonu, used to be an autorickshaw driver.
Khanchandra works up to five hours a day and gets a few thousand rupees, a far cry from the prices Rinku has fetched at the IPL auctions: Rs 10 lakh for Punjab Kings (then called Kings XI Punjab) in 2017, peaking at Rs 80 lakh for Kolkata in 2018. He has remained with the franchise since then. KKR bought him again in the 2022 auction, and his current contract is worth Rs 55 lakh.
The family had to wait until the last five years to see his such earnings. But for Khanchandra, Rinku’s foray into professional cricket was written in the stars, especially given his lack of proficiency in academics, and success in local age-group tournaments.
“His mind worked a bit too slowly when it came to studies, but we made him attend school anyway as (we felt) it may be useful,” Khanchandra told ThePrint. “But cricket has been his life since he was 10 or 11.”
Rinku began playing cricket with his brothers in the godown before impressing scouts at the stadium. Thus began a decade-long rise through the under-16, under-19 and senior Uttar Pradesh domestic ranks, and on to IPL stardom.
The rise and the setbacks
The biggest figure in Rinku’s technical and psychological development through all of those years is his longtime coach Masooduzzafar Amin, who runs a cricket academy in Aligarh’s Mahua Khera suburb.
Amin describes Rinku as a “naturally god-gifted” talent whose greatest strengths as a left-handed lower-middle order batter are his leg-side game, aggressive power hits against spinners, and his unwavering confidence towards any challenge, on the field or off it.
His most impressive numbers have been for Uttar Pradesh at domestic first-class level in the Ranji Trophy, where he averages 64.08 from 46 innings with a strike of 70.24, and domestic List A (Vijay Hazare Trophy) where he averages 50.50 from 39 innings with a strike rate of 93.39.
Among his standout performances this year were his twin half-centuries at strike rates of 75 and 130 in Uttar Pradesh’s crucial Ranji group stage match against Maharashtra, as he ensured UP chased down a target of 359, qualified for the quarter-finals. He was named the player of the match.
Rinku’s slow trudge to success has been punctuated by setbacks over the years — including a long-term knee injury scare, financial issues, as well as administrative errors of Rinku’s own making, among them a three-month ban from the Board of Control for Cricket in India in 2019 for taking part in an “unauthorised T20 tournament” in Abu Dhabi.
Amin also reveals how Rinku’s career may have never gotten off the ground at the under-16 level under slightly altered circumstances.
“He went (to Kanpur’s Green Park Stadium) for the UPCA U-16 trials, but his registration details were missing as he hadn’t filled up the form. Luckily, his friend Mohammad Zeeshan stepped in and helped out,” Amin said.
Amin credits Zeeshan as well as the Mahua Khera academy benefactor Arjun Singh Fakeera for handling the financial side of Rinku’s early career, from buying his gear and selecting him in local club sides to leasing out facilities to the academy.
Despite this assistance, the monetary hurdles facing Rinku’s family did mean that at one point, he considered taking up domestic work. But Khanchandra and older brother Mukul look back at this as a brief, amusing period, as he “barely lasted a month”. Soon, Rinku, instead of sweeping floors in Aligarh households, began sweeping spinners for sixes over mid-wicket.
The undying spirit
Rinku had his breakthrough Ranji season for Uttar Pradesh in 2018-19. But in the IPL, he was often consigned to the role of substitute fielder or asked to simply carry the drinks. It wasn’t until this year that he finally got his big break in the IPL.
His best performance came on 2 May against Rajasthan Royals at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, when his 42 off 23 balls helped bring a struggling KKR back into the game.
But according to his coach and family, Rinku never stopped believing that he would finally get his chance — an attitude that carried him through a knee injury that had ruled him out of action for the entirety of the 2021 IPL.
Amin believes this self-belief has rubbed off on youngsters in his academy, where Rinku still spends the downtime between the IPL and domestic seasons.
“His cricket never stops, he enjoys (the mentoring), and is a great role model for the kids. He even brought his good friend (Uttar Pradesh teammate and Sunrisers Hyderabad batsman) Priyam Garg to the academy,” Amin said.
This year, Rinku has finally started to prove himself, not only with his high-class fielding but when he salvaged KKR’s batting collapses on multiple occasions while maintaining a healthy strike rate of over 130.
Although he has yet to replicate his Ranji heroics of the last few years in the IPL, those who know Rinku hope that he would do so soon, and eventually play international cricket as well.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)