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Indian-born cricketers creating a stir in New Zealand's domestic cricket

Jeet Raval just got called up to the national team, but there are two other Indian-born players who could soon be doing the same

(clockwise from left) Jeet Raval, Ajaz Patel and Bharat Popli – Is an ‘Indian revolution’ around the corner for New Zealand cricket?
 

Over the last decade, yoked by Brendon McCullum’s aggressive philosophy, New Zealand’s cricket team has turned into world-beaters. Ever since he took over Test captaincy in 2012/13, the Kiwis have accrued series wins over West Indies, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. However, McCullum has led his country for the last time, and the Black Caps are set to wear a new look in coming years, under the leadership of the less blustering Kane Williamson.

The squad named for the tour of Africa on Friday is the first New Zealand side to be named without McCullum. There is one uncapped entrant in the squad of 16 – opening batsman Jeet Raval, who was born in India and had travelled to New Zealand as a 16-year old, with his family as well as his cricketing ambitions.

What is interesting is that Raval is not the only Indian-origin player to be making his mark in New Zealand’s domestic cricket, he is one of three Indian New Zealanders to be raring to be let into the national side. The highest performing batsman and bowler from New Zealand’s domestic first-class season in 2015/16 were Bharat Popli and Ajaz Patel, also cricketers in their mid-20s who had travelled from India with their families in their childhood.

While McCullum’s side had the look of pioneering seamen, the appearance not at all hampered by the beards of Grant Elliott and Martin Guptill, might Williamson’s side soon have a large representation of darker skinned immigrants, with roots in the Indian subcontinent?

From street cricket in Delhi to being a first class record-holder in Kiwi country

Consider the case of Popli – to be born in New Delhi, to have early schooling in the country, and then to move to New Zealand at the age of 11 for the sole reason that his father was enraptured with the natural beauty of New Zealand.

He watched his father play for the Delhi University cricket team, and he played cricket on the streets of Delhi well past sundown. It can be assumed that Popli had fallen in love with the game in India, but it is in his adopted country that he has now blossomed into a 25-year-old batsman with great fluidity of strokes and a tendency to dig deep into his crease.

If the world had not taken notice of Popli before, being awarded the ‘New Zealand Domestic Cricketer of the Year’ recently has surely garnered some attention. He was the highest scorer in the whole of the season, over numerous other cricketers with years of Test cricket behind them.

The 2015/16 season was a breakthrough season in Popli’s career, with him scoring 1149 runs from 10 matches at an average of 65.78. His tally of runs for the year is the third highest ever in the history of the Plunkett Shield, New Zealand’s premier first class competition. There have only been five other batsmen who have scored 1000 runs in a season in this tournament – Martin Crowe, Jeff Crowe, Graeme Hick, Michael Papps and Jeet Raval.

Three centuries, three scores in the 90s and a highest score of 172, in only his third first class season, is proof of the immense promise shown by him in his early years. He is also of the rare breed of cricketers to be specialising in playing with the red ball. He has not yet played any limited overs cricket.

Indians upholding Kiwi legacy

Raval has been playing domestic cricket for a little longer, and has even been knocking on the doors of international selection for a year or so. The 27-year-old, born in Gujarat and having moved to New Zealand in 2004, has Indian connections from childhood that stretch to some current Indian international players like Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja, players whom he brushed against while playing junior level cricket in the country.

Raval is part of a large Gujarati community which has settled in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ country. He had earned a living working at a petrol pump in his earliest days in his adopted country, but was soon rising up the ranks to play international cricket. His strong technique has given him the name 'Rahul Dravid of Auckland', and he idolises Sourav Ganguly, but it will be the legacy of the McCullums and the Crowes that he shall be blazing forth when he gets his cap during the upcoming tour of Africa in July.

A third name that needs to be mentioned is that of the bowler who was the highest wicket-taker in the 2015/16 Plunkett Shield – Ajaz Patel, whose 43 wickets was the best haul in the season. Born in Mumbai, Patel is a slow left arm orthodox spinner who has been around the domestic circuit for a couple of years, but like Popli, has just had a tremendous breakthrough season.

Deepak Patel, Jeetan Patel and Ish Sodhi are three Indian-origin players to have represented New Zealand already – by the look of things, they may soon be the first in a long line.

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