"Don't just work hard, tapasya karo" - Swapnil Singh

Swapnil Singh changed IPL 2024 around for RCB. (PC: Instagram)
Swapnil Singh changed IPL 2024 around for RCB. (PC: RCB - Instagram)

Depending on where you look at it from, sport is often not a clash of skills, but an intricate intertwining of the narrative. A team with inferior skills and lesser expectations, which has defied all odds to reach the biggest stage beats a legendary, all-timer side in a Champions League final. That carries a lot of weight. It's a competition of the story.

It was the same on May 18 this year, though at an individual level. Chennai Super Kings (CSK), coming off a mediocre group stage, were facing neighbors Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) in the final match of the league stage with the final playoffs spot on the line.

The new captain-led CSK were going to win and almost put a hand on a record title. And the win was coming via none other than MS Dhoni, the decorated former captain.

He was batting in his favorite final over against a bowler who last year delivered photographically the worst final over in the IPL, ready to fulfill his promise to his fans. He was also doing it with a six. From 17 off six balls, he had made it 11 off five by sending one beyond the roof and was hitting another. His stars knew it too.

But he didn't win. The six wasn't a six but a catch. The stars blinked. The opposition's narrative intervened. Swapnil Singh intervened. A 33-year-old, given an RCB debut seven games ago because nothing else was working, intervened.

He was there at deep square leg, ready to run and take the catch of the man who was his first IPL wicket in 2017, who, if not for some crazy turns of the story, had every chance in the world to remain his only wicket too.

In between the six wickets and 37 runs he collected in the season, there was a story so strong it had to come out, even if meant trumping the greatest fairytale.

In this interview with Sportskeeda, Swapnil re-lives that story, with details about his decision to almost leave cricket this year, how being looked over by Baroda was the best thing that happened to him, his plans, and much more.

Excerpts from Swapnil Singh's interview with Sportskeeda

First of all, although RCB didn't go all the way, how satisfied are you that your season went so well after everything you have gone through?

Swapnil Singh: I had prepared well for the season. My performance in domestic cricket was good and even around the IPL, my last two years were very good. As in, I was there and thereabouts. I was a net bowler two years ago where I gained a lot of confidence and then, I was picked last year.

Somewhere at the back of your mind, when you play for so many years you have a sense that you are on the right track and that things are going well. That was my silent confidence and I guess that helped me a lot.

I want to ask you about that catch of MS Dhoni you took in the last match of the group stage. At that time, everything was on the line. What was going on in your mind?

Swapnil Singh: Actually, if you watch it from outside, it looks like everything is on the line. But when I was running towards square leg before the over, I knew that five fielders would be inside. I saw that we had extra cover inside the circle so I knew I was at the hot spot where the catch was going to come. So I was expecting a catch, kind of.

When the catch comes, you just pray to God that you catch it (laughs). No, so when you catch it, nothing goes through your mind. You must have seen my reaction, there was nothing much. I liked it but when you think about it after the competition, you realize that it was a very important catch.

If I hadn't caught that, it would have been a different story. Because Mahi bhai, everyone knows, he could have finished it in two balls.

So, did that take you to 2017? Your first IPL wicket was MS Dhoni... Did someone remind you about that coincidence?

Swapnil Singh: [Glenn] Maxwell was leading us at the time. That was the first game of the season for me and Punjab. It was going well, Hashim Amla was there and I had a really good relationship with him. It was a good experience.

And yes, I mean, maybe it was Mahi bhai’s last match! Nobody knows. But yes, everyone reminded me how the last time we met, I got him out and this is the second time when we met each other, I took his catch.

I like playing with such legends. You grow up watching them and learn from their style and the way they carry themselves. When you have those moments, you realize how to treat yourself and how to think about the future.

These years 2017-14, what was going wrong? It wasn't like you were over-expensive; your bowling was good, your economy was fine. But, in any team, you were not getting a consistent run to settle and take wickets.

Swapnil Singh: No, that's the thing. I was doing well in domestic, it's just that people were not paying attention. So, in 2014-15, I made a comeback for Baroda. In the Ranji Trophy, I had 350-plus runs and 27 wickets and in the same season, I took six wickets against Saurashtra. So, it's not like my seasons were going bad. My seasons were good. Like with everyone, it goes up and down.

I played Duleep [Trophy] after two years as well. So, it wasn't like I was doing badly. But people were not able to pay attention. I don't know maybe I wasn't doing what the scouts were looking for. But that three to four years of experience plus when I changed the state (to Uttarakhand), that experience [came in handy] when I made my comeback.

We (RCB) weren't in the best position, we were losing games. So, perhaps those years of hard work and experience and the downside I saw, helped a lot in the pressure situations. Whatever important good overs I bowled, not giving runs being a spinner - I think that experience helped me a lot at the end of the day. When I think about it, I think that if it wasn't for that struggle, I would have been like any other player. Because of that struggle, you grow as a man and I think that helped me.

Your family members said in an interview that you were considering going to Bangladesh for a 50-over competition. What was happening at that time?

Swapnil Singh: No, these 50-over competitions in Bangladesh, all Indians who don't play the IPL go there. So, it is not like I was special. The year I got called up as a net bowler at Lucknow Super Giants, I almost got a contract.

I was going to play 50-over cricket and I thought I would at least gain experience. It's the same thing -- taking experience and improving yourself. You never know when you will get a chance. But then I got this net bowler thing and I did not go.

You said in the IPL interview that there was a time when you were ready to leave cricket too. But did you think at that time, what will you do if you don't play cricket?

Swapnil Singh: That happened this year itself. I was hoping that LSG would retain me because I did everything right, whatever was in my hands. But obviously, the management got changed. Then they left me. At that time, I was thinking why did they do that? But today, I feel that they did a very good thing by leaving me (laughs) because I got a better opportunity.

In the off-season, I was thinking about how much I could learn. It was then that it came to my mind that if it doesn't happen, why should I unnecessarily be stuck in just one thing? I didn't want to play Ranji Trophy all my life but wanted to earn a name for myself. And there are other things for that, like family business or a lot of things.

If your intentions are right, then God will show you the way. That was my mindset -- ‘I have given everything and will do it for another year if get into the IPL.’ If I hadn't gotten into IPL this year, I guess the following year would have been my last year. But by God's grace, everything is alright now.

Wasn't it a little awkward that there was Deepak Hooda here, and your Baroda captain was also there, and the dressing room was a little weird?

Swapnil Singh: No, Deepak Hooda, like you must have seen in my other interviews, he is like my brother. Only the surnames are different but we consider each other to be the same.

So, anyway, I benefited a lot from Deepak Hooda's presence. And plus, you are talking about KP (Krunal Pandya), who was also with the team. So, when you play as a pro, in a professional sport, you don't care. You don't have to be good friends with everyone. You must have seen a lot of instances.

When you play on the field, you don't care. Everyone is a teammate, everyone is like a brother. When you are off the ground, apart from family, it doesn't matter. So, it's not that difficult. But yes, I had a lot of support from Deepak Hooda. I grew a lot as a player.

You also spoke about Narendra Hirwani… can you give details of how exactly he helped you improve your bowling?

Swapnil Singh: When I went to LSG as a nets bowler, I had a mindset that I didn't want to learn anything from anyone. I know you [should] have a mindset that you want to keep learning. But that mindset doesn't work when you don't have anything in your hand after playing for so long. I wanted to change my mindset and show them how good I am. I knew how good I was. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, but for me, it was reality.

But then Hirwani sir joined LSG. I had one mindset, I would bowl from ball one in the nets and for the last three to three-and-a-half hours, until the last batter came, even if he was a tailender, I would finish there. I aimed to deliver ball one and ball last. Hirwani sir must have liked it. I don't know. But he too has the same mindset. You know, the earlier generations, they used to bowl all day and never run away from it. So maybe he liked me for that. I didn't speak about it but gradually, our relationship got better.

He would teach me small nuances of spin bowling. I used to watch the big picture and he taught me small things, like the delicacy of the art. He put the art in me, how can I fool the batter, how can I show my skill… There's spin bowling and then there's art. ‘How can I become an artist’ - that's what he opened my mind to.

He also opened my mindset from a tactical point of view. And I was coming from the point of view that I am a net bowler, I want a place in IPL and I want to be in playing 11, how can I rub my confidence on the captain and the coach because they have to watch 20-25 players, they don't have to watch only Swapnil Singh.

They have to handle a group of 20-25 players. So, everyone is not looking at everyone. So, how can I stand out in that? [How can I make them think,] 'This guy's got it' because they will only help me or support me when I show my confidence. When I say, 'Sir, I am doing this, I want to do this', the coach will be confident in me. So, I guess he understood that very well.

Getting picked for RCB at that last moment in the auction — must have been a great feeling no?

Swapnil Singh: Absolutely. I was almost hopeless. They had spoken to me about signing me. Fortunately, some things in the auction went in my favor, and at the last moment, they picked me.

I am very proud of my work ethic. I know that by God's grace, whichever IPL team I am in, I feel I will get at least one match because of my work ethic because of my everything. So I am very thankful to RCB that they picked me at the last moment and it was a proud moment for my family.

Was the environment here different from that of LSG?

Swapnil Singh: You'd know that almost the entire support staff that was at LSG was here like, Andy [Flower, head coach], and physio James Pipe. Then some of the support staff from the first year at Lucknow also joined here. So more or less, I knew them and their work process was very good.

Plus, there was support from everyone, the players, and the management. The way the management reacted to our losses, was great. Because when you lose, anyone can talk you down. But they always supported us which was like an eye-opener, like, this can also happen. Everyone knows if you start losing like this things can go sideways very easily.

Playing after so long, coming in the first over, and taking two massive wickets - what was going through your head before and during that match?

Swapnil Singh: I was told this by our head coach two matches before the game. I was also expecting this. We were losing and no one was doing well. The spinners were not effective either. When you lose, everyone gets a chance. I was the last one to make my debut for RCB. I was the only one left so I was expecting a call-up.

The coach told me before the Kolkata match. I was going to play the Kolkata match too. There was a long discussion. I don't know what happened, it got canceled at the last moment. But before the Hyderabad game, I was confirmed that I was being given the opportunity to play. So I was nervous to start with.

I was telling my brother and family that I had never hit a four or a six, I have only one wicket, so I just need to hit a four or a six and I have a wicket. And also a catch it and run out (laughs). I just wanted to do one of each so when I leave it, I can say I have done one of each. So. when I got my six, that was very soothing. I felt very good that finally, I could give a a glimpse that I can do something. You know it silently, but the world doesn't know.

That thing helped me a lot. And Virat [Kohli], Faf [du Plessis] and DK (Dinesh Karthik) bhai, all three of them, were of great support in where should I put the ball even when I was hit and when I bowled the no ball, [they helped me by explaining] how to come back, what to do... I mean, they backed me properly.

Because at that time, I didn't need anything but backing. I was doing well skill-wise, I just had to replicate the same thing in a high-pressure situation. So I guess playing for so many years, helped.

Were you always this good a bowler in powerplays?

Swapnil Singh: The credit for that will go to the team management. Because they were looking for someone to take wickets in the powerplay. I bowl in the powerplay in domestic cricket, but not first, second, or third overs rather, mostly fifth and sixth overs.

But to start [the innings], it was the RCB management's idea. I guess swing along with my spin... I've got both skills. I can’t say old, but I am traditional, in the sense, that I was taught to spin the ball.

And people are not afraid of pace, they are afraid of spin and swing. You'd know that too. I guess, RCB spotted that in me. Even I didn't know that I could be so effective in the first, second, and third overs.

As soon as you came into the team, RCB started winning everything — surely, the team would have considered you a lucky charm...

Swapnil Singh: Yes, absolutely. The public was talking about it and some players were pulling my leg about it too. But yes, the fortune, it is God's grace that I came and we started winning.

This must feel like a second debut at 33, but what are your goals and aims for the rest of your cricketing career, which has now (hopefully) been extended...

Swapnil Singh: Yes, as you said, hopefully, it has been extended. So, of course, the first aim is to do well in domestic cricket. And, at the back of my mind, it was just a start.

The world has not... I mean, you won't believe this, I had told Irfan bhai too, before the season, that ‘Irfan bhai, please, can you have a word with different franchises... because I know I'm doing well and I want to show the world what skills I have got.' I mean, at the end of the day, you also want to show that this man, this player has the skill and I wanted to show that to the world.

So, I have got the talent and now, my confidence on my talent has become very strong and definitely, I will not leave any stone unturned for the coming IPL and before that, there's a whole domestic season ahead of me.

Now, here, how does your management company help you balance your professional and personal life?

Swapnil Singh: Yes, exactly. When a sports management company like FairPlay is involved, then as a player, you just have to focus on playing. You don't have to focus on anything else. You can play your game with your full focus and everything else is taken care of. That is very helpful.

There are so many cricketers out there, who are so good, who know that they are good enough for this stage but haven't got their due yet because there are just not enough opportunities. If there was one thing you could tell them, what would it be?

Swapnil Singh: I would say the same thing that I have said before -- don't just work hard, tapasya karo (undergo penance). When you put your mind and everything into the game, you find ways to make your case as a player stronger.

How can I do something different than what people are doing in IPL? For that, you should also know how to talk. They would not necessarily pick you based on skill. Sometimes you have to rub your confidence on those in front of you. They have to look at every one. They are not only looking at you.

If he is a scout, he is looking at 100-200 players, if he is a coach, he is looking at 20-25 players.

So how can you stand out in that -- in terms of your skill as well as your communication skills? And communication skills will only get better when you know yourself completely and that you'll only do when you'll spend some time alone. I feel that spending time alone, reviewing your game every day, and improving yourself is the only thing one can do.

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