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No better time than now for UAE cricketers: Karthik Meiyappan on country’s rapid rise

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Last updated on 26 Jan 2023 | 09:44 AM
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No better time than now for UAE cricketers: Karthik Meiyappan on country’s rapid rise

From Chennai to UAE, from bowling pace to leg-spin, Karthik Meiyappan’s cricketing journey has taken several turns

Jamie Carragher once said that every fullback is either a failed centre back or a failed winger.

On the same lines, it’s probably not fully inaccurate to claim that every spinner is either a failed batter or a failed pacer. For a young Karthik Meiyappan, it all started when he realised that he doesn’t have the physique to be a quick bowler, and hence took up the Sachin Tendulkar route: bowling a mixture of off-spin and leg-spin. 

But an ultimatum from his coach, back then, forced the youngster to pick one end of the spectrum and it was the leg-spin that struck a chord with him. While others have often talked about how risky the art of leg-spin is, the UAE spinner believes that it has helped him dominate the game. 

For a youngster from Chennai, cricket was always going to be the sport but over the years, it has gone on to become the leg-spinner’s bread and butter, even surpassing his unadulterated love for Chess. 

“Me being a leg-spinner, it was meant to happen,” Karthik told Cricket.com in an exclusive interview from the sidelines of the International League T20 (ILT20), where he represents Sharjah Warriors.

“I was a fast-bowler when I grew up but then I realised that I don’t have the physique to be a quick bowler. Then I started bowling off-spin and leg-spin like how Sachin Tendulkar used to, and the funny thing is the coach asked me to choose one of them. I picked leg-spin and ever since, I have been bowling leg-spin.

“Once you master leg-spin, you will really dominate the game and have everything under control. Leg-spin is fun that way. My journey from Chennai, when I was in Coimbatore for two-three years, I picked up chess and played state-level. I was pretty good at chess, being a kid, I could never sit in one place. Chess is something that made me sit for hours in one place.

“Once we moved to Dubai, I had to let go of the sport. In general cricket and sport runs in the family. So, cricket wasn’t alien to me, so I picked it up and started playing in my backyard and my dad taught me a few things and that’s how I really became a cricketer.”

But at that time, cricket wasn’t even such a big spectacle in the Middle East and playing the U-19 World Cup, Meiyappan had already restricted his opportunities in life, putting him in a hot pursuit of cricket. Even when several budding cricketers moved away from the sport, to seek greener pastures elsewhere in the world - India or the United Kingdom - Meiyappan decided to stay. 

“Destiny played its role too, the U-19 World Cup happened about the time when I graduated from school,” he said about how he continued to play cricket in the country. 

“I couldn’t move away from the country. Before the T20 World Cup, I made my debut as well. From then to now, cricket has gone out of the roof for UAE, so a lot of opportunities are coming our way, ILT20 is a big stage and on a scale, it is only below IPL, the number of international cricketers playing here, and for you to play with them and against them, it opens a lot of doors. 

“I hope more youngsters stay back and pursue their dreams in the UAE,” he persuaded the future generation of cricketers to carry on in the country. 

It wasn’t an overnight success for the national team, whose average age was 36 when the leg-spinner made his debut for the side. Since then, the flush of youngsters walking into the setup, including the wicketkeeper batter Vriitya Aravind, with whom he shares a very close bond. Meiyappan only believes that this is the best time for a budding cricketer in the Middle East, with the amount of cricket being played in the country. 

Over the last three years, there have been 659 T20 games being played in the Middle East, making the whole cricketing world turn their attention towards it. How, you ask? Over the last three years, after hosting several seasons of the Pakistan Super League, the Middle East was home to the Indian Premier League before being followed by the T20 World Cup later in 2021. 

“Being a UAE cricketer, there is no better time to be playing cricket than this,” the leg-spinner emphasised on the time for the youngsters in UAE. 

“In my opinion, this is perhaps the best time and in the past, several players have moved away from the country to play in the County and all since the scope of the game wasn’t that much in the country back then. But now is probably the best time for cricketers in the UAE, to put in the hard work and make the most of the opportunities. There is no better stage than the ILT20 to knock on the door of the other T20 leagues, it is definitely a great time.”

Method of Operation

Leg-spin is sometimes like an operation, requiring precision, that of a surgeon. But at the same time, it is also an art, requiring the bowler to be creative and on their feet as they stride towards the popping crease all soaked in their own thoughts. 

“When I started working on my leg-spin, I started losing my googly. Right now, I have struck a balance between my leg-spin and googly. Since I have become quicker through the air, googly is really my option. It has been a year since I have started mastering my wrong’un and I have like three releases for the googly right now. I have picked off different bowlers, even from Wanindu (Hasaranga). I would say it has been a year since I mastered my googly.”

There is the traditional leg-spin, there is the flipper, there is the wrong’un and all of them require their own separate skills. But growing his art, Meiyappan had to make peace with the fact that both leg-spin and wrong’uns can’t be perfected in tandem. One or the other had to take a hit. 

“Say if you have a leg-spinner sorted out, and you want to learn to bowl a flipper, you might lose bits and pieces of the leg-spin over the years. You have to make peace with it.”

And when you think that you have figured it all out, there is then the question of pace. In the yesteryears, traditional wrist-spinners believed that throwing the ball up was the optimal way of getting the wickets. But over the years, the changing format has demanded that the leg-spinner become quicker through the air, cutting through the reaction time for the batters. 

Meiyappan belongs to the new school of thought: why give the batters time to react? He asks!

“You can’t throw it in the air, it doesn’t really work out well. The best leg-spinners bowl around 90 kmph, no one bowls around 70-75 kmph anymore in world cricket. I think I have worked consciously on pace in recent years,” Meiyappan clarifies the air. 

“I would say that I picked the fizzy leg-spin lately, cause back then growing up, I was more of an orthodox leg-spinner. But then with how the game has progressed and grown, it was necessary to adapt myself. The way the game is going, you have to be quick to bowl leg-spin to the opponents,” Meiyappan admits to the changing times for a leg-spinner. 

Meiyappan’s sudden rise to fame

Meiyappan might just be 22 and might have just picked up as many wickets but his reach has been such that everyone around the world instantly recognises him, all on the back of a scintillating hat-trick against Sri Lanka in the T20 World Cup Down Under.  

But the 22-year-old didn’t even realise that he was on a hat-trick, which makes the achievement all the more special. Recalling the wrong’un that he bowled to Sri Lankan skipper Dasun Shanaka, Meiyappan had said that he wanted to just bowl his best delivery, which considering the dimensions was his potent delivery, no prizes for guessing, wrong’un. 

“I think the best part about the third delivery was the fact that I forgot that it was a hat trick ball. After I got my second wicket, it was on my mind that I was on a hat-trick but when I was on top of my run-up, I completely forgot. That was the best part about it. I would have been more anxious than I should have been if I knew it was a hat-trick delivery. It would have faltered my execution, and all I just wanted to do was to finish off the over and bowl the best ball,” Meiyappan recalled. 

“I went through his (Dasun Shanaka) bat-pad, and got him out. It was picture-perfect. Definitely, you want to put up a match-up on what the batsmen is capable of, and on that day they were not picking up my wrong-uns, it was working well for me. At that moment, I felt that googly is a better option to bowl, so that’s why I went ahead with it.”

It wasn’t just the world that took notice of him. It was even the Sri Lankan leg-spinner, Wanindu Hasaranga, someone the UAE leg-spinner follows very closely. So closely that he has even picked up the Sri Lankan’s celebration. But the conversation was purely cricket, and if you want to narrow it down even further, about how to increase the pace, something that the Sri Lankan was pretty good at. 

“The chat with him (Hasaranga) was on how I can improve my pace and get it up there, because I felt that my pace was a little low and also talked about how he analyzed the batters and stuff like that. It was simple but it was a long chat. I think he’s taking a lot of wickets. As a leg-spinner, it doesn’t matter if you are going for runs, picking up wickets is obviously the main thing. It was good to pick up his brain.”

The sudden brake in the speedy progress

Just when everything was pretty fun and frolic in the Meiyappan world, an injury took his career screeching down, and the leg-spinner was thankful to the International T20 league (ILT20) franchise, Sharjah Warriors for providing him the opportunity to bounce back from the injury. 

“Coming out of an injury, I came out of the T20 World Cup in Australia injured, and it was pretty bad. I have been out of cricket for three months and have gotten straight into the action with the ILT20 season, so the major learning curve has been the injury itself,” the leg-spinner revealed. 

“When you are away from the game, you learn a lot about yourself and your game. It is all about being positive, and I’m grateful for the Sharjah Warriors franchise, as they have backed me during these times. Hopefully, later in the tournament, I can make it fruitful for them.”

While some of the world’s best spinners have called it a ‘tough’ time to bowl to the likes of Dawid Malan and Moeen Ali, Meiyappan relishes that challenge, and insists that his wrong’un helps to make a stark difference.

“Lately, I fancy bowling to a leftie rather than a rightie at the moment. I feel like my wrong’un is much more effective than my leg-spin. In ODIs, it is a different ball game. In T20s, they have to take me on, right? So, for me to get the ball away from the leftie gets me into the game and gives me the opportunity to get a wicket. In regards to T20I, I fancy bowling to a leftie. Bowling to Malan and Ali is a challenge in itself,” he recollected. 

“The way Malan batted in the T20 World Cup was great, and bowling to them was a good experience. For such players, the main thing is how fast you adapt to the conditions and adjust against them. After the net session, I always check with them to understand their thought process.”

UAE’s cricketing direction

Directly or indirectly, the goal of the league has been to nurture and mentor the young players from UAE, and to take the country to greater heights in a sport that wasn’t dearly loved as much as it is now. 

In that direction, the cricketing board have also taken the well thought move of roping in experienced Robin Singh as the Director of Cricket, also now serving as the head coach of the setup. Meiyappan couldn’t hide his smile while talking about the former Indian star and what his experience could mean to the young crop of UAE players. 

“It is a big thing for us that Robin Singh has been picked as the Director of Cricket for UAE. He’s the head coach right now. The number of years and experience that he has in him is immense and his cricketing knowledge is out of the world,” Meiyappan said.

“If you ask him about a tactical thing too, he is there to answer and sort it out for you. With such a human, you can learn a lot. He’s worked a decade in the IPL as well, so you tend to learn a lot from such people. I feel UAE cricket is benefitting a lot out of it and he’s a big support at the moment.”

UAE still can make it to the upcoming ODI World Cup in India. But for that to become a reality, they have to keep their foot on the accelerator, with the games coming thick and fast. That remains the biggest challenge and goal for this batch of UAE stars, who aim to convert the parched land of the Middle East to a cricket-showering country. 

“UAE cricket has obviously grown, it is going well for us. It would be great if we could make it to the 50-over World Cup and play in India. With the players and exposure that we are getting at the moment, like we are getting a national team playing cricket, we want to play against the best players and that’s how experience works. For us right now, it is going really well and hopefully we can qualify for the ODI World Cup this year.”

One last bit before we let Meiyappan go, we had to ask him about what he shares with Indian leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal. Not the fact that both are leg-spinners but the fact that both have taken up Chess very seriously. Hailing from Chennai, Meiyappan chose to side loyalty, supporting Vishwanathan Anand during his epic clash against a young Norwegian chess grandmaster, Magnus Carlsen. 

“Oh, it was Vishwanathan Anand, there was no doubt in my mind. I had to support him when I was a kid. Growing up playing chess, I watched a lot of his videos. But in recent times, I have been watching a lot of Magnus Carlsen too. Even though I have stopped playing Chess, I still play it on Chess.com to keep the brain working. End of the day, it is all about how tactically you are prepared mentally.”

“I would like to say that. I would love to play a game against Yuzvendra Chahal, to see how we go about playing chess. Chess definitely does help me out tactically as well.”

Magnus Carlsen vs Viswanathan Anand; Yuzvendra Chahal vs Karthik Meiyappan. Who has their popcorn ready?

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