The things that couldn’t break us
This story starts in Punjab. That’s where my dad, Kuldip, is from.
He was the national 200m and 400m champion in India. He competed at the nationals and the Asian Games in Delhi in 1982. He was from a rural area and apparently sport was pretty political there. My uncle tells the story of watching dad winning a race by a mile, only to be told by an official on the way to the podium he’d come third.
Dad would never tell that story. He hardly ever talks about himself.
My mum, Sylvia, is from Murwillumbah. She flew up to India for an arranged marriage with dad and then they moved to Sydney to begin their lives together.
Money was always tight. What little was left over after living expenses was usually sent back to dad’s family in India. But they got by. They moved into a place in Rooty Hill and mum found work as a bus driver around the eastern suburbs and dad was a cabbie. Even now, they’re pretty handy with directions. I’ll ask mum how to get somewhere and she’ll say, ‘Get the something-something bus and change at so-and-so street …’ She knows every short cut in the city!
My sister, Sharon, was born in the Rooty Hill place. The family moved out to Kemps Creek for a while and then into a flat in Coogee, which is where I came into the picture.
For as long as I can remember, we always had relatives staying with us, many of them from dad’s side of the family in India. I’m 19 now and I don’t remember a time in my life when we haven’t had at least one relative staying with us. Dad’s sister-in-law, Balwinder, and her daughter, Bella, were with us for something like eight years. Balwinder was like a second mum, always looking after me while my parents were at work, and Bella was like my second sister. They’re two of the most generous people you’ll ever meet.
Mum always put others ahead of herself. She made sure everyone ate before she did. Dad was the same. The two of them would work long hours then, as soon as they got home, they’d set about making sure everyone else was alright.
It’s a wonderful trait and it’s something my sister and I really admire about them.
BOY VS MEN
I didn’t have much interest in cricket when I was little.
I loved basketball (whoever LeBron was playing for), rugby league (the Rabbitohs) and soccer (the Jets) – pretty much everything other than cricket. I started getting into cricket when I was about nine or ten. I remember watching Gilly smashing Monty Panesar in a game, slog sweeps and all, and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’
We used to live right next to Coogee Oval. You know where the Maccas is in Coogee? Go down the road and there’s a big gym, then there’s a little Pro-Dive shop and then there are houses. Between the Pro-Dive and the houses is an alleyway, And that’s where our place was. You could see Coogee Oval from our apartment.
I’d watch the grade cricketers playing for Randwick-Petersham and think, ‘It would be pretty cool to play there one day.’ That was my goal. We’d take a tennis ball and bat down there after school and think about what it would be like to one day play in the centre.
One of my earliest memories of playing cricket was when my cousins, Damian and Dominic, came down from Murwillumbah. We were having a hit and Dom got me out. I started crying. I walked around the whole oval because I didn’t want anyone near me. But Dom walked over and said, ‘Have another bat.’ They’ve always been like brothers to me, those boys.
And then, just like that, we left Sydney.
I remember coming back from school one day and mum saying, ‘We’re going to Newcastle.’ I thought, ‘That’s strange, it’s a weekday, but I guess we’re just seeing our family up there.’ Then halfway into the drive mum turned around said, ‘Actually, we’re moving to Newcastle.’
It turns out that we lost pretty much everything we had in the Global Financial Crisis. We’d owned four Indian restaurants around Cronulla, Coogee and Maroubra – ‘The Flavour of North India’ is still in Coogee but it’s obviously under different management these days – and we were forced to sell up.
Mum and dad protected us from the news. It wasn’t until three or four years later that I found out the real reason why we left Sydney for Newcastle, and only then after someone at school asked me why we moved. I was like, ‘I actually have no idea. I’ll ask my parents.’
I thought, ‘That’s strange, it’s a weekday, but I guess we’re just seeing our family up there.’ Then halfway into the drive mum turned around said, ‘Actually, we’re moving to Newcastle.’
Newcastle ended up being a great move for the family. I went to Biddabah Public School. I reckon I was the only brown person in the entire school, but it didn’t make much difference to me because it was an easy place to make friends. And there was a really close-knit little Sikh community who we’d go to temple with on the weekends.
I became really close with Jasleen and Jo Atwal. Their parents, Paramjit and Parvinder, had been our neighbours in Coogee and moved to Newcastle the year before we did. They’re very religious and I would go over to their house to pray with them most nights. Their home was a little sanctuary for me. They made sure I never lost the cultural side of my life.
I started playing junior cricket at Warners Bay, Cardiff. I made the local rep team after one year. The coach there was Bob ‘Dutchy’ Holland and he helped convert me from a quick bowler into a leg-spinner. Dutchy was a wonderful man. You could talk cricket with him all day. He passed away from cancer last year. I know everyone in the community up there really misses him. I do, too.
The next year, mum made the decision to move me up to grade cricket. I was 12 and just starting year seven. I felt like the odd one out, surrounded by all these grown men at Wallsend. But everyone at the club through the grades got around me even though I was so little.
That made it a bit less daunting.
I played the last two games of the season in fourth grade. Jack Bailey, the captain, did everything he could to make it OK for me, but I was still really nervous. We played against Cardiff-Boolaroo in the first of those games and I got 12 off 40-odd balls. I can’t remember that much about the innings. I think I’ve blocked it out of my memory! I remember walking out to bat, marking centre and being terrified. But that’s pretty much it.
The first-grade captain at the time, Brett Jackson, said, ‘You look promising, I’ll help you out.’ He became my batting coach and he still is to this day. He really tested me. He would throw me bumpers from halfway down the pitch. After my first hit with him I told mum, ‘I don’t want to train with him anymore.’ But mum was like, ‘Nope, you’ve got to toughen up.’
We trained together through the off-season and before I knew it the first grade season was upon us. Brett and I were down at the nets the day before the first game of the season and I asked him, ‘Are you OK for tomorrow?’ And he went, ‘I’m fine. Also, I forgot to tell you: you’re playing.’
I was like, ‘Far out.’
I was 13 years old and about to play first grade against grown men.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
I got a rookie contract with NSW when I was in Year 11.
I can still hear my neighbours, the Keenans, telling me I would go on to play for NSW even though I hadn’t made it yet. We had a cricket net in the backyard of our place in South Cardiff. Dad would send me throw-downs and Chris and Kerrie Keenan would listen for the sound of an edge or the ball hitting my pad and shout, ‘Howzaaaaat!’ from the other side of the fence. They had complete faith I was going to make it. I still smile when I think about them.
I didn’t know how to take the contract news at first.
There was quite a bit of media attention around me being the youngest Blues’ signing since Josh Hazlewood. A lot of comparisons were being thrown around. I remember getting a Facebook message from Moises Henriques saying, ‘Well done.’ I was like, ‘How cool’s that?’ and my mates were all freaking out. Moises is a legend.
But the buzz didn’t last long for me. I ended up having the worst year I’ve ever had in cricket.
I put so much pressure on myself. I felt I had something to prove every game. I kept telling myself, ‘You’re not a normal 16-year-old kid anymore. You’re a pro. You have to go out there and kill it.’ And my marks at school really fell away. I was 16 and picked in the Australian under-19s. That meant a month in Dubai. I missed 50 days in the first semester of Year 11. I thought about giving school away but mum wasn’t having it.
I went to the national under-17s carnival and I reckon it’s the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life. I was going crazy. I couldn’t wait for the tournament to be over. I didn’t want to be there.
I’d wake up on the day of each game and think, ‘I’d be happy to nick off early and sit the rest out.’ That’s how I performed. I got one century against South Australia and the rest of my scores were under 10 from memory.
I couldn’t understand why I was hating cricket so much.
I put so much pressure on myself. I felt I had something to prove every game. I kept telling myself, ‘You’re not a normal 16-year-old kid anymore. You’re a pro. You have to go out there and kill it.’
My best mate, Joe Hart, was the one person I felt I could talk to about how I was really feeling. He stayed over at our place one night and I just spilled it all out to him. He tried to reassure me, but I wasn’t in a great place.
Mum could see it in me as well. I was dreading a lot of things.
One day, not long before Year 12 was about to start, mum came home and said out-of-the-blue, ‘We’re moving back down to Sydney. I’ve got a meeting with Waverley College. You can start Year 12 fresh.’
This move wasn’t about business. It was all about me and the state of mind I was in.
A fresh start.
We had Indian restaurants in Newcastle – Raj’s Corner, Darby Raj and Kings XI – so dad stayed up there with the businesses. It was just mum and me moving to Sydney. We stuffed everything we could into a car and headed to a flat in Belmore Road in Randwick.
Mum had nothing but the best intentions, but I wasn’t feeling very positive. New surroundings. New people. New everything. My mindset hadn’t changed with the scenery. All I kept thinking was, ‘Nothing’s getting better.’