Once a cricketer, always a cricketer as class lives on even after he has retired. This is absolutely true in every sense. Every youngster in the world dreams to become the next big thing in the world of cricket and the Mumbai swashbuckling batsman Sahil Kukreja was no different. With a solid foundation in his mind and heart he achieved his dreams of conquering the field, thus proving his heroics.
He is someone who just never dreamt to become successful, he took that extra step forward and worked to acquire it. During his playing days, Sahil was a part of impactful teams like Mumbai, West Zone, India under 19, India A and Kings X1 Punjab. In first class cricket, this extremely talented opening batsman went onto score 3027 runs in 52 games at an average of 38.80 with 16 half centuries and 7 hundreds, his highest score being an unbeaten 229.
Today he is doing his bit, giving back to the game he loves so much. While meeting and having a great conversation with him, I realized then and there that he was not only down to earth and humble but was an equally dedicated and devoted individual in life. In an interesting and fun interview with CricFit author Binaisha M. Surti, Sahil spoke about what it was like rubbing shoulders with the likes of Amol Muzumdar, Wasim Jaffer, Ajinkya Rahane, and Ramesh Powar to his most iconic moments in his cricketing career, to helping underprivileged kids get a new lease of life as they train at his academy and lots more.
During his formative years, Sahil was always surrounded by a sporting culture, playing cricket on weekends. At the same time he was also a state level champion in table tennis…indeed a massive achievement at such a young age. But the child in him always knew that he possessed a softer corner for cricket. He was supported and encouraged by his family to reach the top. Being a very competitive personality, playing along with his older brothers helped him in the biggest way possible, as he proved to be better than kids of his own age. So studies took a back seat as books were replaced with a cricket bat. The first time at age 6 he went to train with coach Abdul Ismail to develop important skills and master his techniques.
Further along with table tennis he pursued his passion for cricket and took part in the Elf Vengsarkar Cricket Tournament. That is where he came into the limelight, scoring a couple of centuries. Further he tried his luck to get selected in the under 14 category too. The day his name was announced in the list he knew, that was the start to many good things…Thus the sport of cricket got its supreme star as ‘Sahil Kukreja’ the gritty and charismatic batsman was born, all ready to set the crease on fire.
According to Sahil, the high of a sports person is the popularity which one receives when he or she has performed well along with the great respect which one gets…so the glamour of the sport did attract him to a certain extent. Speaking about the journey of being an opening batsman for teams like India A, Kings X1 Punjab, India Under 19, Mumbai Ranji Trophy and West Zone, Sahil said “Overall I enjoyed myself while playing as we were a great bunch of guys. I played a lot with Wasim Jaffer, Ajinkya Rahane, Amol Muzumdar, Abhishek Nayar, Aavishkar Salvi, Ajit Agarkar…the atmosphere in the Mumbai team was brilliant. The sheer competition and pressure of playing for Mumbai is the most beautiful feeling a sportsperson could have. Playing for a mighty team like this was the best thing ever.
Pravin Amre was there as coach for a long time and he was extremely hard working and persistent. The toughest part probably was opening for a side like Mumbai as I would open the innings with Wasim Jaffer or Ajinkya Rahane. Wasim was a great player…I admired his grace, the way he flicked the ball and carried himself on the field. I even remember a game I played and Sachin Tendulkar too was a part of it. We were playing a final against Bengal and the ball was seaming…Wasim took a little more time than usual in getting his hundred. Then, Sachin went in at around 10.20 and within no time he scored a hundred. Everyone was struggling on that kind of a wicket and he went and got that century quickly…that is when I realised why people call him Sachin Tendulkar the genius.”
Next we spoke about the most iconic moments of his career, to which Sahil added “The Ranji Trophy win in Mysore where we won the game by 5 runs in 2008-09 where Wasim Jaffer was captain was extremely memorable. Further, my last season was a big relief for me. I being a very persistent person, I knew that if I played first class cricket I would go on and get those runs. Towards the end of my career the last season was very good and my comeback game was the highlight…so I cherish these moments.”
Further, the mighty Mumbai batsman walked down memory lane and took us through his debut game, sharing his memories of playing for Mumbai way back in December 2005 where they faced Karnataka. “I was in good form before this particular game. But prior to the main day I was nervous and woke up in the middle of the night and did some shadow practise and then was ready to go in the morning. This is something that everyone goes through before their debut game. Amol Muzumdar gave me my cap and that was a phenomenal moment. I was batting really well but unfortunately got run out on 22. Just the thought of playing for Mumbai was a big thing…sadly our game ended in a draw.”
Cricketers have a different kind of an approach every time they take the field. Some play according to the situation while others are naturally aggressive…Sahil revealed, “When I started off I was a very aggressive player and as my career prolonged I started working more on the mental aspect of the sport and got more defensive in the years to come. But I was still aggressive in nature and would like to take first ball strike. If someone was bowling bouncers, I would like to take them on as a batsman. Later, I would play according to the situation and take my time out there in the middle and then play my shots. If you are sorted in your head as to what needs to be done in the middle then you can comfortably play.
Sahil also shared that Test Cricket is his all-time favourite format, but quickly added that T20 too requires immense skill. He cherishes every moment spent in the dressing room, for whichever team he represented. He also told us that today, Abhishek Nayar plays the perfect role of a mentor amongst the young guns and helps them out in every possible way. He is the best mentor anyone can get.
“When one plays for Mumbai, the khadoos attitude is always there as the team wants to go all out and win the Ranji Trophy. For a team like Mumbai it is just not acceptable to lose. Winning it, was always a dream and it was a great feeling to be a part of the champion Mumbai set up which went onto clinch 3 Ranji Trophy titles when I played. We enjoyed these wins and they were the highlights of my career.” Sahil opined.
On a lighter note we then shifted focus and spoke about all the dressing room fun, the cake smashing which would ideally take place. He said with a big laugh “Luckily for me my birthday falls in the month of July and there is no cricket played during that time so thankfully I have not been smashed with cake all across my face. But all in all, it is fun to be at the other end… especially when you can do it to others on their big day.”
Today, team Mumbai possesses a great bunch of young talent and Sahil very humbly stated that he is a Shreyas Iyer fan while on the other hand so many youngsters look up to Kukreja as a big inspiration. He further added “Shreyas has a phenomenal attitude and he deserves to play for India. This team has gelled together as a unit. There is abundant talent in the squad like Siddhesh Lad, Akhil Herwadkar, Aditya Tare, Prithvi Shaw, Abhishek Nayar, Shardul Thakur etc. The competition is great in the domestic circuit as other states too are rising up the ladder and that is good sign for Indian cricket. I would like to see more Mumbai players which would go on and play for team India for a long duration.”
On a funny note, Sahil spoke to us about the various superstitions that he had during his playing days. “I would buy new socks before every game and I would use them. The best part was that no one knew. Further, if I got runs with those new socks then I would go on and use it for a long period of time.”
Finally, he is someone who always encourages expression of individuality and independence and thus started off coaching camps for underprivileged kids where he helps nurture and support them to believe in their dreams and aim for the sky “I would go to give food on my father’s birth anniversary…and at that time I had stopped playing cricket…I saw a ground there and I used to miss the game a lot. I thought to myself that this is one skill I have, so I thought why not teach cricket to these kids. Basically, these are government run organizations where these orphan kids get a mere amount of money every month to lead their life. So I spoke to the dean and told him that I would like to start something like this. We then built infrastructure in Chembur like cement tracks, turf wickets etc. I also thought of this as a leisurely activity for the boys. Initially we did not know how to select them. These kids had never held bats and balls in their hands before as they could not afford it. We gave them bats, balls and made them play rubber ball cricket. I took my coach Naresh too with me and he helped me out.”“When we went there we realized that since they do not know how to play the sport we made them do catching practise and later they played football. Whoever had the best hand and eye skills were selected. We had 20 boys for coaching. The kids loved it and every day they would ask me that would I return the next day again to teach them? They really never thought that I would keep coming back. If one works hard continuously, then eventually you will succeed. The kids were very keen to learn and were the best students I could get. There is no one to dream for them, if they want to become cricketers it’s completely their own dream. We started with rubber ball cricket, then migrated to tennis ball and they finally learnt how to play season ball cricket. I had Abhishek Nayar helping me out from day 1 and he has always been there. He is a part of it now and takes active interest in it. Now we have started a foundation called “True to Sports”. We have now come a long way as now we have kids playing for Mumbai under 14, under 16. We have three boys going to England this year. We make them play 2 matches a week to take them out. A lot of them played cricket because they got an opportunity to go out and have a different meal. Nilesh Kulkarni too has helped a lot and he introduced me to Sameer Pathak. Sameer takes talented players to England and he gave our boys opportunities too. One of my boys went to U.K and studied there in the oldest private school and played cricket too. It worked well and he has got a contract to play club cricket there. We had to teach him everything from scratch before he went there…like how to eat with a fork and spoon and much more. But all in all it has been great for us. Now more boys are working hard so that they too get opportunities like this.”
Ultimately, there are very few people like Sahil Kukreja in the world today, who go all out of their way to help others. He has inspired all of us in his own way and we at CricFit can’t help but laud him for this great initiative.