Firdos e Moonda with Andrew Fidel Fernando, in ESPNcricinfo, 27 March 2017 where the title is “The making of a Kiwi”
One of the first things Jeet Raval from Ahmedabad did when he arrived in Auckland was try to find a job. He was only 16 years old, so it had to be a casual, holiday gig, but his father Ashok encouraged it as a way for him to interact with people in his new home and improve his limited English. “I went to Subway and they asked me if I could hand in my CV. I didn’t know what a CV was, so I called my mom and asked, ‘What’s a CV?’ In India they call it biodata, so my mom told me that and then I understood. I asked for a piece of paper and a pen and they didn’t have any paper, so they gave me a tissue paper. I wrote the word ‘biodata’ on the top and I put my name, my mom’s name, my dad’s name, my date of birth, and I said there’s my CV. And I never heard back from them,” Raval said to ESPNcricinfo during his first series as a Test cricketer in November last year.
Raval at his wedding in Ahmedabad, with coach Perera in attendance
With his hopes of selling sandwiches shelved, Raval opted to focus on his cricket, which had been going fairly well before his family decided to migrate. Raval had made it to the Gujarat Under-16 team, was being schooled at the same institute where Parthiv Patel was educated, the Shree Vidyanagar School, and had progressed well since the days of playing street cricket “with a rubber ball, no shoes, the back wheel of a bicycle as the stumps, in 40 degrees and sometimes with a bleeding nose from the heat”.
His father, a professional volleyball player for the State Bank of India, had always intended Raval to receive proper mentoring. When Jeet was ten, the family moved to a different area, close to a coaching academy attended by around 500 kids, run by a K Prakash Patel. “He was a very disciplined man. If you were late, you didn’t train that day; if you were late a second time, you would have to run ten times around the ground, and if you were late a third time, you were expelled.”
Rigorous training saw Raval, then a self-titled medium-fast bowler, selected for the Gujarat Under-14 team, when he became a batsman by chance. In a match against Mumbai, Raval was batting with the tail, and although he scored only 21 runs, he hung around for long enough for the coach to ask him to open in the next match. Then he scored a century against Baroda and promptly decided to pursue a permanent place in the top two.
Raval had progressed to the Under-16 side and played against the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, and had “hoped that I would go further” when his life changed. Ashok had already been on a recce trip to New Zealand and thought the family would find a better life there, with more opportunity. So they packed up and left, even though young Jeet did not really want to.
“I was definitely anxious. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been outside of India,” he said. “Everything was new to me – the language, the roads, the food, the culture.”
But one thing was the same. Sort of.
There was cricket. It was just that Raval had to find it. Luckily, it found him.
Ashok was working at a petrol station when a man walked in wearing a cricket jersey, and he decided to ask him about where his son could play. That man was a Kit Perera, a Sri Lanka-born cricket coach, who was involved at Suburbs New Lynn, a club in Auckland. Perera was keen to take on new players and invited Ashok to bring Jeet to the nets. Perera was pleasantly surprised by what he saw when the boy turned up. “This young kid got right behind the ball and struck it for four. He looked like a young Ganguly,” Perera said.
Suddenly, Raval had a way of making himself understood that had nothing to do with language, and so he found a way to fit in. He was accepted at Avondale College, where Martin Guptill was also studying, and thoughts of home grew further away. “I found a whole new love for the game,” Raval said. “Being involved in cricket circles also helped me pick up the language easily and learn the culture.”
In a set-up with a clearly defined ladder, Raval climbed every rung, from the Western Districts Under-17 side to the New Zealand Under-19 team, where he played a youth Test series against his former countrymen. Rahane, Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and Ishant Sharma were all part of that series, and Rahane was the standout batsman. Raval had a good third Test, with scores of 70 and 89 and finished as New Zealand’s second-highest run scorer. That was the first time Raval was confronted with the idea that if he were to make cricket a career, it would not be for India. He realised that despite how much he had wanted to return to his homeland in the early years, he had become a Kiwi. He also realised that he didn’t mind.
“Slowly, I started to buy into the culture of New Zealand cricket,” he said. “I got into the system, the winter camps, and it was in my heart. Once I played for New Zealand Under-19 against India Under-19, I knew this is me and this is what I want to do.”
One of the things Raval noticed in that series at the time was how his technique had developed differently. “Here, it was green and seaming around, and in the beginning, I didn’t have much of a solid technique. I would play my shots. But as the bowling got better, I had to tighten up a bit more and nail down areas. It was different to India, where it spins a lot, doesn’t bounce, and fast bowlers are easier to play. It required a different skill set.”
Learning that took many hours, and Raval’s childhood work ethic stood him in good stead for the work he had to put in. His focus was always on “playing the ball nice and straight and not falling over”, and he spent as much time as he thought he needed honing that discipline. “Preparation is a big part for me. Making sure I am in a good zone and that I train really well getting into a game. It gives me confidence training well, because that’s what I can control.”
The summer after that series, Raval made his first-class debut for Auckland. He played three matches that season, seven the next, and all ten in the third, in 2010-11. Incidentally, that was the only time his average dipped below 40, and in the midst of that slump, Perera came to the rescue. The coach is also a chef and has cooked his way into the hearts of many sportsmen. (Among them is Jimmy Neesham, whose favourite dish is butter chicken pizza.) Perera used his food to motivate Raval. “He was going through a rut, when he hadn’t scored many runs for Auckland,” Perera said, “and I told him that if he didn’t make a hundred in the next match, I would force him to eat a goat curry.”
Raval is a vegetarian and had no intention of changing that. Perhaps by chance, perhaps pushed by some kind of subconscious moral conviction, he responded with three figures, and Perera prepared a meal without meat instead.
Despite considerable success in one of the toughest places to open the batting in the world, Raval could not make cricket his sole focus for as long as he was only on a domestic contract. In New Zealand, franchise players sign on from September to March, leaving them out of work for six months. Many take on odd jobs in that time. By now Raval had a much more impressive CV to advertise himself with.
While playing, he had studied accounting at university, and Perera helped him get a job with BDO Spicers, an auditing firm. “I met someone from the firm at a charity dinner and told him that I knew a good cricketer and student who was looking for work, and he asked me to send through the person’s results,” Perera said. “Jeet had passed with flying colours and they took him on. They allowed him to work for them for six months and then to play cricket for six.”
That arrangement only changed last year, when Raval spent the first part of the winter back in Ahmedabad, getting married to a New Zealander who hails from the same part of the world as he does, and the second on his first international tour. He was selected to travel to Zimbabwe and South Africa, and even though he did not play a game, he knew his time was close. “I was over the moon and I wanted to get involved in as much as I could,” he said. “It would have been nice to get a game, but it was also a nice initiation to see how the group operates and be comfortable with team dynamics.”
But he gave a solid account of himself with 50 in the first match and 80 in the second. A century still eludes him but he is not too concerned about when it may come. “I would have loved to get not just a hundred, but a big hundred because that would have helped us get into a winning position. That’s what this Black Cap team is about.”
Although he considers himself a New Zealander, he remains deeply connected to his culture and is interested in meeting more players like him, with roots in other places. In the current South Africa series, he has played against the likes of Hashim Amla and Keshav Maharaj, and been dismissed by the latter three times. Both Amla and Maharaj are of Indian heritage, from the same state as Raval, for whom that’s just another way cricket makes the world smaller.
“It’s great to see people of Indian origin coming through and getting an opportunity. Its also an inspiration to the next crop of Indian players that it’s not the end of the world, we can do something. I really enjoy hearing their stories – how Keshav Maharaj came to play for South Africa. It’s great sharing those stories.”
Jeet Raval. International opener. Accountant. Ambassador for the Indian diaspora. How’s that for a CV?
With inputs from Andrew Fidel Fernando
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent