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By Peter Della Penna in (on Twitter)
It’s the second match of the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier for USA and the game is five overs old when the captain decides to toss the ball to the debutant off-spinner. Under normal circumstances, it might be cause for feelings of nervousness to overwhelm a new bowler. Gripping the ball too tight could result in a half-tracker, clammy hands could cause the ball to slip out too early and result in a full toss, either ball probably winding up as a four or six for the batsman. Abhimanyu Rajp might have been a little nervous when bowling his first ball at the senior international level for USA, but he didn’t show it simply because he didn’t have the time.
“Normally you’re told, ‘You’re up next over,’ but Sushil didn’t do that,” Rajp said, referring to the moment his captain in the UAE, Sushil Nadkarni called his number. “He just tossed me the ball and said, ‘Abhi, come on.’ I was taken a bit by surprise so I didn’t have much time to think about anything.”
Moments later, Rajp landed one of his sharp spinning off-break deliveries right where he wanted it. The batsman, Italy’s Andy Northcote, played over the top of the good length ball and was struck on the pads.
“I think all of Abu Dhabi heard my appeal. As soon as I delivered that ball and hit Northcote’s pads I knew that I had him. That was really special.” It’s a moment Rajp says he’ll never forget, getting his first wicket on his very first delivery for USA. It’s just one of many special moments in the cricketing journey of Rajp.
Rajp was born in Ludhiana in Punjab, India, and like most kids took to the streets to play the game with his friends.
“When you’re growing up and you’re six years old, you don’t know who Sachin is or who Gavaskar was. You’re just playing for the fun of the sport. I had a good friend in my neighborhood and we were always just playing this game every day.”
One of Rajp’s older sisters says that as far as she can remember, she would always see him walking around with a cricket bat in his hands.
“When he used to go to the cricket camp, the willow bat used to be taller than him,” Milli Rajp said. “He was that tiny when he started.” While Rajp is known for his off-break deliveries now, he claims he began his cricketing career as a seam bowler who also kept wicket, but shifted to bowling spin in a fateful match while representing the Ludhiana Cricket Association in an U-12 tournament.
“We were playing on a pitch where the ball was turning square and our main spinner had finished all his overs,” Rajp said. “We wanted someone to spin the ball and I was keeping at the time. So I said I’ll take off my gloves and give it a try. I ended up being the second highest wicket-taker of that tournament bowling off-spin and that’s where I discovered I can spin the ball and should be a spinner and not a wicketkeeper.”
Rajp continued progressing through Ludhiana’s age group teams as a spinner. While his parents emphasized the importance of schoolwork, especially since his mother worked as an English teacher, both his mom and dad fully supported his cricket ambitions and paid for him to participate in summer cricket camps. Then in 1999, the family’s green card application was approved and in the summer of 2000 Rajp arrived in the USA as a 14-year-old.
But rather than have his cricket dreams dashed, they only seemed to grow stronger. The family settled in California’s San Fernando Valley with the cricket fields at Woodley close by in Van Nuys. Rajp joined Ventura Cricket Club the following spring and began playing with them for the next five seasons in the Southern California Cricket Association.
Image (right) - Abhimanyu Rajp bowls against Scotland at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. [Courtesy: ICC/Ian Jacobs]
Rajp went to try out for the USA U-19 team in 2003 prior to the squad traveling to the ICC Americas U-19 tournament, but was ineligible for selection because he did not meet the ICC’s four-year residency requirement. In the meantime, Rajp got connected with Ashok Patel’s US Cricket Academy and began going on tours with them to the Caribbean which provided valuable learning experiences for him over the next several years.
“I played a lot on those tours and you learn a lot,” Rajp said. “A cricket player has all this knowledge about what to do and how to do it, but the main thing is when to do it, when to apply that knowledge to the best of your abilities. It was just about when to set what kind of fields, what works for what bowler and for yourself, how can you do better against this batsman, what kind of field you should set for him, basically trying to understand all aspects of the game. You have coaches there but it’s your first time getting exposure to real turf and real stadiums. We had not played in those kind of facilities in the USA. Playing in your age group, the best way you can learn is playing with other players who don’t know anything. For young players, that’s the best experience you can get. You don’t know anything and they don’t know anything so you’re all learning together and trying to understand the game as a unit and that helps a lot.”
Rajp also gives a lot of credit to former USA player Reggie Benjamin for coaching him and other youth players locally in Southern California when there wasn’t a lot of activity going on at the national level for junior cricketers.
“Having Reginald Benjamin on my side over here, who used to be one of the main youth guys when the youth movement started, he was always here and he’s the one who started coaching us with the help of Nazim Shirazi,” Rajp said.
In 2005, Rajp went to another tryout for the USA U-19 team and this time managed to be selected. However, there was a lot of doubt whether or not he would get to play any games for USA since USACA had just been suspended by the ICC and the U-19 team’s participation at the ICC Americas tournament was in doubt.
“The communication was very hazy at that time. Nobody knew whether we were gonna go or not. A week before the tour we found out it was on. We’re going. The tickets are coming. The tickets came a couple days before we had to fly and then we went to Canada.”
Despite the hectic leadup to the tournament, Rajp says the team felt okay about their chances entering the first day of the 2005 ICC Americas U-19 tournament against defending champions Canada because most of the USA players had played with each other on the US Cricket Academy tours.
“The camaraderie had started a lot earlier than the 2003 tour so by 2005 everybody had a good idea of who was capable of what,” Rajp said. “When we landed, we basically had one day of practice and it was basically for the guys people hadn’t seen before and for the coach Larry Gomes to find out who was gonna be the off-spinner, the leg-spinner, the batsmen, the slip fielder.”
USA defeated Canada in the first match by 39 runs and never looked back on an undefeated run to the tournament title, clinching a spot at the 2006 ICC U-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka. Rajp was the standout bowler in Canada, taking a tournament best 11 wickets which included five-wicket hauls against Argentina and Bermuda.
In Sri Lanka, Rajp finished tied for the team lead in wickets with eight, which included 5 for 61 against New Zealand. Among the scalps he claimed in that match was future Test batsman Martin Guptill. USA also faced off against West Indies, Australia and South Africa in the group stage, whose squads contained numerous future senior international representatives including Kieron Pollard, Kemar Roach, Sunil Narine, Craig Kieswetter, Richard Levi, Usman Khawaja, Matthew Wade and David Warner.
“It was a real eye-opener for myself and my ability to bowl against the likes of David Warner and guys who are now at Test level,” Rajp said. “It was a surreal experience for us. By no means could we say we were better than them or as good as them in our ability, but we can say that if the players in the USA play every day like those players play then there is no reason why we can’t beat them. But because we are weekend cricketers, we got beaten at the end.”
“We were playing the West Indies with Kieron Pollard, Kemar Roach, William Perkins and we have them 8 for 2 in the first two overs and a dropped catch off William Perkins and we are feeling on top of the world because we are doing some major damage and after that catch was dropped [Perkins made 133]. Every game, we were in it for a certain amount of time because every team took us lightly. They thought, ‘USA? Who the hell is USA?’ but when we got on the field and started playing and started giving them heart attacks, that’s when they started getting serious that this is a team to be reckoned with and they had to play with more responsibility and not think it’s just an easy 50 or easy 100. That’s when the game got away from us because their talent was better than ours but our determination was probably better than theirs to get them to those points in those games.”
“If you analyze all three of those group games, we had 140 in 25 overs for the loss of two wickets against West Indies. What more do you want from an Associate team chasing 300? That doesn’t happen. South Africa we had them 101 for 5. We needed two more quick wickets and we could’ve had them out for 150. Australia we scored  against them and we had them 53 for 4 so a couple more wickets and we might have had them, but almost doesn’t count. That goes to show that we only played weekends. If we played every day, we could have beat some of these guys.”
Rather than be demoralized about losing all but one match in that tournament, Rajp says he came out of it gaining more confidence from the experience because of those moments when USA was able to stand toe-to-toe with the heavyweights.
“The one thing I took away from that tournament was that we belonged. We can do it at that level. Every time I think about that tournament, it’s made me realize that yes I can do it. I can bowl against these guys and get them out. I can get a five-wicket haul at a World Cup stage against a Test nation. I can do good.”
Despite his personal success at the junior level in Sri Lanka, Rajp had to bide his time before breaking into the USA senior side. He stayed on the outside looking in for six years and says he kept his spirits high after receiving encouragement from several national team players.
Aditya Thyagarajan, who has been a teammate with Rajp on South West Region teams and plays against Rajp’s Cosmos CC side regularly in the SCCA Division One competition, says that Rajp has become a more complete bowler in recent years after altering his approach to batsmen at the senior level compared to what he was doing at the Under-19 level.
“Over the last two or three years he has really improved and he’s understood the value as an off-spinner to bowl the ball consistently on one spot,” Thyagarajan said. “Like any talented youngster, he was trying to take a wicket every ball and that just doesn’t work at the senior level, especially when you’re an off-spinner or finger-spinner. So I kept talking to him over the years about how you need to improve your consistency. I think over the last two years I really saw him take that advice really well and the results have been very clear.”
In 2010, Rajp was the leading wicket-taker in USACA national tournaments including 7 for 35 in one match at the USACA Western Conference tournament in September of that year at Woodley as he hovered around the national team selection radar. However, he was passed over for both of USA’s squads at ICC tournaments in 2011. Rajp tried to be philosophical about it and remained patient.
“I am the kind of person who does not keep any expectations. Any time I’m playing cricket, I’m not playing to get selected for another team. I’m playing to do well for my team on that day,” Rajp said. “I never went out and said, ‘Why are they not picking me?’ I always think that when the time is right, it will happen. I didn’t take it in a bad way when they didn’t call me or select me because in the back of my mind I was always thinking this is not my time yet.”
Rajp’s time finally arrived in March when he got selected to go to the UAE for the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. He delivered from the moment Nadkarni first tossed the ball his way against Italy right through to the end of the event as he finished tied with Muhammad Ghous for the team lead in wickets as both off-spinners took 10.
Image (left) - Rajp bowls against Italy in his first tournament match in a USA senior uniform this past march. [Courtesy: ICC/Ian Jacobs]
“I think Abhimanyu’s addition to the team has been fantastic,” Nadkarni said at the end of the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. “I think for a long time we had Ghous who made an impact as soon as he came into the team. Now I feel like we have another bowler who can support Ghous and who is a wicket-taking option so I think Abhimanyu is a great addition to the team.”
Although he had the experience of playing against future Test players at the ICC U-19 World Cup in 2006, Rajp says playing in the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier was a completely different experience.
“It was a real eye-opener. The level of competition is so much harder and higher than what we’re accustomed to playing in US club cricket culture,” Rajp said. “You have to be on the ball from ball one. There is no margin for error. You miss and they hit.”
“When you are coming in to bowl you better bet on your eye that the guy who is batting in front of you is ready to launch your first ball for six. If you are coming in to bat, you can bet that the first ball is either coming at your head straight to take your helmet off or to break your toe off. The intensity and focus that’s required is so much higher than you’re used to. You have to be completely focused.”
“I learned a lot from bowling against almost everybody. The quality of opposition that we were playing was obviously great quality. Bowling against them, every game I was learning more and more stuff about my bowling and how to bowl to such batsmen as Ed Joyce and Kevin O’Brien. I’ve never in my whole life bowled around the wicket. It was the first time in my life bowling around the wicket to Kevin O’Brien because I had taken the advice from Robin Singh and Mark Johnson telling me to try to come around the wickets to see if the batsman has a little tough time against you with those angles because I do get a lot of turn. That’s one thing I tried that worked and I never tried that. Small things like that make a huge difference at that level.”
Even though it was a Twenty20 tournament in March, the experience gained from bowling to players like O’Brien and Joyce will serve Rajp well as he gets ready to make his 50-over debut for USA at 2012 ICC World Cricket League Division Four next week in Malaysia. He continued his good overall form by claiming 3 for 33 in 10 overs in USA’s warm-up match against Denmark on August 30 and will look to keep it up in the live matches beginning on Monday against Malaysia.
While Rajp has experienced a tremendous amount of success on the field throughout his cricket career, he says none of it would have been possible without the support of his family. From the time he represented Ludhiana to his exploits for the USA at the junior and senior levels, they have been his biggest fans.
“Whatever I’ve achieved so far has been the blessing of my mom and my family,” Rajp said. “They’ve really supported me and helped me in a way that a family can. My dad, my mom, my sisters have been really influential in my whole life.”
Away from cricket, Rajp graduated from California State University, Northridge in 2010 with a degree in finance and began working for biotech company Amgen that same year at the company’s headquarters in Thousand Oaks. He also has a singing alter ego, recording under the name Musafir Ludhianvi as part of Suvah Entertainment whose other members include Brainstorm and Apartment E. The songs are sung in Punjabi and Hindi.
“Musafir Ludhianvi means a lone traveler from the land of Ludhiana,” Rajp says. “It’s a fun thing. I write my own songs and I sing. I’m not a good singer, I’m ok and the producers help me out a lot. We spend one day a week, we have a dedicated day that we go into the studio and have our sessions, whether it’s studio recording or writing lyrics or working on tracks or perfecting a track. All of us work. All of us have other commitments plus music doesn’t pay. It’s something that we are passionate for. Other than cricket, there’s another passion I have which is singing.”
Rajp became a US citizen in 2007 and while his music is a way for him to maintain a strong connection to his Indian roots, he is proud to be able to represent the USA on the cricket field. He’s still just 26 and if he continues the strong start he had for the senior team earlier this year, he could be representing USA on the cricket field for many years to come.
“Obviously this country has given me a lot so I owe a lot to this country, from cricket to making me as a person who I am today,” Rajp said. “You don’t get some of these opportunities back in your motherland, although I do love my motherland, but there’s pros and cons to everything. I still love India but there’s a lot that I owe to the USA and I’m very grateful that I’ve landed here and gotten through so many different feats in my life in the United States. Being able to represent the United States is also a privilege and an honor and a gesture for me to give something back to this country also by doing good for this sport in this country for this country. It’s my country and that’s what I want to do.”