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Exclusive: Meet Raj Angad Bawa, the Under-19 World Cup winner following in the footsteps of Yuvraj Singh

Raj Bawa IPL
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 5 minute read

Aadya Sharma speaks to Raj Bawa, the Punjab Kings all-rounder who inspired India to victory in this year’s Under-19 World Cup final.

Sport runs in Raj Angad Bawa’s blood. His grandfather, Trilochan Singh, was a hockey gold medalist at the 1948 Olympics. His father, Sukhwinder Bawa – an acclaimed coach in Punjab – trained a teenage Yuvraj Singh through the journey from under-19 cricket to the Indian team. He also has ties with Reetinder Singh Sodhi, an Under-19 World Cup winner and ODI cricketer.

It wasn’t entirely surprising then when 19-year-old Raj didn’t look flustered at the 2022 Under-19 World Cup final, the biggest game of his career so far. Two weeks before, he had surgically disassembled Uganda’s bowling attack with a demonstrative, unbeaten 162 from No.4, the highest score of the tournament. In the final, he hacked through England’s top order with lively pace. A stirring five-wicket haul, followed by a steady 35 from No.6, headlined India’s victory. Such enterprising all-rounders are the rarest of finds in India. And exactly like Sodhi 22 years earlier, Raj finished as the Player of the Final.

“Winning the World Cup was a different feeling altogether,” a beaming Raj tells Wisden India. “It’s much better than what I’d imagined. At home, everyone was elated – obviously, they will be – we’ve won the title.”

To understand the Bawa story, it’s important to go back to the 2000s, when a young Raj saw his father train Yuvraj at his academy from up close. Just like for any other budding cricketer in Punjab at that time, Yuvraj was a figure of inspiration. Raj spent hours watching footage of the left-hander; the fierce cuts and delectable flicks slowly impressed upon his mind. Sukhwinder once said that it probably even played a part in Raj, naturally right-handed, becoming a left-handed batter. The similarities don’t stop there: the wide grin, the curly hair, the nonchalant, lulling tone of conversation. It’s all very Yuvi-esque.

“I still watch his videos,” he says. “His batting would come in tough situations in the middle order when the team had lost a few early wickets. He’d handle those scenarios extremely well. I really like that about him. That’s why he’s my favourite, because he did well in those situations so often.”

As Yuvraj’s career began to flower, coach Sukhwinder’s eyes turned towards his own son, identifying a spark that needed some fanning. By 11, the younger Bawa’s interest began to sprout, but he maintains he was organically drawn towards the sport, not just because of his rich sporting heritage. Called a strict disciplinarian by some, Sukhwinder ran a tight ship, taking Raj along for practice as well as matches, and building a “cricketing environment” that stirred Raj’s interest even further.

“When you are young, you need guidance alongside the interest, and luckily, my father was my coach,” he says. “Initially, I used to get scolded for making mistakes.” His father was willing to push the boundaries to ensure Raj got the right guidance. When he saw that his batting needed much more work, Sukhwinder stopped Raj from bowling for five years. And while he promptly obeyed, it was only later that the youngster realised the merits of such an unconventional approach.

“When I was young, I used to both bat and bowl fast, just like today,” he says. “At that time, Dad felt that my bowling is naturally good and it doesn’t need as much work at that time. That’s why, he advised me – I was young, I used to do what I was told – so he put me into batting and groomed me as a batsman. At that time, I couldn’t understand why, and only realised it much later. He groomed me as a batsman till I reached the under-16 level – it’s only when I was 16 or 17, about two, three years ago, that he made me resume fast bowling.”

As Raj grew from strength to strength, the pressure was eased off him, and brickbats turned to bouquets.

“Slowly, when I began understanding things myself… because the passion was there, then the willingness to train came by itself. Around 16, when I began to understand things better, my dad didn’t need to scold me as much [he laughs]. I learned things on my own.”

When the efforts bore fruit, and Raj brought home a World Cup winners medal, a happy Sukhwinder still maintained a stoic demeanour, ensuring his son stayed grounded amid all the applause.

“My dad doesn’t show [happiness] too much,” Raj says. “You can figure out that he’s happy, but he doesn’t say much. But he was very happy, that I know. Everyone at home was elated.”

Unlike under-19 batches of the past, which grew through the well-oiled machinery of India’s domestic structure, Raj and his teammates didn’t have much time to build a team together; the pandemic didn’t allow game time for months leading up to the tournament. One under-19 camp in, the team then headed to the Asia Cup, winning the title on their way to World Cup glory.

“Even then, this team bonded together so quickly. And all of us used to stay closely-knit like a family.”

They say the strongest bonds grow in adversity. For the four-time champions, their biggest challenge came midway through the tournament when Covid-19 ravaged through their camp. Multiple players, including skipper Yash Dhull and vice-captain SK Rasheed, went down with the virus, leaving the side to scrounge the depths of their squad. The fighting mentality of the team and its management came to the fore when they were informed on the morning of their group game against Ireland.

“The situation created a sudden feeling of panic. The captain and vice-captain both were down. The management and coaching staff didn’t let it show though – we knew it and we were a bit [panicked] – but they didn’t react as if it were a big problem. They handled it extremely calmly and helped us understand it too.

“After the games, when we used to go back in the evening, the entire coaching staff, the quarantined players – such as [captain Yash] Dhull – and the rest of us would connect online and do activities. We’d video call and play games on both days before the next game. That instilled a sense of positivity in the team. It never felt like a problem, we enjoyed ourselves through it, and didn’t let it affect us and show it.”

It’s this kind of fighting mentality that gets hardwired into budding Indian cricketers early in their careers. Add that to the natural abundance of talent, and it becomes a formidable mix. The IPL is a platform for such youngsters to showcase themselves, and for those like like Raj – who was a child during the tournament’s early years – playing for their favourite franchise is, in a couple of ways, a massive deal.

“Right at the start, I used to follow [Kings XI] Punjab only,” he says. “When I was young, and used to watch the IPL, I had a Punjab jersey too and Reebok was the sponsor back then. I am glad that my favourite team has acquired me this time. [It’s my] home team, favourite team, and also, Yuvraj used to represent Punjab at the start. That added to my fondness for the side.

“If someone appreciates your talent, performance, your hard work – call it whatever – and recognises it, it feels very nice. I’m glad that they [Punjab Kings] instilled that faith in me and gave me a chance in their team.”

But first-class cricket is where his heart truly lies, for he knows what it means in the bigger scheme of things. Soon after the IPL auction, Raj broke into the Punjab first-class team, proving that he can be just as sound a red-ball cricketer.

“It’s [Ranji Trophy] very important,” says Raj, who averages 50.66 after four innings, and has picked up three wickets. “If you look at it, it’s one step behind India call-up. All the players are so experienced, and the competition is very good. My dream from the start was also to play Ranji Trophy for my state, that’s why it’s all the more important.”

Thinking too far into the future isn’t what he intends to do, calmly distancing himself from all the Hardik Pandya comparisons that have fluttered around. “I have to go step by step,” he says, “all those discussions are for later, we’ll see when I reach there.”

The IPL will see his path cross with Indian cricket’s biggest superstars, pitting him against some of his all-time favourite cricketers. Kohli, Rohit, Bumrah, Pant, Dhawan – he’s excited to play with and against the household names. His debut IPL game last weekend saw him fall for a first-ball duck, but Punjab skipper Mayank Agarwal promptly consoled him with a pat on the head at the boundary line, reminding him that there’s plenty of support around him to enjoy what’s already been a breakout year.

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