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On a road less travelled

Sandeep Dwivedi

Posted: Aug 29, 2011 at 1307 hrs IST

: Jigar Naik is in a trance-like state as he sleepwalks to his home ground at Grace Road, where the Indians are in the middle of a net session on the eve of their final practice game. Understandably so, since the 27-year-old Leicestershire off-spinner has been a part of non-stop, round-the-clock celebrations after his team lifted the national T20 title the night before. It’s noon on Sunday now, and Naik reveals that he hasn’t hit the bed after beating Somerset in the final. The face looks tired, the body is sore, but he isn’t complaining. It’s hard to when one is in the middle of the most memorable week of his cricket career.

As the anticipation of playing against the venerated Indians — those he grew up adoring — reaches its climax, the new high gradually overlaps the excitement of Leicestershire’s unexpected win over the weekend. Now, it seems likely that the tall spinner might not even manage a siesta; at best, he’ll catch forty winks post-dinner. On Sunday, Naik is in blissful limbo. He isn’t yet over Saturday, but can’t wait for Monday.

Born to parents who worked in a factory here after emigrating from Gujarat, Naik’s claim-to-fame moment occurred when he became the first Leicester-born Asian to represent the county. As his father, uncle and neighbours played cricket, so did young Naik. But unlike most from his community, who gave up cricket to concentrate on academics or settle at the Belgrave-Melton Road — one that is lined with Gujarati restaurants and farsan shops — Naik took the path less travelled. Not long after his big break, he became a famous face and a model for the Asian kids to emulate. And a day before Leicester’s big date with the reigning ODI world champions, Naik was also one of the most sought-after men.

“It’s funny to say this, but I got 52 text messages yesterday,” says Naik. While most of them dished out the routine ‘congratulations’, Naik found the remaining part of every message quite amusing. “They read, ‘But how about getting us tickets for the India game?’” he adds with a laugh. Naik, though, understands the sentiments. For had he not been a part of the upcoming game, he too would have tried his best to get into the ground. “I have done that in the past. During the 1999 World Cup, the Indian team was based here when I was just a teen. I was a net bowler at that time and bowled to all these top guys. Not just that, I also took pictures with them.”

The compliments haven’t stopped flooding in for Naik and Leicestershire. Apart from the silverware and the winners’ cheque, Leicestershire also availed another big bonus on Saturday. The national title will now see them travel to India next month for the Champions League. Naik, for obvious reasons, believes it to be something very special. While he has been to India during the winter for some training, Naik has never played competitive cricket in the land where his parents were born. “Actually, I will be getting married to a girl who lives in Surat this January. She was hoping and praying that we qualify for the Champions League. So, in many ways, I’m really excited about this trip.”

For a late bloomer — he made his first-class debut at 22 — the trip to India gives him an opportunity to hit headlines. He was the top wicket-taker last season in the national circuit, and this time around he has 42 dismissals. With a top-spinning variation and the one that goes straight, Naik has claimed two five-wicket hauls this season.

The achievements are many, but is the cricket-playing son regularly flaunted by his parents at community gatherings? “You can say that,” says Naik reluctantly, before adding, “If I become an England cricketer it will be more often I guess.”

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