Assam batsman Riyan Parag is not going to forget this season in a hurry. He earned his first Indian Premier League contract and despite his franchise, Rajasthan Royals, missing out a spot in the playoffs, Parag’s performances didn’t go unnoticed.

The 17-year-old became the youngest player to score a half-century in the history of the tournament. His skipper, Australian batting ace Steve Smith, was full of praise for the stocky youngster. Parag’s big breakthrough, though, was being a part of India’s victorious U-19 World Cup squad in 2018. Despite suffering an injury, Parag managed to make a mark.

Parag’s IPL performances have made him one of the players to watch out for among the younger crop of Indian players. On the sidelines Red Bull Campus Cricket event in Jaipur, he spoke about his whirlwind journey, which has been laced with heady success.

Your experience of working with [India U-19 coach] Rahul Dravid?

The whole bunch [India U-19 side] got to learn so much from Rahul sir. Especially on how to handle pressure situations and carrying oneself on and off the field. Even on the England tour, we all got to learn a lot from him. The entire experience has been wonderful.

I had a one-to-one chat with him after the IPL auction. It was before the semi-final against Pakistan. He asked me if I was disappointed and I said yes. He told me not to feel low and that the IPL was just another tournament. He told me I had the skill-set and ability to represent the senior team. From there on, my perspective towards the game changed. If a legend like him thinks I can make it to the senior team, it changes everything. He meant what he said, of course. And I’ve just been focusing on it.

How was it meeting MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli for the first time?

It was a nostalgic moment. Dhoni was there at the shooting range, my dad and he are really close friends. Now, I’ve played a match with him. Even though I was a bit disappointed that he caught me out that day, it is what it is. IPL does that to you. You play with your idols and legends.

So I’m just very grateful to Rajasthan Royals for picking me up and giving me the opportunity. I’m happy that I contributed a little bit to my team’s cause. Eagerly waiting for next year. I really wanted to meet Virat. So, this one time, we were on the same flight to Dubai. The senior Indian team was heading to South Africa and we, the under-19 team, were on our way to New Zealand. They were in the first class lounge and we were in the economy lounge. I struggled for about half an hour to get to him, but at the end, the receptionist at their lounge said I wasn’t allowed to go inside.

I was devastated at that time. But during our match against the Royal Challengers Bangalore this year at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, someone came up to me and told me that Virat was looking out for me. So I went up for an autograph on my bat and he told me that I was doing well. That was a really nice moment for me.

Do you read what’s being said about you on social media?

Yes, I do. I had this conversation with Ben Stokes after the Mumbai Indians match this season, where I did well and contributed with the bat. I asked him if he reads comments online and he said that he does no matter how he performed on the field that day.

You can’t really hide from that. If you post something on Instagram, people are going to tell you things to your face. And you’re bound to read those comments. But like I said, it’s all about keeping things simple and not thinking about it too much. People will always say things about you but it’s important to keep that away. I feel I’m really good at keeping track of everything but then shutting it out.

What do you think you need to do to take your game to the next level?

It’s very easy to have one main goal, which for me is playing for the senior Indian team, but it’s really hard to break things down into steps. I’m just going with the flow. I’ve had a decent IPL season now and everyone is going to watch out for me. People are going to watch my videos and look for weaknesses. If you want to succeed, you have to take things day by day and be consistent. For now, I’m going to focus on doing well in the domestic season and then try to enter the India ‘A’ team.

Riyan Parag became IPL's youngest player to score a half-century | Prashant Bhoot /SPORTZPICS
Riyan Parag became IPL's youngest player to score a half-century | Prashant Bhoot /SPORTZPICS

Assam hasn’t produced many successful cricketers, what kind of reception did you receive back home after the IPL?

It’s harsh but everyone wants a piece of you when you do well. It’s good that I’ve done something for Assam to bring it in the limelight. We aren’t really known for cricket, so I’m glad I could show the world that we’ve got talent there. It’s just about changing the mindset. You can achieve things only if you dream big. I think we’ll have many more players from Assam coming up in the years to come.

Were you intimidated by any bowler during the net sessions with RR?

Yes, I faced Jofra Archer and Oshane Thomas twice and never again. It’s really tough. And I hate batting in the nets. I don’t do that even before matches. I just to do range hitting – hit sixes for a long period of time. Nets have such a closed environment. I feel someone’s got a hold of me in there. I feel locked and I don’t like that. Even before my debut match against Mumbai, I hit 150 to 200 sixes. I had a one and a half hour long session of just hitting sixes. It was here at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium. I thought that’s what I needed to do in the IPL before a match. That charges me up, opens my mind and body. Ever since that match, I feel I’ve found a routine that I can follow going forward.

What was the most challenging moment for you this IPL season?

I try to stay really cool when I’m playing. There are plenty of people around me who tell me that I come across as a relaxed person. But I know what’s going on inside me. There’s so much pressure. Before my first match, I wasn’t even nervous, I was scared.

The time I felt really nervous this season was before the match against Kolkata Knight Riders. I don’t have a great record at the Eden Gardens. Before the KKR game, I’d scored nine runs in each of the three innings I’d played there. So the knock I played that day is the most special ones for me this season. I feel pressure brings out my A-game.

When do you think your game went to the next level?

Even when I was 8-10 years old, I liked competition. I used to face senior bowlers during practice at my academy. I know it’s required, but I’m not a fan of pure technique. I think it’s in your mind. We have so many examples, like MS. He isn’t the most technically sound player but he’s a legend who has scored tons and tons of runs. It’s not just about the technique. Yes, you need to keep learning as you go along. I’ve made technical changes in the IPL itself, but I think keeping your mind straight and not overthinking works for me.

Has there ever been a time when you felt your game wasn’t going anywhere and you really had to bring it all together?

When I started playing cricket, I was really good at mimicking others’ batting stances. In the past, I’ve copied the stance of Hashim Amla, Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Shubman Gill, Joe Root and many more. Copying Root’s stance is memorable for me because that’s when I had my breakout season. I scored plenty of runs and got into the India under-19 team. But then I changed it because of some bad performances during NCA matches.

Then I switched to copying Virat bhaiya’s stance and got many good results after that. I just like experimenting. It’s like a software update. If you go a year back, I had a different stance to the one I have right now. I like to fool around with it but I do stick with each stance for a long period of time. I’m a true believer of sticking to whatever works for you. If you feel good while copying someone and it works for you, then just stick to it. It’s 70 percent mind and 30 percent skill.

You’re just 17 and facing the quickest bowlers in the world. Do you ever feel scared while batting?

I’d be lying if I say I don’t. I faced Kagiso Rabada who bowls at 150 kmph, and I had to hit him! It takes a lot of courage, you do get intimidated. But when the stakes are this high, there’s pressure on the bowler as well.

Do you have any heroes in your life? Anyone you really look up to?

My dad is one of them, he has to be the first one. Then there’s Sachin sir and Virat Kohli. And in women’s cricket, I’ve followed Smriti Mandhana since she used to wear glasses and play with a BAS bat. I was really young then. I love the way she times the ball and caresses it through point. I’ve tried copying that as well but it didn’t work out.