New Black Cap Sodhi in a spin after rapid rise
Most cricketers can pinpoint their big break. Typically, Ish Sodhi's happened early, at age 12, at a coaching clinic in suburban Auckland.
The coach at the Howick-Pakuranga clinic was Dipak Patel, the spinner who opened the bowling for New Zealand at the 1992 World Cup, the same year Sodhi was born.
"I bowled pace at the time. Because I found out Dipak was a spin bowler for New Zealand I thought 'maybe I should give this a crack'," Sodhi said.
Patel bowled gentle offspin but Sodhi was having none of it. The lanky kid from Ludhiana in India's Punjab region, whose family shifted to Auckland when he was four, was straight into the mystery art of legspin.
"I still can't really bowl offspin. That was the only way I knew how to do it. My mind wasn't wired any other way. The Indian in me started to come out the more I played, and I loved it even more."
Patel gets hefty plaudits from Sodhi for sending him on the path and being a key mentor. He was an instant hit, and after an early five-wicket bag a school coach soon took father Raj aside and told him his son had something special. Indian legspinner Anil Kumble became Sodhi's idol, later overtaken by Daniel Vettori who became known in the Sodhi house as "the cricket god". He was hooked on spin.
Less than decade later, and Sodhi is on the brink of joining that rare group labelled 'New Zealand test leg-spinners', having made the 15-man squad to tour Bangladesh next month. Todd Astle played one test in Sri Lanka last year, Tarun Nethula slipped off the test radar after a promising ODI debut, then you go back a decade or so to Brooke Walker, then Greg Loveridge who also played a solitary test.
It's been a frighteningly fast rise for someone not yet 21. His first-class debut was 10 months ago, for Northern Districts in Hamilton. In 12 matches he's taken 22 wickets at 48.
The numbers might not tell a story but the experts can.
Vettori, recovering from achilles tendon surgery, was a fan from day one. On the eve of New Zealand's test win in Hobart in 2011 he was asked about the country's spin stocks. He listed the usual suspects then his eyes lit up, labelling Sodhi the best New Zealand prospect he'd seen after facing him in the nets.
Paul Wiseman, the former test offspinner tasked with bolstering New Zealand's spin stocks, mentored Sodhi as he progressed through the national under-19 side last year. He disputes Sodhi's claim he can't bowl offspin, and says he's so talented he can even bowl the offspinner's variation, the doosra.
Consistency and control, rather than the fancy stuff, has been Sodhi's mantra.
"I try to bowl everything really; googlies, toppies, flippers, sliders. But it means nothing if your stock ball's not strong enough."
Raj Sodhi, a doctor, wife Simrat, a teacher, daughter Sirat (now 23) and young Ish settled in South Auckland and built a new life. Sodhi snr admits he's no cricket fan but, after that coach used the "something special" line he was a convert.
"Once he started bowling spin he just loved it. We went back to India and he was about 12 and it's a long flight from here to Singapore and in the plane aisle he was just bowling all the time."
It led to an early, serious conversation between father and son, as studies at Papatoetoe High School took precedence.
"There was a tournament in Manukau and after it he said, 'Dad, I want to play for New Zealand'. He said: 'I want a favour from you, can you please not ask me to go to university. I want to give professional cricket a go'."
That paid off fast when, just over a year ago, Sodhi was handed his first professional contract by Northern Districts. They'd chased his services when he was rated No 2 at his club, Papatoetoe, behind Auckland offspinner Bhupinder Singh.
Raj Sodhi says his son loves the game and despises losing. He witnessed that last year at the under-19 World Cup in Queensland when, after Ish clouted 22 off 10 balls to help beat West Indies in the quarterfinals, New Zealand lost to India by nine runs.
"He's a very emotional and passionate guy. I watched that game and when they lost to India he was so devastated that he lay on the ground and cried and cried. He thought they could have done it. They only lost by nine runs. He just wants to win."
The family had a joyous, sleepless night last week in Manukau after a late night call from Sodhi in India, telling them national selector Bruce Edgar had given him the nod. Sodhi described it as the best call of his life.
"It was a little bit surprising but it's a call as a cricketer you expect at some time in your career. If you've got the passion to do well you wait for it, and I'm lucky it's come so early. I'm trying to deal with it but it's all a massive learning curve."
He's found it tough for New Zealand A in hot weather on pitches not offering the expected turn in India. There's more valuable buildup in Sri Lanka this month and he feels ready if anything untoward should befall test frontliner Bruce Martin.
His NZ A and Northern Districts coach, Grant Bradburn, says he wouldn't have been chosen if there were doubts.
He rates Sodhi in the exceptional bracket, with a rare skill for a legspinner, excellent control and "deadly accuracy" to go with his variations. Physically he needed to get sharper and he lost 10kg this year. And he can wield a bat, as evidenced by his career-best 57 against India A.
"For us it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when he would be introduced to international cricket. But he's a long way off the finished product. He's a project and a wonderful bowler in the making," Bradburn said.
"He's so cricket mature and that's the thing that gives me confidence. Ish has got his feet on the ground. He's very level headed and knows this is just the first step."
AT A GLANCE
Name: Inderbir Singh (Ish) Sodhi
Born: October 31, 1992 in Ludhiana, India
School: Papatoetoe High School
Major teams: Northern Districts, New Zealand Under-19, New Zealand A
First-class debut: ND v Otago, Hamilton, November 2012.
Career: 12 matches, 22 wickets at 48.40, BB 5-128; 332 runs at 22.13, HS 57
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