Step. Step. Step.
One foot in front of the other. On each step, a little acceleration. Crossing the 26 yards in a blink, he had focused all the momentum he had gathered into the 5.6 ounce 'kookaburra' held between his thumb and two forefingers of his right hand. Both of his dark blue eyes focusing on the stump at the far right, the leg stump of a right-hand batsman. Adjusting the seam between his fingers, Ishan Sharma let go of the ball, his hand almost pointing directly vertical, just as his leading foot stepped on the bowling crease.
The impact was quick. The white cricket ball crossed the 22 yards distance between the bowling and popping or batting crease, landing full-length, and with one bounce, dislodged the off-stump, 7.2 inches away from its actual aim. Ishan raised his head in despair, still running in his follow-through.
Coach Ian Davids however, didn't share his view.
"Ishan, my boy!" he cheered. "Don't be so harsh on yourself! I know you wanted it to take the middle and leg, but it was good enough yorker, this one! so many seamers have tried so hard to make it work, turning into half-volly lollies, but you have done so well to get it to the stumps. So young yet so skilled."
Ishan had already picked the ball again and started to walk back for his run-up. Truly, he was not going to stop till he got his goal, the leg-stump. Davids patted Ishan on the back, before returning to his place of observation, as Ishan started his run-up.
The boy never failed to amaze him. The first time he had seen Ishan had been at a friendly tournament which Mr Davids attended as a chief guest; his first official engagement as Indian International Cricket Team's coach, sent to get a feel for the passion that runs in the veins of the nation for cricket, rich-poor, young-old alike.
But all through the match, he had his eyes only on one person. The 6 feet 7 inches tall, lanky frame of the boy with unruly hair, staring eagerly at the stumps, ready to make them dance to his tunes every time. Boy! Isn't he a talent! Such strict line and length is so hard t maintain even at his own age, with 14 years of international cricket experience. Yet, this teenager managed it so efficiently. But what attracted his attention most was the fiery wish of self-betterment in the boy. Davids still remembered his speech on the Man of the Match award he got.
"This is not the first for me. It is only a start. In the years to come, I shall seek as many of these as possible!"
Davids was thrown off his feet! Pace bowling was pretty hard as it is, maintaining both accuracy and pace was enough to destroy one's ambitions, and with pacers being prone to injuries, due to the sheer impact of the technique, one could not imagine to see a young pacer so hungry for accomplishment, while still searching perfection. Davids had immediately called him to join the squad, as such a rare talent was not worth being lost.
However, he had a nagging worry about that decision now. Was Ishan really prepared to shoulder the hopes of the 1,170 million people of the nation where the mantra of the fans was:
Wicket miley toh taali, otherwise gaali!
If you get the wicket then flatter, otherwise slander!
The media wasn't very helpful either. Always digging into personal lives of people to fuel the gossip-loving nation's appetite for rumors, they were a bunch to avoid even for a normal person; and for a hostel-bred boy, brought up it isolation, so many eyes staring and so many bright-lights could potentially be fatal. Has he not heard of enough young sportsmen being suicidal, not being able to survive the pressure. Sure, cricket was a team sport, and he and the boys would always stand by their youngest team-mate, but somehow, Ishan was not the type who would ever realize the needs of his body. His ruthless dedication to cricket made Davids fear for his person. Maybe, he should have waited in the pipeline for a couple more years, while maturing enough to prioritize himself over the game. Maybe.
Ishan had already bowled 5 deliveries and was pacing in for the last one in this 'over'. The same angle of the arm, the same wild glare at the leg stump, the same rush in movement. The release of the ball, and on the bounce, the attack on the desired stump. The impact was as intended: 'leg-stump went on a jog, and mid-stump flew to the ground', as commentators would call it.The speed-meter beeped as it recorded his highest speed for the day: 93.2 miles per hour!Ishan ran one hand through his messy hair, while shaking the index finger of the other in the traditional fashion of appealing for and celebrating a wicket.
"Incredible!!" shouted the delighted Davids. "Fantastic! Finally got what you wanted, eh! And the speed looks like it is going up as well. 93.2! that's incredible for an Indian vegetarian boy! What have you been doing?"
"Nothing much, sir," Ishan spoke in his deep calm tone, despite the effort of the practice. "Just stopped following pointless rituals. I am no more a vegetarian. I eat steak everyday now, which gives me the extra energy and protein for muscle-build."
"And why is it that you put cricket over your religion?" Davids' voice was full of curiosity, the silver crucifix dangling down his neck. " Surely, the gods wouldn't be happy."
"Gods!" laughed Ishan. "Why do people even believe in gods? To have someone to blame for and complain to. Just like a child, who always looks up to an adult to moan to, to ask for things he knows he cannot get, to charge of the faults within him. We all just see gods as the adult to the child within us. Maybe, I have just lost that innocence."
Ishan left for the dressing room, leaving the coach to stare at his back, hoping someone would call his attention soon.
The dressing-room was quiet and calm, due to all the players practicing outside. Ishan walked to his locker and opened it to reveal a picture of a man with the same messy hair and blue eyes. He was reason he had such an overwhelming dream of becoming a top cricketer of all times: his father.
Ishan slipped his hand into the pocket of his kit-bag, while giving the picture a sinister look, bringing out, shockingly, a syringe and a small vial of Nandrolone. Loading the syringe with the performance-boosting steroid, he smirked at the photo.
"What are you staring at, huh?" he asked the man he had never spoke to face-to-face. " You think what I am doing is wrong? Is unfair? Sorry, but no! If this is unfair, is wrong, then what do you call what you did to Amma? You left her when she needed you, you left my mother to die while living happily with your new wife, and that was all fair? You can't tell me what is wrong or right now! you have lost that right!"
Holding the full syringe between his right thumb and two forefingers, he eyed his left wrist, searching that middle artery, which connected to all the arteries, so as to let the drug have maximum impact, as the yorker does to his team's chance of winning. The same movement of the fingers as the deliveries, he let the needle drop into his skin. The needle wheedled into the green artery, interrupting the natural order just as the ball had to the stumps. Following through with the push on the piston, Ishan let the brutal fire of agony to spread through his arm. He clenched his jaws to stop pitiful cry of his body, begging for mercy, from leaving him. Drops of tears appeared in his eyes.
Dropping the stabber, he grabbed his left arm and sank to the floor. That's why he never did this to his right hand. Helpful for muscle development and speed as it was, the drug's effects on him was too strong to risk his bowling arm for. The coaches would realize what he had been doing, if he did that. Yet they would not understand.
It wasn't as if he was doing this for pleasure. For fun. For enjoyment. No! He could never do that, having hated drugs from a small age, watching his mother succumb to a slow death in the arms of pain-killers. He could never enjoy their ecstasy. As if they did provide ecstasy. It was just the escape from reality they provided. But he did not want to escape reality.
He wanted to live in the reality of his dream of becoming a great player, to prove to one man, that he was worth a lot more than being abandoned even before he came to the world; feeling his mother's distress from within the womb, at being left, disposed, discarded like an object.
Ishan slowly got up on his feet and slammed the locker-door shut. The pain he had suffered, from the man who he should have looked up to, for the 17 years of his existence was a lot more tormenting than what a single vial of Nandrolone could ever give him.