"It's like a joke in Punjab. They don't ask you what you want to do after Class XII. They just ask, 'When are you going to Canada to settle?' We all go there to make a life, get a job, earn money. I was also about to go. And then my life changed."
Arshdeep Singh, the Punjab left-arm fast bowler, remembers having this hard conversation with his father in 2017. He had struggled to get opportunities in age-group cricket. Unsure if there was a future in the game, his father wanted Arshdeep to follow the footsteps of his older sibling, who had migrated to Brampton in Canada, first for academics and then to "settle".
Arshdeep mustered the courage to request his father for one year to make a life in cricket. And that year turned out to be memorable. It started with him finding a way into Punjab's Under-19 squad on the back of some solid performances in district cricket. The crowning glory came in New Zealand, when he was part of India's Under-19 World Cup-winning squad of 2018.
"If I ever go to Brampton now, it'll be for a holiday, not for anything else," Arshdeep laughed.
The last four months have been a "dream", he said, fresh off a second IPL stint with Kings XI Punjab. Much like the dream of 2018. When he was part of a dressing room under Rahul Dravid, and "enjoyed the time of my life".
At the nets, Arshdeep received constant words of encouragement from Anil Kumble, the Kings XI head coach. He enjoyed time conversing with "Universe Boss" Chris Gayle, and got bowling tips from Mohammed Shami. On the field, he nailed yorkers in the final over to win a game, dismissing Rohit Sharma, Andre Russell and Manish Pandey with his variations among others.
Overall, he played in eight out of the 14 league games for Kings XI, picking up nine wickets and conceding at 8.77 an over. His impact went beyond just the numbers though. A calm approach in the death overs, immaculate control in the middle overs, and the willingness to experiment with changes in pace all came in for special praise from several quarters.
A rookie who hadn't played much cricket - Arshdeep played only three first-class matches for Punjab last season - left a mark in a bowling line-up that had the likes of Shami, Chris Jordan and Sheldon Cottrell. His rise could also be gauged by how much more game-time he got - up from just three games in IPL 2019, under a different team management.
So what changed?
"Last year, they didn't have a chance to look at me much," Arshdeep said, when asked to compare his two IPL seasons. "I hadn't played a lot of domestic cricket either. But I got some confidence when I did well for India Under-23 in the series against Bangladesh U-23 in Lucknow last year.
"If I don't have that confidence in myself, then I'm not giving out good vibes for the team. So for me, however big the batsman was, my focus was on just getting my execution right." ARSHDEEP SINGH
"That is when I got noticed, I guess. But this year, the month-long camp before the IPL really helped, because the coaching staff had enough time to look and assess every single player in the squad. I picked a lot of wickets in the practice games, so I guess it all started from there. Anil Kumble had told me before the season itself that I could get chances early and asked me to be ready. I carried the confidence of having bowled well in the nets and practice matches."
Arshdeep spent four months in lockdown training with his father, a former cricketer and a retired officer of the Central Industry Security Force (CISF), at their small home gym. Once restrictions were eased in Chandigarh, Arshdeep was a part of a training camp that Yuvraj Singh put together for the young Punjab players. At the time, it wasn't yet confirmed if IPL 2020 would happen.
Once at the IPL, he struck a very cordial rapport with Shami and Jordan. He used the time to talk to them about bowling. "Shami bhai is a world-class bowler, and has a lot of experience that he is willing to pass on to the youngsters," Arshdeep said. "Things like 'How do you think when you're under the pump?' He told me my skill sets are good. He stressed on the need to back yourself under pressure and be mentally strong. He wanted me to work on my seam position, which he felt I could improve.
"I still remember, in the game against Mumbai Indians, I was bowling the last over and Kieron Pollard hit me for two sixes. After that, he chatted with me and asked me to just back my execution and bowl my best ball, without looking at who the batsman was. He said, even if it went for sixes, it shouldn't matter."
So did that help him change his mindset? "Yes. When I am bowling to a big player, I try to remain calm, remain blank. I don't think of too many things. At the meeting, plans are discussed for different batsmen, so I try to follow that. It also depends on how the wicket is behaving. It's a one-on-one battle, a coach or captain can't do much, so I have to give them the confidence that I can do it.
"If I don't have that confidence in myself, then I'm not giving out good vibes for the team. So for me, however big the batsman was, my focus was on just getting my execution right. And if it didn't come off, I wanted to ensure the next time I am in that position, I don't repeat the same mistakes. You can't be harsh on yourself, but you have to quickly learn."
Arshdeep bowls at 130 clicks, has the ability to swing the ball. Irfan Pathan's hat-trick against Pakistan in 2006 is among his early memories of watching the game on TV. Pathan immediately became his idol. To hear his idol speak good words about his skillsets means a lot to Arshdeep. These days, he watches a lot of Mitchell Starc, even though his persona is very different to Starc's.
"I'm working with my coach Jaswant Rai, looking to increase my pace," he said. "I'm working on developing my arm speed and getting better rhythm in my run-up to help my consistency. I took a week off after the IPL, but since then, I've returned to training, trying to work up pace off a shorter run-up than what I've been used to. That is something Shami bhai too said I could do if I made a few tweaks. So yes, generating faster arm-speed is something I am consciously working on."
Arshdeep is aware of where his game is at and knows what his priorities are. One of them is to "not lose sight" of the end goal, and "not get carried away by the IPL adulation" as a lot of his seniors and family have advised. On the field, he wants to make "history for Punjab" and knows it is well within his grasp if he can continue to take the kind of strides he has in recent times.
"I want to be successful in red-ball cricket, and take Punjab to the Ranji Trophy knockouts first," he says. "I don't know when we last even won, so I want to be part of history. Take them to the knockouts and once there, maybe even a Ranji title. In white-ball cricket, I want to be consistent and be a dependable bowler."
Arshdeep isn't much of a cricket watcher. He'd rather be out there playing. "I've only ever watched one game at the stadium," he laughed. "It was a Champions League T20 game between Auckland Aces and Kings XI Punjab six years or so ago.
"I used to watch a lot of hockey, though," he said. "In Punjab, hockey is big and my dad used to take us to watch hockey games. I remember when we were four of us on a scooter. Me standing in front, dad riding, my sister and mum at the back. That time, my dad kept saying, 'When you become big and do well in life, get a big car and we can all go and watch sport comfortably, I still remember.'"
Arshdeep has now fulfilled that dream. He owns an SUV, a Toyota Fortuner. Drives to the stadium have gotten more comfortable, and now it's the drive to succeed in all formats and, perhaps one day, play for the country that pushes him. And he now has all of this with his family's support. Canada has well and truly been put on the back burner.