Growing up, Raj Limbani had two options, either focus on studies like his other siblings or help his father in farming. But unlike his brother and sisters, Raj moved to Baroda, 550km away from Dayapar, a village in Rann of Kutch, to chase his dream of playing cricket.
“From our village, Pakistan border is only 27 km away. So generally, the kids from our village go to Ahmedabad, Surat or Baroda for studies. But in Raj’s case, it was different. In 2017, he moved to Baroda just to play cricket,” father Basant Patel tells the Indian Express.
“I am a farmer, so I told him to go and chase his dream. But if it won’t happen, our arandi’s farm (castor) is waiting for you. But right from a very young age, he had this passion towards the game, that sometimes even we failed to understand. But seeing him now playing for India puts a smile on my face,” he says.
The right-arm swing bowler Raj has picked up only five wickets in four matches, but he can take wickets with the new ball, which has given India an early burst that has eased the pressure on Indian spinners and helped them win all their matches in the tournament so far.
With no infrastructure and not a single turf wicket, Raj started bowling with a tennis ball. Once he made up his mind to be a professional cricketer, the tennis ball was replaced by heavy cork balls. Basant also recalls how his son has fought through the harsh climate of Kutch.
“We live in a desert. The weather is also very harsh be it summer or winter. I have seen him battling heat-stroke in the summers and dry cold of winters. But it never stopped him. Playing in the sand was also not easy and to buy any equipment, you will have to go to the nearest city, which is 100 km away,” recalls Basant.
In 2010, Basant’s elder brother Manilal Patel, who works in Gujarat Electricity Board took a transfer to Baroda after the family’s eldest daughter completed her intermediate. Seven years later, Raj, the youngest among the four joined them but not for studies. He came to pursue his dream.
Where Pathans, Pandyas trained
“My father took a transfer so that we can get a good education. The idea was that he would don the role of the parent in Baroda, while my uncle would look after the farm. With three of us, it worked completely fine, but in 2017, when Raj came, instead of looking for a good school, we were looking for a good cricket academy,” narrates Hardik Limbani, Raj’s cousin, who works in the thermal plant in Baroda.
“The famous Moti Bagh Cricket Club was only 4 kms away from our quarter. The cricket club is famous for producing the Pathan brothers (Yusuf and Irfan), then the Pandya brothers (Krunal and Hardik) and Deepak Hooda. We didn’t have any hesitation at all,” says Hardik.
Digvijay Singh Rathore, coach of Raj says it is not the talent or his background that caught his eye but it was the thought clarity that impressed him the most.
“First time, I met him was during the U-16 camp. When you ask any kid what they want to become, the natural answer will be ‘to play for India.’ But this guy came with a diary, where he has written down everything,” says Rathore.
“He has written it down that he first wants to play the U-16. In the first year of his U-19, he wants to attend the camp in NCA. Then he wanted to play the U-19 World Cup, followed by first-class cricket for Baroda, then India A and the last thing he mentioned was to represent India’s senior team. You don’t see such clarity in many budding cricketers. He has ticked all the boxes so far and with the kind of hunger he has, there is a high chance that he will play for the senior team, ” adds Rathore.
Before the World Cup Raj Limbani was not the first-choice seamer for India. He was fourth in line after Naman Tiwari, Aradhya Shukla, and Dhanus Gowda. But it was his incisive spell of 7/13 against Nepal in the Asia Cup that helped him jump ahead of the rest.
Back in Dayapar, Basant Patel tries to finish all his work by 1 pm, so that he can rush back to his house and watch India’s match.
“I have tweaked my routine a little for him. He has done his hard yards and I think credit must go to the coaches of Moti Bagh Club, who shaped his career. He once told me a story of how Irfan Pathan was impressed by his bowling at the club. I don’t exactly recall the year but it was before Covid. Before the tournament, Irfan Pathan was at the NCA with the team, and he had spent a good 10 or 12 days with them,” says Basant.