Teenage fast bowler using different routes, including potential university scholarship, in his bid to return to national team
Yodhin Punja has wide-angle lens on while targeting UAE comeback
Yodhin Punja, the youngest player to represent the UAE in both first-class and one-day international cricket, is eyeing a permanent spot in the national team after spending a fruitful summer in the United Kingdom.
And he is preparing a number of different options to get to his objective.
The young fast bowler, who is training with the UAE at the moment, is shortlisted as a reserve in the 18-strong squad ahead of the nine-day Asia Cup Qualifier, which gets under way in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on August 29.
The winner of the competition will qualify for the Asia Cup, scheduled to be held in the UAE from September 15-30.
Irrespective of whether Punja makes the final cut, or not, he has sent out the right signals to the national selectors.
“It terms of UAE cricket, I have always said I’m available to join the squad for training – even if they include me in the 30-player squad,” Punja said.
“Apart from that, there are team owners who are willing to fly me down whenever they have domestic tournaments.
"By doing so, the selectors will know that I’m making an effort to play for the national team.”
Punja, 19, joined Claremont School in the UK two years ago with the intention of pursuing a career in cricket.
Unfortunately, he was set back by a knee injury while bowling at a trial organised by Royal Challengers Bangalore, the Indian Premier League franchise. Surgery forced him to miss an entire season of cricket.
But Punja, who last played for the UAE in the drawn Intercontinental Cup series against Scotland in August 2016, seems to have returned a better player – both physically and mentally.
“I’m back to 100 per cent [fitness] and looking forward for the opportunities, both in the UAE national team and the franchise teams,” he said.
Having recently represented his school, as well as the Marylebone Cricket Club Universities (MCCUs), Punja has proved to be not just match-fit but also match-ready. His record speaks for it.
He took 4-20 while representing MCC Sussex in a Twenty20 match against MCC Kent. He followed it up with figures of 3-9 against Eastbourne, also in a T20 game. He proved strong with bat, too, racking up four fifties in the school games.
The MCCUs are based in Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Leeds, Loughborough and Oxford. They offer many courses for students of all academic levels, with the aim of providing young cricketers the chance to receive top-level coaching and playing opportunities while furthering their education.
"I had a good summer in England," Punja said. “I know myself better. My pace has gone over 130 kilometres per hour and [I have] better control.
"Whatever is in my hands I’m doing it well, and the coaches I have worked with are happy with me."
Even as he trains with his national teammates, Punja is waiting for other breaks.
For starters, he is hoping to join Cardiff Metropolitan University in September after receiving a sports scholarship on the condition that he clears the Advanced Level Examination. The results will be announced on August 15.
Cardiff Metropolitan, one of the leading sports universities in the UK, offers scholarships to just 14 students every year. Punja believes he is very fortunate to have received one.
"Hopefully I get in there, and Cardiff is a good place to continue to develop my cricket abilities," said Punja, who is bracing himself for a busy year if he gets the opportunity.
He will undergo 16 weeks of personalised training, followed by pre-season preparations from February to March. The domestic season starts in April. And if Punja succeeds, he could well be playing first-class cricket for Cardiff MCCU against some England's best county teams.
“I’ll try to use that as a platform to get into other leagues, perhaps, some of the smaller leagues like the Afghanistan Premier League, Emirates Twenty20,” he said. “The Karnataka Premier League [an Indian state-based T20 competition] is a big thing back in India.
“I want to put myself at the auctions in the Under 23 player category. I think I stand a good chance.
“If I put my foot in these kind of leagues, it will give me good exposure and be seen with big players. I should get my name in there if I perform well.
"That’s the aim.”