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'I've called my Mum and Dad every day for 12 years. Without them I wouldn't be here playing for Ireland'

Simi Singh will this evening face the country of his birth, 12 years after first coming to Ireland to chase his dream.

IF SIMI SINGH’S career path had taken a different route, he could very well have been lining out for India against Ireland in the first of two Twenty20 internationals between the countries at a sold-out Malahide this evening.

Simi Singh Ireland cricketer Simi Singh. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That was the dream. To play for India. To follow in the footsteps of Sachin Tendulkar, whom he watched and idolised as a young boy growing up in Mohali, and to pursue a career as a professional cricketer. To wear the badge on his chest. It was all he ever wanted, all he ever knew.

But sport being sport — life being life — it didn’t happen. And there was no explanation. A prodigiously talented young all-rounder, Singh was destined for national recognition, but was cut adrift before he ever got the chance to truly exhibit his potential.

Singh’s nascent career had been on a steep upward curve, but when overlooked for the Punjab U19 team despite his performances demanding selection, he hit an unexpected barrier.

It left him angry, frustrated and disillusioned. It didn’t make sense, as Singh had backed up his enormous potential with an unprecedented weight of runs and wickets, most notably being voted best U14 all-rounder in India whilst staring for Chandigarh in a school’s competition.

And in a flash, his dream was taken away.

“I played underage representative cricket from the age of 14, and scored a lot of runs every year,” he tells The42. “I was the highest runs scorer in my district but didn’t get picked for the state team and it just didn’t add up. It was heartbreaking.

“It was made harder because nobody could explain it. My father has all the newspapers from all the games I scored runs in. I couldn’t have done any more really but it’s really political in India. The selection process is political and it wasn’t just about your performances. There’s a lot of corruption, or there was back then anyway.”

Players he had played against and with would continue their development in a cut-throat system, taking the necessary steps along the ladder towards the Holy Grail of selection for India and the global stardom that comes with it. He could only watch on.

But Singh was determined to fulfil his ambitions, and at the same time prove those who disregarded him wrong. At the age of 18, he told his parents that he would be moving to Ireland to study and chase the dream of being a professional cricketer.

“It wasn’t easy for them,” he says. “But they supported me. They let me chase my dream and never put pressure on me to change my mind.”

Singh contacted an old friend who was living and working in Dublin and after briefly flirting with the idea of trying his luck in the English system, decided Ireland offered him the best chance to make it work.

He arrived initially as a student, studying hotel management at the American College in Dublin, while playing club cricket for Malahide and when he wasn’t busy in the library or nets, worked in Woodie’s DIY store in Swords to stay afloat financially.

He was on the phone to his worried parents every day, assuring them he was okay.

Simi Singh SIngh first came to Ireland in 2006 as a student. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Living thousands of miles from home, it was far from a glamorous lifestyle but Singh understood the sacrifices required and was prepared to do everything he could to ensure his journey along the road less travelled wasn’t going to end in further disappointment.

“I came over to play for Ireland,” he states. “I was a bit naive as I didn’t know anything about Ireland but was desperate to succeed. I had a point to prove and left home frustrated.”

Singh’s performances in the Leinster league earned him a move to Old Belvedere as the club’s professional, and so began a first foray into coaching as he visited local schools to introduce the sport of cricket to children, some of whom mocked his accent.

“It was a really tough decision to leave home at the start because it was a culture shock,” he recalls. “I had never cooked before so I had to learn to do that for myself and I had to go to college here, and make new friends in a different city. It was a lot to digest but I got used to it slowly.

“Once I got into it and got the hang of studying and playing cricket, I really started to enjoy it and was enjoying the lifestyle outside of cricket, too.”

But the lure of home was always there, and the emergence of the Indian Premier League (IPL) was a major attraction for Singh as he considered a route back into the professional game in India.

After three years in Dublin, he moved home in a bid to get picked up by one of the Indian franchises for the star-studded and lucrative Twenty20 competition, but to no avail. Further rejection, further dejection.

“That set me back,” he rues. “I came back to Ireland in 2010 and had to start the citizenship process all over again.”

He signed for YMCA in Sandymount, who looked after his work permit and Visa applications, and so the pipe-dream — after a couple of stumbling blocks — was back on track in Ireland.

But it was a slog. Singh committed endless hours to training as he worked tirelessly to make incremental improvements in all aspects of his game, maintaining an insatiable determination to prosper when others would have fallen by the wayside defeated and deterred.

Selection for the Leinster Lightning side as an overseas player was a significant step on the back of a couple of prolific seasons with the bat in YMCA colours, and it seemed the hard work meant it was only a matter of time before an Ireland call-up came.

Yet it wasn’t forthcoming.

“I thought maybe it was too late for me because I was already 29,” Singh says, looking back on a period in 2016 when he felt the world was against him again.

Simi Singh The 31-year-old in inter-pro action for Leinster Lightning. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I had given up all hope of playing international cricket and I just started enjoying club cricket a bit more and took all the pressure off myself. I enjoyed it so much more and that was the turning point I feel. I was playing with freedom, and no stress.

“Because I had been consumed by it [the dream]. I felt like it was too hard for someone from outside [Ireland] to get in straight away because the other lads have been playing underage cricket and brought up in the Irish system. It was tough to break into that.”

His first chance came in the form of an Ireland A tour to England in April 2017, during which he scored heavily with the bat and also impressed with the ball, taking wickets with his off-spin bowling. In the middle of it, he flew back to Dublin for the small matter of his Irish citizenship ceremony at the Convention Centre.

“21 April 2017,” he smiles.

“It was a really emotional day as all your hard work has paid off and everything feels worth it. I flew back from Bristol, attended the ceremony and then hopped back on a plane again to play a match the next day. It was a very special day. To be able to finally call myself Irish. That meant a lot.”

Singh was straight back into business, scoring a brilliant 97 the following day as Ireland A ended their mini-tour with victory over Gloucestershire seconds. Two weeks later, he received the call to say he had been selected for the senior team.

His debut came against New Zealand at the start of a tri-series last summer and, fittingly, it was in Malahide — having worked and played there during those early, uncertain days back in 2006 — where all the hard work, the sacrifices, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, came to a gloriously fulfilling end.

That day remains a blur. The scorecard shows Singh scored nine runs, and Ireland were well-beaten. But that day meant so much more than what the scorecard reads. It meant everything to Ireland’s Indian-born all-rounder, ODI cap number 52.

“You have to give up your Indian citizenship if you take up citizenship of another country so it was a big decision,” he continues. “I spoke to my parents and they left the decision to me. I had made my life in Ireland and playing for them is what I wanted.

“Playing my first game was just magical. All your emotions are all over the place. You think of those days in your childhood when you dream of international cricket and it all goes through your head. The journey I had been on from a 10-year-old boy in Mohali.

“It makes you appreciate and savour it more, knowing you have come through a lot. The harder you work for something, the more you cherish it.

“Let’s say if I was given the cap 10 years ago after a couple of years here, I wouldn’t have valued it that much. But now after all that time, all those matches, all those journeys travelled, when you finally get it you appreciate it more. Every day is just beautiful, it’s what I always wanted to do and a dream come true for me. I just cherish every day at training, being outdoors. I just love it.”

Barry McCarthy and Simi Singh Singh made his Ireland debut against New Zealand in May 2017. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Since his debut last year, the 31-year-old has particularly impressed in the Twenty20 format and his performances in the recent tri-series against Netherlands and Scotland, means he has become an indispensable member of Graham Ford’s side.

Singh’s worth to the team was not only underlined in his inclusion on Cricket Ireland’s central contract list at the start of the year, but his story is a valuable selling point for the organisation, with nearly 50% of adults playing cricket in Leinster now from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.

His face has adorned promotional billboards dotted around the city centre in the build-up to what promises to be another memorable week for Irish cricket, as a combined crowd of over 16,000 cram inside the idyllic Village ground at Malahide for two games which will be streamed into billions of homes across the world.

Facing the country of his birth, and players who he lined up alongside during his schoolboy days, will be a particularly significant moment for Singh, with his parents the centre of a media storm back home as the Indian press clamour to tell the story of their lost talent.

Now, however, he is a fully-fledged Irish citizen and having sacrificed everything to achieve what others told him wasn’t possible, Singh and his family will take huge pride and satisfaction from this week, regardless of what happens on the pitch.

“It will be really emotional,” he adds. “It will be hard to say now what it will be like. The country I was born in and now to be finally playing against them. It’s just something I’ll cherish and enjoy.

“It’s for my Mum and Dad more than anyone. I’ve called them every day since I’ve been here over the last 12 years because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here playing for Ireland. I really appreciate all their support. I’m delighted for them more than me.”

That call home will carry added poignancy this morning.

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Ryan Bailey

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