Meet Nicholas Pooran, child of franchise cricket

"You need to play every single game for franchise cricket like it's your last game, because you want to stay and play" Getty Images

Trinidad, late in 2017. Nicholas Pooran is in Sunil Narine's house to hang out. With him is his mentor Kieron Pollard, and Dwayne Bravo. It's Trinidad T20 royalty. At this stage Pooran is barely known other than to close watchers of the CPL or to people who follow random T20 drafts. But his fellow Trini mates know all about him.

Pollard tells him to learn how to bat by playing first-class cricket. It is Pollard who found Pooran an agent and got him to play franchise cricket while still little more than an ESPNcricinfo profile. But it is Bravo who gives him advice that changes everything.

"Dwayne was telling me, 'Pooran, you can still learn from franchise cricket, man. You just have to learn quickly, stop making the same mistakes over and over. And you have to know what you want as a cricketer.'

"From that day, I sat down, talking to my girlfriend and parents, and when I realised what I really wanted, that helped me a lot. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play, and gradually I started improving.

"The last two years, that was a process of my development. Not every young player gets these opportunities, but I could understand different cultures, different conditions, and learn from different people. Two years ago I didn't know my strengths as a batsman, or my role in teams or situations. Now I am starting to put it together. Now I understand when I need to play a certain way, and what shots to play when, and it's working out for me. But I didn't happen overnight. From 20 to 23."

ALSO READ: How Nicholas Pooran came back from the brink

At 23, with three first-class games to his name, Pooran became a marquee player for Guyana Amazon Warriors, was sold for Rs 4.2 crore (about US$590,000) to Kings XI Punjab, batted No. 4 in a World Cup, and made his first ever professional hundred.

It didn't happen overnight, but like many of his innings, it happened fast. Nicholas Pooran is a child of franchise cricket.

***

"When I woke up from the accident, the cast was on my leg. I couldn't move my toes. I knew it was bad. I asked the doctor if I could play cricket again. They weren't sure if I'd be able to run again, and my blood pressure went straight up, as all these things went running through my mind. But I kept believing."

That was how Pooran described the few minutes when he woke up after a car crash in 2015. He has been keen to move on from being the player known as a survivor of a car accident in which he suffered a torn patella tendon, fractured tibia and fractured ankle.

Before that he was the fourth highest run scorer at the 2013-14 Under-19 World Cup, who had just begun his first-class career: he had played only three games, but Trinidad kept him on their books and allowed him access to their physiotherapist. Still, after a while their help stopped.

Pooran felt as you would expect a young man to if he was left to fend for himself in his late teens. "Now the way I think about certain things, it is different, because of the way they treated me. But I felt things could've been handled differently for me, and I hope that in the future they will be for other players. I hope whatever board is involved handles that better. I don't want that to happen to anybody else."

If this story went forward normally, Pooran would either have disappeared back to university to try a new career, or fought his way back into the Trinidad team. Instead, Pollard set Pooran up with Eddie Tolchard at Insignia Sports - one of the leading agents for T20 cricketers - a considerable step up if you want to travel the world playing for franchises. Pooran also took up any offers to play cricket, including in random small tournaments for cashed-up club cricketers in places like Seattle. Then he was picked up in the Bangladesh Premier League.

"I had a decision to make - to go to the BPL or play in the West Indies, and I chose BPL because I wasn't sure how long my body was going to last. Then I was suspended by CWI [for playing in the BPL]. So I started playing T20, PSL, BPL, HK Blitz and IPL while I was banned." A freelance cricketer was born.

***

Twice in this year's World Cup, Pooran was asked to do press after the game, and both times he was nearly in tears. The first time was when he scored 63 against England, the second when he scored a hundred against Sri Lanka. Both times he looked entirely bereft, though they have been his two biggest performances for West Indies. Even while he was scoring runs, losing bothered him.

They say the difference between younger pros and older ones is that the older ones know how to lose. It's part of the job - you get used to it, or at least learn how to handle it. But for Pooran the World Cup was on-the-job training in how to play one-day cricket. Before he was picked to play England in an ODI in February this year, he had appeared in only 18 one-day domestic matches. In that first ODI he was caught for a duck fourth ball, on the long-off boundary.

For most of his career he has batted down the order in T20 sides, coming in to instantly swing. It meant that he didn't make many runs or stay in long, but because of his lack of fear and incredible eye, he played some astonishing cameos.

ALSO READ: New and improved Pooran revels in T10 freedom

By the time he got to the World Cup, he had moved up the order in many of the leagues he played in. "In the Global T20 in Canada [2018] I got the opportunity to bat four, instead of going in the last five overs and bash[ing] it. And then I did it in CPL. I opened the batting in T10 and then BPL at four. And this is all in the last 12 months."

Pooran was batting at four in a World Cup. Australia had Steve Smith at four, New Zealand used Ross Taylor, and Eoin Morgan did the job for England. All expert middle-overs batsmen. None of them learnt their trade in a Canadian pop-up league. West Indies had someone who had been picked from T20 leagues with no real experience in the position or one day cricket. And he averaged 50 at a tick over a run a ball in a team that had two wins and six losses.

***

Older players and coaches are often hard to please. They are always saying young players aren't ready yet. That they need to grow and learn. Not with Pooran. From Bravo believing he can crack franchise cricket first and then the world, to Pollard getting him an agent when his future was unclear, senior players and coaches have been pushing him since the beginning.

At the World Cup, Roddy Estwick, the West Indies assistant coach, who has been something of a father figure to this generation of Caribbean cricketers, said, "I've always believed in Nicholas. I went to Dubai with him, and I saw him play the best white-ball innings I've ever seen anybody play." He got 143 in a youth World Cup game against Australia, out of 208. "So I'm not surprised by his talent. What's surprised me is it's taken as long as this to really come through."

Pooran's captain, Jason Holder, also talked him and his "ability to change gears" up. "He has every shot in the locker," Holder said, "and the best we can do for him is to make sure we have things in place to help him develop." Chris Gayle went with "savage youngster", "mini Universe Boss" and "world-record beater".

***

"I haven't played that many 50-over games, but more than 100 T20 games. The difference is just concentrating for a longer time, doing the same things you're doing in a T20, but for longer. Fifty-over cricket, you have more time. I did find myself giving away my wicket when I got a really good start in the World Cup. So it's up to me to learn from the mistakes and remember it's a 50-over game and you have plenty of time still."

In the first four games of the World Cup, Pooran scored double figures in every match; the lowest was 25, the highest his 63 against an England attack in favourable bowling conditions. In that innings it looked like he had worked out how to bat longer. It was extreme on-the-job training, ended by a Jofra Archer lifter.

"In 50-over cricket there is a period where you need to bat like a four-day batsman, a T20 batsman, and then there is a mix of both. It's very interesting. So it's for me to realise when it is crucial in the game to bat like [in] T20 or value my wicket or sacrifice myself for the team."

Against Sri Lanka, West Indies were chasing 339 to win, they fell to 84 for 4 and 199 for 6. Pooran made 118 from 103 balls.

To watch him is to watch two batsmen sewn together - one from a long line of Trinidad stylists, and the other a West Indian T20 hitter. He's graceful and flamboyant on the off side. He hits over cover like Rodin moulded him for it. There's a soft touch but the ball disappears. Then he hits to leg, front leg out in the power zone, throwing himself through the crease and making contact, crushing balls in a way that guys his size are not known for. The grace is replaced by urgency as he humps balls over leg.

Sri Lanka saw all this before a rank long hop from Angelo Mathews stopped him from winning the game.

"I wanted to play under no pressure," Pooran said about that innings. "I understand my game much more now, I am more confident now. I have been fixing some technical things and also looking at concentrating more. Looking to make consistent runs, analysing the game, assessing the conditions, looking at bowling line-ups. So when I get to the match, I want the hard work to pay off."

That first professional hundred was an international one, and he almost carried his side over the line in a 300-plus chase with the tail.

***

"Wow, jeez, he picks up length fast," says one shocked net bowler.

"I'm not bowling another one back to him," replies the other.

When they go fuller, Pooran launches them over extra cover in the Headingley nets before West Indies' final World Cup game, against Afghanistan.

While he is smoking net bowlers, the entire West Indian coaching staff is giving him advice. He is told repeatedly: lead with your head, not your hands. But his hands don't listen; they're so fast, they play shots at speeds that make them look blurred from square-on. Coaches drop by to chat. He listens to everyone, shows much respect, faces the next ball and smashes it again.

Pooran is a work in progress, but it's becoming more apparent that he is also a work of art.

He is the last one out there training, working on his footwork. He is often the last one out on the field. And in the West Indies team, that takes some doing. Shai Hope is famed for his lengthy practice sessions, and quite a few of the younger West Indians are net rats.

Before the Bangladesh game, he was in the nets at Taunton. The team had finished training, Jason Holder's press conference was finished, and there were only two people left on the ground. The groundsmen had rolled the other nets and were now waiting to roll this one last net.

But there is Pooran, doing repetitive drills with West Indies spin coach Mushtaq Ahmed. Mushy is yelling at Pooran, who is playing shots as he walks towards the retreating coach. They have one where he has to drive the ball, but without over-stretching past a pad. And then Mushy bowls slow balls - club-cricket balls, really - and Pooran has to keep his shape while he bashes them. There are more drills, more advice. Pooran takes it all as seriously as he can, watching each underarm ball like it's from Mitchell Starc. It's possibly why he doesn't see the players and coaches are getting on the team bus until it's almost too late. Then he runs around, picking up the balls for Mushy, before picking up his bag and sprinting for the change room.

Pooran made gutsy calls and then backed them up with hard work. He is clearly smart - on and off the field - and has incredible talent. Young players can often be coddled in domestic set-ups; if they show talent, they will be given a long lead to prove it. If you're a T20 overseas pro, the best agent and friends won't save you if you don't make runs. Or as Pooran puts it, "You need to play every single game for franchise cricket like it's your last game, because you want to stay and play."

It doesn't matter how he made it, it's clear he wants to stay and play. And he is not the first freelance cricketer, but he may be the first cricketer raised by them.