The first stop is the Caribbean where he’ll play in the upcoming CPL for the Barbados Tridents
Smit Patel, an Under-19 World Cup winner with India in 2012, has officially retired from all forms of cricket under the BCCI’s ambit to pursue his American dream. This also makes him eligible to play in franchise tournaments outside India, and his first stop will be the Caribbean, where he will represent the Barbados Tridents in the CPL this August.
“It’s a new innings for me,” Patel told ESPNcricinfo from Arizona, where he is representing the New Jersey Blackcaps, a club side, at a weekend tournament. “It’s been a different sort of a journey. Starting with the highs of the Under-19 World Cup, then the frustration of not finding a place as a wicketkeeper and then moving four teams [Gujarat, Tripura, Goa and Baroda] within India for opportunities.
“All this is bound to happen when there’s stifling competition, so I’ve got no complaints. I’m blessed to have played for India at a world event – few get that chance. So I’m moving on with happy memories. All my paperwork with the BCCI is complete. I’ve sent in my retirement letter. So the India chapter of my cricket career is over. If I return, it’ll only be to train here for a month or so every year when it’s snowing back in the US.”
Patel isn’t a stranger to America though. He is a green-card holder – meaning he can live and work there permanently – having spent considerable time in the country since 2010. His family had migrated from Gujarat to Pennsylvania and currently lives in Easton, where his father runs a gas station, and the plan of having a better life has worked out well.
It is this security, along with a two-year Major League Cricket (MLC) contract, Patel said, that gave him the confidence to try and forge a playing career in the USA. As things stand, the league has been pushed back because of the Covid-19 pandemic and is now set to kick-off in 2023.
“Yes, having played for 12 years in India, to suddenly pack up and leave can be intimidating,” he said. “But since my family was already here and they have set themselves up here, the decision was somewhat easier than just having to turn up here and look out for yourself. I’d been doing that in India for a decade now – living there to just play cricket and come back here during the off-season. I’d spent nine months of lockdown last year here, and I’ve been back here since April. Also signing up with MLC was a surety that I’m part of a system here.”
Patel’s cricket career in India was at best a stop-start affair. After becoming a breakout star at the 2012 Under-19 World Cup along with Unmukt Chand, B Aparajith and Sandeep Sharma, to name a few, Patel had to contend with the frustration of being in the reserves for a better part of a few years at Gujarat, where their captain Parthiv Patel was the first-choice wicketkeeper.
This frustration of not getting a regular berth in the team then took him to Tripura for three seasons. When their new administration opted not to have Patel as a “guest player”, he moved to Goa. Ahead of the truncated 2020-21 season, he signed with Baroda, so that he could play with a “better team”.
In all, Patel finished his India chapter with 3278 first-class runs in 55 games at an average close to 40, including 11 centuries and 14 half-centuries. He also featured in 43 List A matches and 28 T20s, scoring 1234 and 708 runs, respectively. Coincidentally, Patel’s final first-class and List A appearances in India came against Gujarat, his original team, in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
“No doubt I’ve moved around teams, but I only did that because I didn’t want to stagnate and get opportunities wherever I could,” he said. “I didn’t get picked in the IPL either, so I had to find ways to keep the wheel turning. I’ve had good stints at all the team’s I’ve represented. Tripura and Goa were challenging because I was playing for teams wanting to prove themselves.”
Patel must now spend three years in the USA – including at least nine months in a year – to become eligible to qualify for the national team. He should be eligible to play for USA “if everything goes to plan” in late 2022, by when he will be 29 with “my best years ahead of me”.
Patel has already spent a bit of time at the USA national camps in Texas, under new head coach J Arun Kumar, the former Karnataka captain and coach, and Saurabh Netravalkar, the captain. Incidentally, Netravalkar, like Patel, was part of India’s Under-19 World Cup squad from 2010, alongside the likes of KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and Jaydev Unadkat.
“I spent a bit of time at the national camp, met JAK and the others,” Patel said. “They have been pretty welcoming of me and the decision I’ve taken to try and forge a career here. I still must score runs, perform well and do everything asked of me to get selected. Mere eligibility doesn’t guarantee anything, but I’m willing to put in the hard work and try and carve out a second coming of sorts in my career in America.”
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo