Spin from both ends: Unique teen tweaker living his dream

From net bowler with Delhi Capitals to a rookie contract with Tassie, ambidextrous spinner Nivethan Radhakrishnan is taking his first bold strides in the professional game

Of the 40-odd Australians who fled the Indian Premier League via the Maldives and emerged, safely, out of hotel quarantine in Sydney last month, Nivethan Radhakrishnan's presence among them was the most implausible.

Not that 'Nivvi' felt out of place.

"I am not like other kids," says the 18-year-old. "I am not like other people. I am not like other cricketers. I'm not better – I'm not worse – but I'm different."

For a month before India's COVID-19 surge penetrated the IPL bubble, Radhakrishnan had been in his own version of paradise. The Delhi Capitals, who had first seen him playing for an Australia Under-16 team in Dubai against Pakistan in 2019, had arranged for him to be a net bowler for the duration of the tournament.

As he recalls, a typical day involved bowling to Steve Smith, Marcus Stoinis and Shimron Hetmyer alongside Axar Patel, while Kagiso Rabada was steaming into Shikhar Dhawan and Prithvi Shaw in an adjoining net. For a cricket-mad teenager, this was the stuff of pure fantasy. The cherry on top was the chance to be in close quarters with Delhi coach, Ricky Ponting, who on one occasion in Ahmedabad told him to pad up towards the end of a training session and watched him bat for the best part of 30 minutes.

"Before I faced up, I would look out of the corner of my eye to see if he was still there," says Radhakrishnan. "And I was like, 'Ohh boy, I've got Ricky Ponting watching me bat! Oh my God – this is peak."

The story is all the more remarkable when you consider the fact this teenager had not progressed beyond the junior pathway and Premier Cricket until just recently, when both NSW and Tasmania offered rookie contracts for the coming summer.

So how did he wind up in the IPL bubble, living out his dream?

Well, as Radhakrishnan is at pains to point out, he is … different.

In addition to being an opening batter of considerable potential, he is also a spin bowler who can do something few in the history of the game have tried; he bowls with both arms.

Radhakrishnan is on the phone to after a day-long net session at Airey Park in Homebush, around the corner from where his family lived when they first moved to Sydney in 2013. Even after relocating a 40-minute drive away in Botany, the Radhakrishnan family – sometimes including his mother Hema and, before his radiography degree took priority in recent years, his brother Nikethan – would come here most days until the sun set. Stopping only to eat some of the curd rice his mother made fresh most mornings before they left, Nivvi would bowl (with alternating arms to an empty net, or occasionally to passers-by keen on facing him) or bat (with his dad, Radha, feeding the ball machine) for hours.

It was at an earlier practice session though, when the naturally right-handed Nivvi was about five or six years old, and the Radhakrishnans were still in India, that his dad suggested he try bowling with his left arm. 

"I remember the sentence very clearly," says Nivvi. "'No-one has done it – ever. So why not?'"

It is an attitude the teenager has adopted with a rare vigour.

Image Id: 1D0A2FF0CF494EEABF25951CF5ED97E3 Image Caption: Bowling for CA XI in U17 Championships, 2018-19 // CA

As he progressed through junior ranks, Radhakrishnan says his skills were often seen as something of a novelty. To master bowling with both arms was a more difficult task than playing a switch hit or reverse sweep, or even taking up the opposite stance to one's natural handedness (like Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Clarke have all done in recent times) to ensure the dominant hand remains the grip's top hand.

"He's probably one of the more naturally talented and gifted players to have come through our pathway system," says NSW talent manager David Freedman, who has followed Radhakrishnan's rise from the U13s.

"The first thing that struck me was his love for the game, even at a young age. He was always very confident and very ambitious, but certainly not in an arrogant way and he always had that wonderful work ethic.

"He was always prepared to experiment and try new things and make mistakes as he tried to improve. That work ethic was rare in such a young player."

Freedman, himself a former left-arm wrist spinner for NSW, has noticed a considerable improvement in Radhakrishnan's left-arm orthodox spin over the past 12 months and vouched that it is now as strong as his right-arm off spin. For others though, his attempt to hone both was nothing more than a party trick. Even as a Gen-Z kid who has grown up through the social media boom, dealing with the constant feedback on what he sees as a part of his identity has had its challenges.

"I've had to deal with and communicate and experience so many things regarding my image as a cricketer," he says. "Despite me being only 18, I've played cricket seriously for almost 15 years.

"I started playing U14 games when I was four.

"I've had people telling I'm the greatest, I've had people telling me, 'You bowling with both hands is just a gimmick, mate', I've had experienced cricketers I've really wanted to make conversation with, famous ones, that told me I was trash and that my skillset was not going to hold.

"But I've also had random people walking through the park see me (bowl) and tell me, 'Mate, this is the greatest thing I've ever seen, and I don't even know cricket'."

Image Id: 4305430560164520A7A155B2DC5DCEEC Image Caption: In action for NSW Metro at the 2019-20 National Championships // CA

It is more than two decades on from John Buchanan declaring ambidexterity was the next natural evolution for elite cricketers, yet bowlers competent with both arms remain about as common now as they were when he was coaching Australia during their glory years. Jemma Barsby is the most notable Australian to do it, but other recent examples have almost exclusively originated from Asia. Sri Lankan Kamindu Mendis and Bangladesh's Shaila Sharmin have done it in international cricket in recent years, while Pakistani paceman Yasir Jan had been touted as being capable of bowling over 130kph with both arms, but has not progressed to play any elite-level cricket.

England's fielding coach Carl Hopkinson suggested to The Guardian in 2019 that there could be benefit to players who bowl with one hand and throw with the other (former England allrounder Samit Patel is one example) to learn to throw with both arms. Radhakrishnan, perhaps surprisingly, says throwing left-handed does not come as naturally to him as bowling left-handed does and can only manage left-handed flicks over a short distance.

"He's pretty unique," says Freedman. "You get the odd gifted kid who can (bowl or throw) with both hands but Niv is pretty rare in this space.

"It's the old 10,000-hours theory – to get that good at one skill, you have to devote that much time to it, so whether people are that time effective that they could devote the time to it (is debatable)."

With so few examples to model his game on, it is little wonder Radhakrishnan has idolised Sir Garfield Sobers since he was old enough to know who he was. He reckons he has read every book ever written about the West Indies legend and has even sourced a few second-hand copies of rarer editions off eBay.

"When I play cricket I try to embody Garry as much as possible," he says. "Sir Garry, to me, is the greatest player that ever existed, and I do not think anyone will ever come close."

Image Id: 8CA359622CD746B2BCD9FA898E4232ED Image Caption: Radhakrishnan played for Sydney Uni in Premier Cricket last summer // Sydney Uni CC

Radhakrishnan knows he is not yet Sir Garfield Sobers; after hitting two first-grade centuries for Hawkesbury in 2019-20, he averaged only 11 with the bat for Sydney University last season, though his 23 wickets at 20.09 highlighted promising progress with the ball. But his decision to take up Tasmania's contract offer rather than NSW's – and put his final year of school on hold – marks a chance to establish himself as a unique prospect in Australian cricket. The Tigers, for now, see things through a more traditional lens. Tasmania coach Jeff Vaughan said Radhakrishnan's ambidexterity was a negligible factor in their pursuit of him.

"We certainly see him as an opening batter who can bowl some predominately right-arm off-spin," Vaughan said last week.

But Radhakrishnan is eager to show he is different.

His priceless experience at the IPL, notwithstanding the tragic circumstances of their early exit out of the country where much of his extended family still live, has only increased his appetite show he's the real deal.

"Vaughany and the people at Cricket Tas have recruited me for a reason," he says. "If Vaughany wants me to be an opening batter and not even touch the ball, then that's what I'll do because he knows what's best for Tasmania.

"But if you ask me personally, I am the purest of allrounders.

"It's definitely going to take some time. I am still evolving as a cricketer. Even I don't know what I am.

"I'm happy being the opening batter who can bowl – for now."

Main images: Ian Bird