Challenges spur Param Uppal to new heights

Param Uppal looks on Getty Images

Harbhajan Singh is a die-hard India supporter, but come Saturday, he will be rooting for Australia, particularly when his grandson Param Uppal takes the field at the Under-19 World Cup final in Mount Maunganui.

In Chandigarh, he used to make three-year old Param sit on his lap and divert his attention to the cricket while his parents were away at work. More than a decade later, Harbhajan remembers this fondly in Queenstown, where he has followed Australia's tournament up until the quarter-final. He flew home to Sydney before the semi-final, with his daughter-in-law Jaspreet, Param's mother, who had to return to work, but will be "watching from start to finish on finals day," says Devinder Singh Uppal, Param's father, who has stayed back in New Zealand with a few other parents.

"I applied for leaves six months ago, even before he was selected," says Devinder, who works at the New South Wales transport department. "I always wanted to be there if he was picked."

Barring an injury, Param's selection was all but certain in April 2017 when he captained Australia Under-19s for a home series against Sri Lanka. On debut, he scored a hundred too. Later in the year, he was awarded Player of the Series in Australia's Under-19 ODI championship for being the highest run-scorer.

The Uppals moved to Australia from India in 2003 when Param was four years old. Devinder, a lawyer in the Haryana High Court, gave up his practice of 10 years to shift base while Jaspreet completed a teaching course in Sydney to take up a job at a school. Param grew up in an environment that is typical of most Indian families - play cricket, but not at the expense of academics.

Around the time Param was making waves at the junior circuit in New South Wales, he turned down a full scholarship at The King's School, one of Sydney's most prestigious sporting schools. His mother wanted him to study at a selective school where only the cream of the academically inclined come. "I realised I had to have both plans, education is a big deal," Param says. "I did well at selective school considering I didn't attend classes most of the times. Plan B is key, obviously cricket is Plan A."

As an eight-year old, Param started, like most boys his age, playing soft ball cricket at home, until a shopping trip with family provided the spark for his cricketing pursuits. "We were out shopping one evening when we saw a stall of Kellyville Cricket Club, who were recruiting nine and ten-year olds. We enrolled him on the spot."

Param was first selected for the Under-12 representative team of Blacktown, a suburb in western Sydney. Three years in, as a 10-year old, he was named captain of the Under-12 team. He would go on to lead them across various age-group levels from 2008 to 2013. It was around this time, his batting started to flourish.

"I think the Under-14s were a turning point for me, personally," Param says. "Till 11 or 12, I just played to have fun."

Giving up aloo paranthas, a typical breakfast in any Punjabi household, to follow a strict diet prescribed by his team's trainer, is an example of how serious he was.

For two successive years, Param was awarded the New South Wales District Cricket Association's best junior batsman award. "After that, he said 'I want to play cricket seriously.' Because he himself said it without me or my wife pushing him, we decided to encourage him," Devinder says. "To sit in the members' stand at SCG for the first time and receive an award was a great moment for him."

Realising the need to nurture him further, Devinder would work morning shifts - 3am to 11am - before returning home for some nap and get ready to drive Param to the cricket after he would return from school. This would become a routine for a better part of Param's middle school days.

"Around the time he got the NSW Player of the Year was when I realised the need to get him into individual coaching. He started training under Anthony Clarke, a former state cricketer. His schedule was: private coaching thrice a week, club game Saturday and representative cricket on Sunday. Whatever remaining time he had was for studying. So whether he scored runs or not, he knew he'd have to come home and study, so that helped divert his mind on bad days and balance things out on good days. You can't put all the eggs in one basket."

Since his Under-17 days, Beau Casson, the former Australia left-arm spinner, and Phil Jaques, the former batsman, have coached Param.

"As much as you want to look good and play freely, I've worked hard on getting my fundamentals right, focusing on my technique and playing correctly," Param says.

"I've tried to build my game to different scenarios, it's an ongoing process. I think you can't really think there is any one particular style you want to play. It's about being versatile. I've also now developed offspin to add another string to my bowl. It helps to get into teams, I guess (laughs)."

For Devinder, the job of seeing his only son take steps into professional cricket is only half done now, but he constantly keeps challenging him to get better. "His grandfather used to give him one dollar for every run he made right from his Under-16s. Four years ago, I happened to tell him: 'Get into the Australia Under-19 team and I'll get you a car.' In December, Devinder registered a Mercedes Benz in Param's name.

After the Under-19 World Cup, Param's next task alongside his cricket - he's already earned a New South Wales and Sydney Thunder rookie contract - is to resume his commerce and law degree that he put on pause to prepare for the tournament. Devinder is now looking forward to giving his son a new challenge, but quickly adds: "But don't write or ask me about what I'll get him if he achieves it."

Sure enough, a baggy green figures on both their lists.