Almost Famous: A life in cricket
In a cricket crazy country, what happens when your father is a World Cup winner? When you are marked for the India team, you make it, notch up the record for the best bowling performance by an Indian in an ODI, and then fade away? The life of Stuart Binny, who, at 35, will turn out for minnows Nagaland at this year’s Ranji Trophy
Stuart Binny is talking about trolls.
For his cricket idols, the country’s recently retired stars, who played when the scope of the internet was still nascent, there were crowds who torched effigies.
In the era in which Binny’s father—the 1983 World Cup-winning hero Roger—took the field, there was the odd heckler in the stands.
For Binny’s generation, and especially Binny, the hecklers are everywhere and nowhere; everybody and anybody with an opinion and a mobile phone.
“It is what it is,” Binny says, crossing his arms and staring at the large tribal tattoo sneaking past the sleeve of his gym-buffed arm. “It took time but now I’ve learned to laugh about it. But that hasn’t stopped me from getting shocked at how silly some of the comments can get.”
‘Silly’ is putting it lightly. Binny isn’t active on Twitter the way he is, say, on the photo-sharing platform, Instagram. But his Twitter handle, despite lying dormant for many days, still makes for a compelling case-study into the public image of an athlete who has spent his career on the fringes of “Team India”, the country’s apex sports team.
The last time Binny tweeted was a year-and-a-half ago, on June 11, 2018, and it wasn’t even about cricket; it was a simple congratulatory message to the Indian football team after they had beaten Kenya 2-0 to win the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai.
In reply, he received a torrent of troll abuse. After removing the ones with expletives, the ones targeting his wife (the cricket-presenter Mayanti Langer) and the ones not written in English, we are left with:
“worst player i have ever seen”
“hello abhishek bachan oops sorry Stuart binny…wt ever bth are same”;
“East or west hardik is best”
About three weeks before this final post, Binny had retweeted a tweet by his IPL employers, Rajasthan Royals. It was a picture of Binny facing a camera, with the caption: “Lights, camera, action! The multiple moods of Stu!!” Employing the same methodology as before, here are some of the replies:
“Dude! You should retire from cricket! Spoiled the match!”
“It’s time Binny pls retire,, and give chance to more deserving kids from not so influenced family.. like yours.. you are terribly in cricket…”
Binny has heard it all before, and more. After the messages he received on a fateful day three years ago, the 35-year old is all but immune to poison-tipped remarks.
On August 27, 2016, in Lauderhill, Florida, the all-rounder was brought on to bowl by captain MS Dhoni in the eleventh over of a T20 International match against the West Indies. On strike was a raging Evin Lewis, batting on 51 and a strike-rate of 200 before Binny had even bowled a ball. Lewis then went on to smack Binny for five consecutive sixes. Thirty two runs came from the over, the most expensive by an Indian in a T20I, and the second-most expensive in the format.
It was his first and last over in the game; and thus far, the last over he has bowled in international cricket too.
To relive that, and what went down later on social media, cannot be easy. But Binny shrugs. “It happened,” he says, in earnest. “So it isn’t anything to hide behind.”
“I came on to bowl at a stage when they were flying. So, it was always going to be either that or me getting a wicket. There was never going to be an in-between, you know. Like I was never going to go for just 10 runs,” says Binny. “But what hurt more than the over was that we lost the game by such a narrow margin—one run.”
What ostensibly hurt even more than the loss for Binny’s family was the outpouring of bile on the Internet. None of the threatening remarks warrant a reprint, but the remarkable and composed reply by Binny’s wife—via a post on Instagram two days after the game—does.
“Dear Trollers,” Langer began, “I hope no one ever demands the death of your loved ones or sends you violent images threatening the same. Taunting me with suicide is shameful… I hope you find love and loyalty. But suggesting divorce, suggests you haven’t… I hope bullying us made you feel better about yourselves, cause otherwise was it really worth it?”
Binny is of course grateful for Langer’s reply—because it showed the trolls for who they are, faceless and formless bullies—and for her unconditional support. He is also grateful for his limited tryst with international cricket, including the Lauderhill game.
“Look, every ball I bowled in that over, was the best ball I could bowl, make no mistake,” he says. “I wasn’t just ambling in and putting the ball out there. I tried my best, but it wasn’t good enough on the day. Simple as that.”
It was the last of his 23 games for India, across all three formats. “Not too many people can say that. And the ones who are trying to get there, play Tests and ODIs and T20Is, I wish they do. It is most satisfying when your dreams come true,” he says, before taking a second to add, “And really, satisfying despite what people have to say.”
It makes me ask if any of these trolls have ever confronted him face to face. “No,” he says without a second thought. “I would have remembered, because that I will respect.”
That’s Roger’s son
In the coniferous foothills of Mussoorie and a good distance away from the smoky bustle of Dehradun lies the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy. Today, October 16, 2019, the academy is hosting the Nagaland versus Arunachal Pradesh fixture in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, India’s premier 50-over tournament at the domestic level.
Below the cover of rhododendrons and under the shelter of the sprawling brick pavilion sit two former India cricketers, who are now selectors, one at the national-level and the other for an IPL franchise. They are in loud conversation about the talent on display. “Pathetic, yaar. This is really pathetic,” says one. “I feel like I am on a paid holiday,” says the other. A few minutes pass as they discuss when their respective flights back to civilisation take off, before one of them says: “Hey, you know, Roger’s son is now playing for Nagaland.”
It was not said with any kind of undertone, or malice. It was simply stated. Roger’s son was indeed playing for Nagaland, having moved on from Karnataka this season, and Roger’s son was, well, indeed Roger’s son (padded up at this point and waiting for his turn with the bat), a fact that was often pointed out to him once he started playing cricket seriously.
“It wasn’t the case for a very long time when I was growing up in Bangalore. In school (Frank Anthony Public School) and college (St. Joseph’s) I was just Stuart,” Binny says. “The fact that my father was who he was, or that my surname was Binny meant nothing to me and nothing to my friends and teachers. All that came only later.”
He also claims that living in the Binny household did not guarantee his love for the game.
“I mean, obviously as a child I was in awe of his trophy cabinet and the stump that he had picked up from Lord’s after winning the World Cup. But honestly, I didn’t realise that my father was an important man when I was a kid. Mainly because my father didn’t take his fame seriously.”
But others did. Once he was a teenager and playing the game day in day out, Binny soon got an inkling that the coaches looked at him.
“Make no mistake, this wasn’t a good thing. They weren’t giving me preferential treatment or anything. They were basically judging me to see if I would live up to my surname; to see if I could be as good as Roger Binny,” he says. “I don’t think it was fair at that age. But I knew then itself how it was going to be if I made the game my career.”
The third Nagaland wicket has fallen at the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy, and in walks Binny, a head taller and a shoulder broader than most of the players in his team as well as the opposition’s. Just like with the blue of India and the yellow-and-blue of Karnataka, he has the number 84 emblazoned on the back of his new red-and-black jersey. Why 84, I ask him. “Year of my birth, mate,” he says.
Exactly a week earlier, in his very first game for Nagaland, Binny had smacked 107 (seven sixes, seven fours) at the nearby Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in downtown Dehradun. It came in a Nagaland total of 174. The next highest score to Binny’s was 15.
“They’re learning,” says Binny. “It will take some time for the game to catch on in that part of the country. But that’s why my new challenge is so exciting, and it is one of the big reasons for my move from Karnataka. I want to give back to the game that has given me everything.”
Binny’s role as a mentor to the players in Nagaland is palpable. There’s a change in the academy’s ambience as he takes a leg-stump guard and bends into his stance. A moment earlier, the chatty batting camp could be heard across the lawns. Now they are silent and alert. Binny makes it worth their while by short-arm punching the first ball he faces back past the fast bowler for a boundary.
“It has only been a week around my new team-mates and they haven’t yet fully opened up around me, which is fine and understandable,” Binny says later. “They look up because they’ve seen me on TV, playing for India or in the IPL or wherever. I’m still in the process of breaking the ice. It’ll happen soon enough.”
Some ten balls into his innings, Binny has seen enough of a bowler bowling off the wrong foot, and smokes him for six over cow corner. The ball travels beyond the academy’s walls and lands somewhere in the conifer thickets.
“Jungle mein gaya,” says the Arunachal fielder closest to the lost ball, after trying to find it in vain.
“Class,” says one of the selectors under the pavilion. The other one agrees with a nod.
It was this very ability to hit the ball long that made Binny a first-class player for Karnataka before he was out of his teens.
“It was an incredible feeling, man. One that is hard to describe, you know. I was following the careers of great Karnataka players like J Arun Kumar and Vijay Bharadwaj growing up. And then, at 18, I was playing alongside them,” he says. “Crazy!”
Three balls after that glorious six at the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy, and well against the run of play, Binny is trapped LBW by the bowler who bowls off the wrong foot. And just like that, his innings is snuffed out for 24 runs. Some say that it was this lack of consistency that ensured he never did make a splash for Karnataka as a youngster.
“I struggled in my first four seasons for Karnataka, if I’m honest with myself. I got only two fifties in that time. Also, I wasn’t required to bowl, so I couldn’t make a mark there either,” he says. When he was struck down by a shoulder injury after those four mediocre seasons, the Karnataka team management asked him to go back to club cricket and prove himself worthy of selection once again.
“Karnataka wanted me to start from scratch, and at the same time the ICL (Indian Cricket League) came along. For me, back then, the decision was a no-brainer,” says Binny. The tournament of course didn’t turn out the way India’s first franchise cricketers wanted it to, what with the BCCI banning them from playing in India or even using any of their affiliate board’s facilities. But Binny, who was later pardoned and welcomed back into the fold, has plenty of positive memories from his stint in the rebel league.
“Look, I did quite well for Hyderabad Heroes. I won the Man of the Series in one of the seasons too,” he says. And after a pause and with a smile, he adds: “Also, that’s where I met my wife, who was then a presenter for the channel that was broadcasting it. And if not for her, I would have never found the right frame of mind to make a push to become an India cricketer.”
The freak spell
In India’s 2013-14 domestic season, Karnataka won the treble—the Ranji Trophy (first class cricket), the Vijay Hazare Trophy (50-over cricket) and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (T20 cricket). In those six months, Stuart Terrence Roger Binny starred with both bat and ball, scoring 443 runs and scalping 13 wickets in the Ranji Trophy alone.
It was this run that handed Binny his debuts across all three formats in international cricket over the next few months. Binny has a more personal reason—he says he was finally mentally ready to step up.
Just before that season began, says Binny, he got married, and Langer gave him just the right support for him to aim big.
“You know how cricket works, right? Out of 10 days, you only do well in one or two of them. So that means eight of them are tough on your mind when you go back home,” says Binny. “And what really made a huge difference was Mayanti understanding the vagaries of the game, and hence my mood swings, and egging me on to do well on the fourth day of a game if I had bombed in the first three. She is a super positive person.”
Binny started believing he could turn a bad game into a good individual one. And soon he started making a habit of it.
“There was a fine tuning going on in my head constantly. I was coming home with my work everyday, thinking about cricket all the time. Because I realised it was time for me to deliver—I was going to turn 30 soon—otherwise I was gone,” he says. “Half-way through the season, I started believing I could get hundreds, and simultaneously get proper batsmen out as well.”
Between January 2014 and July 2015, Binny wore his first ODI cap (Napier), first Test cap (Nottingham) and first T20I cap (Harare). Those were the 18 finest months of his career, which would come to a toppling stop over the next 13 months, punctuating in Lauderhill.
Why couldn’t he recreate that mindset again, anytime between 2016 and now, I ask.
“To play like that when you haven’t achieved your dream is a lot easier. Because then all you are concerned about is the now and it is easier to go with the flow, without really realising how difficult it is to make that step up,” he says. “Then once you get to the top and fall all the way down, you realise just what it is going to take out of you to get back up there again. And the mind simply doesn’t want to accept the challenge.”
It was glorious while it lasted though. In only his third ODI, playing for a second-string India against Bangladesh in Mirpur, Binny went on to bowl one of the great spells in ODI cricket. That day, June 17, 2014, didn’t begin too well for him, or his team. Binny got to bat for the first time for his country and was out for 3 runs – scored over half an hour – and India were bowled out for 105.
In reply, Bangladesh were cruising at 44/2 when Binny was introduced into the attack as a first-change bowler.
“It’s a funny story because I wasn’t in line to bowl first-change then. (Suresh) Raina was our captain and he looked around the field, wondering who to bowl for a short period. The plan was to get the ball old so we could bring Mishy (leg spinner Amit Mishra) on,” he says. “I put my hand up and told Raina, ‘OK, I’ll bowl those lines for a couple of overs’. But I ended up doing alright.”
‘Alright’, sure. He only bowled 4.4 overs that day, a space in which Bangladesh lost their remaining eight wickets for 14 runs. Binny was responsible for six of those, going for just four runs—the best bowling figure by an Indian in ODIs, and the most economical six-for in the format.
“I remember the happy shock on Raina’s face when the wickets started falling. I also remember that in the presentation ceremony he said, ‘I didn’t know Binny was that good a bowler’. It made us all laugh for a while.”
What goes through the mind of a bowler during a spell like that?
“I don’t know to be honest, it all happened so fast. But look, I know I was going for wickets every ball after the second one,” he says, starting to crack up into a long laugh. “I’m not normally a bowler who looks for wickets. I look to tie up ends with my cutters. But on that day, I don’t know… See, one must realise it was a rain-game. We went in and out, in and out…so the wicket was nice and spicy.”
When he is reminded that he did not bring up the nature of the surface when speaking about his Lauderhill debacle, Binny’s cheer wanes into a smile.
“I find it hard to praise myself then, I suppose,” he says. “But look, the truth is it was a freak spell, whatever anyone says. It was a rare extreme, just as Lauderhill was. One doesn’t deserve too much praise and the other doesn’t deserve too much criticism.”
I ask him what the trolls had to say about that spell in Dhaka when Binny cuts me off mid-way. “On days like that, when you are feeling good about yourself, social media is the last place you want to be,” he says. “But my guess is they must have called it a fluke. That’s just the way it works when it comes to me.”