Alpesh Ramjani: Uganda’s talismanic Mumbaikar who dreamt big | ICC Men's T20 World Cup, 2024

The all-rounder finished as the leading T20I wicket-taker in 2023 and also made it to the ICC team of the year

When you are born in Mumbai, or India, for that matter, in the 90s, there’s little to no doubt that Sachin Tendulkar would have been someone you would been a massive fan of or even looked up to if you were an aspiring cricketer. Tendulkar is often referred to as the God of cricket in India. He turned a few devotees from idle worshippers to idol worshippers.

Alpesh Ramjani was one of them. He grew up in Mumbai hoping to replicate his idol and play for the state team, and then if everything clicked, like Tendulkar, he too would go on to play for the country.

He played for ‘a’ country alright, but it was not India. However, more than regretting that he did not get a chance to play for Mumbai, he is grateful for the opportunity that Uganda has provided him with.

Cricket and Uganda? Are you serious?

Yes, Uganda will play in a cricket World Cup for the first time. They pipped Zimbabwe – an active Test nation – to progress to the T20 World Cup 2024.

It must have been a fluke, obviously, right?

Absolutely not! Cricket in Uganda may not be as flashy or popular as in other countries, but there is enough evidence to support that they have been tirelessly associated with the sport for ages. Look no further than 43-year-old Frank Nsubuga, the second oldest player to feature in a T20 World Cup, if he gets a game. Nsubuga’s first recorded game was when Ramjani was about four years old. And now, they are teammates in a Cricket World Cup.

“It’s an honour and privilege to be part of the Uganda team that has qualified for the World Cup. There have been ups and downs and it has been hard for me to leave what is a well-settled life in India and come to Uganda and represent this nation,” Ramjani recalls in a chat with Cricket.com.

“It’s a different ball game when you come from another country. You have to adjust to many things. But when you have a larger picture in your mind – of representing the country – then all things become very small because your dreams and aspirations are so big, all those things were too small for me at that time. I played the African games, and on debut, I was the Player of the Match. That gave me the motivation that, yes, the hard work has paid off. I believe in my hard work, and that has been the backbone for me.”

Since making his debut for the Cricket Cranes in 2022, Ramjani has gone on to set world records. His T20 International (T20I) economy rate of 4.74 is the best in the world (Min: 500 balls), he picked up 55 wickets in 2023, which again are the most in a calendar year – a feat that saw him being nominated for the ICC T20I player of the year along with Suryakumar Yadav. Ramjani was named in the T20I team of the year as well.

Add to that the fact that it just took him 28 matches to reach 50 wickets (fourth fastest), and he really has taken to international cricket like a fish to water. Ramjani and Uganda’s progress further indicates that their region is only growing stronger and stronger. While South Africa and Zimbabwe have more often than not entered World Cups unchallenged, there’s finally some competition.

Zimbabwe have not just failed to make the T20 World Cup but also failed to make it through to the 50-over World Cup last year, following a loss to Scotland in the Qualifier. Qualifying cricket is not everyone’s cup of tea as Craig Williams, former Namibia captain and current assistant coach of Uganda, explains here.

“Qualifiers are “just a different beast on its own,” Williams says, and who better than Zimbabwe to explain that?

Ramjani showed he is no mug with the bat as he smashed 40 off 26 and along with Riazat Ali Shah (42), took their team home. But Ramjani says that the real problem for Uganda started after they beat Zimbabwe.

“In the Qualifiers, we fell a few runs short against Namibia and the big game was against Zimbabwe. As a team, we decided that we needed to play fearless cricket and the brand of cricket that Uganda have been playing for a long,” Alpesh recalls heading into the Zimbabwe game.

“The real problem starts after beating Zimbabwe. Before Zimbabwe, it was like, we had nothing to lose. But after beating Zimbabwe, we had everything to lose. After that we had a game against Kenya. Kenya has been like a thorn for us.

“That night before the Kenya game, we could not sleep. Every player said this match has to be spot on. I was thinking nothing should go wrong in this game. That was a pressure situation game and we had to win it anyhow. Once we won against Kenya, there was a rain factor against Nigeria. The journey was up and down, but at the end of the tournament, we had the last laugh.”

While Ramjani boasts of world-class numbers to show what a true talent he is, the 29-year-old is not looking too much into that.

“For me, the basic thing is assessing the wicket. To be honest, I did not even see the stats that I was the highest wicket-taker in 2023 because, for me, all those things never mattered,” the left-arm spinner explains.

“All that mattered was if I could win a game for my team with my bowling. That was the end of it. The number of dot balls I can bowl for my team, the pressure I can create on the batsmen during those times. That was the winning thing for me.

“Whenever you play a good side, you make a revision out of it. It’s part of the strategy. When you know that this guy this guy plays like this, he has a strong point over here, so the body and mind know what to do and execute. Consistency and execution are something I have emphasised because that is the only thing that will determine your bowling.

“T20 is a ruthless game for the bowlers. As a bowler, bowling in T20s, you need to have a big heart. Only with a big heart you will get success.”

Uganda will compete in Group C against fellow associates Papua New Guinea (PNG) and top-class sides like New Zealand, West Indies, and Afghanistan. How does Ramjani view the challenge?

“Qualifying for the World Cup qualifiers was itself a big dream for us, and beating teams like Zimbabwe – a Test-playing nation – was out of the world feeling,” Ramjani says.

“Competing against the best of the teams in the world, like New Zealand, West Indies and Afghanistan – it’s going to be a test of our patience, skills, and determination because that is the time you have to pull up your socks. I am not taking pressure about the games, whether we’ll win or lose. God has given us the opportunity, so why not make the best of it? The eyes will be on us since we have beaten Zimbabwe and qualified for the World Cup.”

Ramjani, a B.Com Graduate from Rizvi College who lost his job in Mumbai during Covid before moving to Uganda, has seen the lows, but playing at a World Cup in such a short time is perhaps something he would have never imagined. From the Maidans of Mumbai to the World Cup via Uganda, Ramjani is living his best cricket life, far better than he ever imagined.

Rest assured, the Cricket Cranes will make the next few weeks in the Caribbean the most memorable time of their lives. Once they get the taste of it, they would certainly want more and without any doubt, do all it takes to make it to more World Cups.

Those watching the Men in Yellow in action for the first time are certainly in for a treat and are sure to have a lasting impression.

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