The scars on Nitish Kumar’s stomach and back serve a purpose well beyond reminding him of the tragic car crash four years ago.
They also mark a father’s dreams for his son, dreams that have propelled the Toronto teen to the international cricket stage.
Kumar, 15, has been called “the Wayne Gretzky of cricket” by his coach and he’s made believers out of everyone who takes to the pitch with him. A few weeks ago, he made cricket history by becoming the youngest player to ever represent Canada in international competition, an Inter-Continental Cup match against Kenya in King City.
“He’s something special – a celebrity in this game, very popular and still very, very young,” said Pubudu Dassanayake, coach of Canada’s national team.
Instead of growing up playing hockey or soccer, cricket has been Kumar’s obsession and he dreams of one day playing in the World Cup.
And when that day comes, he will, as always, offer a prayer in his father’s memory.
“My father was a huge part of my success and I remember the good times with him because we were so very close,” he said. “He’d always be at my games and teaching me to play.”
Vikal Kumar emigrated to Canada from India in 1989 and began raising a family with his wife Sarb. After two daughters, his only son, Nitish, was born in 1994. By the time he was 4, his father was already passing on his own passion for cricket, buying Nitish a small bat and teaching him to hit tennis balls in the basement. Soon, the boy became a star student of the game at Toronto Cricket Academy.
Tragedy struck in 2005 when the 38-year-old Vikal was killed instantly in a car accident in England while on a cricket tour. Nitish, 11 at the time, was with him in the back seat. The youngster required surgery and was in hospital for almost one month. He also didn’t learn of the death of his father until returning to Canada.
“It would have been easy for me to pack it in,” Kumar said. “My father wanted me to play at the highest level and where I am now is because of him, my family and my coach. Without them, I’d be lost. There was a time when I would play for myself, but now I play for my father.”
Kumar lives with his mother and two sisters and is headed into Grade 10 at Woburn Collegiate. “He’s a remarkable young man and lives for cricket and more cricket,” said his mother.
“There is time for school work and a few other things, but other than that it’s cricket that has taken over his life and he could play it year round.”
Kumar chose not to play cricket for Woburn last year; instead, he joined the co-ed volleyball team.
“Just a break from everything and (the cricket team) was good enough without me. They won a regional title.”
Brian Hale, his coach at the Toronto Cricket Academy, compares Kumar’s skill with a cricket bat to what a young Gretzky did with a hockey stick.
“He’s a phenom in the sport, quite an achiever for his age and the Wayne Gretzky of cricket,” praised Hale.
“As a batter, his hand-and-eye coordination are outstanding. He also bowls and fields extremely well for his age. I can just imagine what he’ll be like in a few more years.”
Hale said Kumar, who was featured as a prodigy in a 2005 National Film Board documentary, has missed only nine days of practice since he started coaching him as a 4-year-old.
“There is a powerful commitment, a huge desire to excel at this sport and nothing will set him back now,” he said.
Kumar also was a standout a few weeks ago at the International Cricket Council Americas Northern Division under-15 tournament in New York.
He saved his best innings for the last and, as the skipper, scored 68 not out, batted in the winning runs and propelled Canada across the line with a tense three-wicket win over the United States. Kumar was named the top athlete of the final and the tournament after finishing with the second-highest run total. He isn’t in a rush to get back to school. He’ll be on the Canadian squad taking part in the 10-country World Cup under-19 qualifiers held in various cities across the country next month. The top five advance to the world final in New Zealand.
“Playing for Canada – that means more to me than anything else,” said Kumar.
And, whenever he’s on the pitch, his pre-game ritual won’t change – looking up at the sky, a silent prayer for his father. “He’s with me and likely very proud of what I have accomplished.”