UAE's Yodhin Punja hopes luck is about to change despite setbacks in cricket career

Knee and shoulder injuries, and now coronavirus pandemic, have affected fast bowler's progress

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Abu Dhabi-born Yodhin Punja remains upbeat about the cricket season even though the coronavirus pandemic has halted all sport across the world.

The youngest cricketer to represent the UAE in both first-class and ODIs, Punja had embarked upon a different path in his sporting journey. He immersed himself in cricket in England, but had suffered two injury setbacks in two of his three seasons there.

Punja, born to Indian parents in Abu Dhabi, had moved to Claremont School in the UK on a cricket scholarship in 2017 and is now a second year accounting student at the Cardiff Metropolitan University.

He plays for both Cardiff Marylebone Cricket Club Universities in first-class cricket and Cowbridge Cricket Club in the Wales Premier division 2 as a professional.

He missed out the entire first season in 2017 through a knee injury and the 2019 season because of a shoulder injury, both of which required surgery.

This time around, the quick bowler thought his luck was about to change until Covid-19 struck, which has now closed down universities and postponed the start of the English season.

"Indeed, it's a bit disappointing but when I look at the positives side, it gives me more time to get even better physically," Punja, who is in Abu Dhabi, told The National.

“Even though I’m ready to start playing, I’m still not 100 per cent. So a little more time will get me into full fitness by June. Hopefully cricket resumes by that time.

“I’m not bowling at the same speed that I bowled, perhaps 5kph less than that. Therefore, in that sense, I will be able to reach 100 per cent. Of course, it won’t be as good as actual match practice.”

A little more time will get me into full fitness by June

Punja suffered a knee injury when he attended a trial for the Indian Premier League team Royal Challengers Bangalore in March 2017.

“After I had made my debut for the UAE the news appeared in one of the local dailies in India, and they invited me for a trial,” he said. “But unfortunately, I fell over in the very first ball that I bowled in the nets. I was out for that entire season.

“The second time was last season. We toured South Africa with the Cardiff MCCU. It was our last game and I had completed my 10 overs.

“It was the last over and I was fielding on the boundary. This was very weird. I threw a ball and dislocated my shoulder.

“I didn’t think it was serious at that time. I gave it about two to three weeks but it wasn’t getting better. I did an MRI in Cardiff and they said it needed surgery. I did the surgery when I got back to Abu Dhabi [in August].”

There was some good news as he was drafted into the Abu Dhabi Stars side earlier this year for the Pro Bash, the capital's first 25 over-a-side franchise tournament at the Al Ain Cricket Club.

The Pro Bash, like all tournaments in the country, is temporarily suspended by the UAE government to reduce the impact of Covid-19.

“From what I have heard, it appears to be a strong tournament,” Punja said. “I was contacted soon after I arrived in Abu Dhabi and am looking forward to play when the competition resumes.”

Punja, who turns 21 on April 24, hasn’t given up hopes of playing for the UAE again. He was 17 when he made his debut for the UAE against Hong Kong in Dubai on November 2015.

The then coach, Aaqib Javed, provided Punja with the opportunity. As Punja has lost that link to UAE cricket, he will have to start all over again with the new coaching set-up.

Punja has remained in touch with UAE captain Ahmed Raza and wants to put his name in the hat for selection.

“While I’m in the UAE, I will try to re-establish my relationship with the ECB and the new technical staff,” he said.