How Nicholas Pooran came back from the brink
Three months into 2017, Nicholas Pooran is a cricketer in demand. Eleven days after being snapped up by Mumbai Indians in the IPL auction, he is suiting up for Islamabad United in the PSL playoffs against Karachi Kings. A week after that he is walking out to bat in a bright yellow outfit for City Kaitak in the Hong Kong T20 Blitz.
Pooran spent a month at the end of 2016 playing for Khulna Titans in the Bangladesh Premier League. That came two months after he made his West Indies debut, against Pakistan in the UAE.
On paper, these T20 appearances would seem to be natural progressions for someone who first rose to prominence on the international scene in February 2014. Before Carlos Brathwaite was designated as the man whose name would be remembered, it was Pooran who was on the tip of West Indian tongues, earmarked as one for the future when he took on an Australia Under-19 bowling attack in Dubai - one that had attempted to turn the rest of the West Indies Under-19 batting card into binary code on the way to making the score 70 for 8 - and struck a marvellous 143.
However, T20 riches were the furthest thing from Pooran's mind two years ago as he lay in a hospital bed in Couva, Trinidad, wondering if he'd even walk again, let alone play cricket.
January 6, 2015. Trinidad & Tobago's training session at the National Cricket Centre in Balmain has just let out. There is a buzz around newcomer Pooran, the 19-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman who has been serving as an understudy to Denesh Ramdin. With Ramdin touring South Africa as part of the West Indies squad, it means there may be more opportunities for Pooran to build on his superlative performance a year earlier at the Under-19 World Cup in the UAE.
But fate has decided that his season is about to end before it even begins, and possibly his career too.
"I was coming back home from training, driving," Pooran recalls. "I was close to home and a car was overtaking another car, so I pulled away. I hit a sand heap and then I came back onto the road and another vehicle hit me.
"I was knocked out and then I couldn't remember what happened. I just woke up at the accident and I was like, 'How did this happen?' I was shocked. I couldn't believe that this happened. I was taken in an ambulance, couldn't move my legs.
"My left patellar tendon had ruptured and I had a fractured right ankle. I couldn't straighten my leg," Pooran says, pointing to the scars. "At first, I didn't really know what happened. I wasn't too sure. People kept telling me, 'Move your toes, move your toes!' I knew I couldn't move my knee, so I knew something's definitely wrong.
"The first thing I asked the doctors was if I could play cricket again," he says, letting out a long sigh, before staring straight ahead into no man's land. "At first they weren't too sure until they did the surgery. The doctors did what they had to do and did a perfect surgery, Dr Ali and his staff. They did a wonderful surgery. Everything, thank God, everything came back to normal."
He had two surgeries, in fact. The first was less than 24 hours after the accident, to repair the left patellar tendon. The second, on his right leg to repair the ankle fracture, had to wait another week, till after the swelling from the injury subsided. The surgeries, though, were a minor detail in the process to figure out the answer to the question Pooran had put to his doctors.
"It was up to therapy now to determine if I would play cricket again."
The first day of therapy was only a few weeks after Trinidad & Tobago had won the Nagico Super50, defeating Guyana in the final. For the first four months, only the smallest gains were made, because Pooran was in a wheelchair the majority of the time. The surgery on both legs forced recovery to move at a snail's pace.
"I tried to sleep as long as possible," Pooran says, admitting it was hard not to be depressed at times. "If I sleep late, the day will be short. Basically I'd get up and watch TV, read some books, play on my phone. There wasn't much I could do. When I started therapy, I went every day, so then my day would be therapy, then back home.
"Therapy is tough, therapy is boring. Every single day I'd just wake up and think, 'Ugh, therapy again?' Sometimes I'd think, 'When will I start to walk again properly? When will I run properly?'"
It took Pooran until July, six months after the accident, before he could walk without assistance. He started therapy with 90-minute sessions three times a week, but by this stage it had grown to two hours a day, six days a week. Large chunks of time were often spent attempting to do the most mundane tasks.
"Cricket was what he had going for him and what he's been working on his whole life, and he felt that was the end of everything," says Dr Oba Gulston, the Barbados Tridents physiotherapist, formerly with Trinidad & Tobago, when recounting Pooran's rehab transformation.
"It took a while. We did a lot of work with him, gave him some time, just kept encouraging him and helping him to believe. We celebrated every landmark, every achievement, because often times when you've been very high-functional, you don't look at starting to walk as a big deal, going up steps for the first time, the first time he was able to do a squat again with assistance - the fact that we had the range of motion in the knees to do it was a big thing because he didn't have that initially."
By August 2015, Pooran began jogging again, and in September he had his first net session. His rehab had been ramped up to four hours a day. At the turn of the year his physical-therapy workload was near pedal to the metal: eight hours daily, spread across three sessions, split between wicketkeeping coach David Williams in the morning, Dr Gulston in the middle of the day, and rounded off by a training session at Queen's Park Oval.
Dr Gulston was there to push him physically, but often pushing him in spirit was Kieron Pollard. The allrounder was going through an injury ordeal of his own after damaging his right knee while playing for Cape Cobras in South Africa's domestic Ram Slam T20. It caused him to miss West Indies' ride to the 2016 World T20 title and the early part of IPL 2016.
Pollard had already gone through a prior ordeal with a knee injury that forced him to sit out six months from 2013 into 2014. With that experience under his belt, Pollard served as a rehab mentor to Pooran. When Gulston wasn't working with both of them in person, the three kept in constant contact over WhatsApp.
"Polly would share some of his experiences and he would challenge [Pooran]," Gulston said. "They would make bets about doing different things and running different times. If Nicholas did certain exercises, Pollard would ask, 'What did you do today?' and I would have to take videos of it and send it to the group so Pollard, who was at the IPL, would see Nicholas doing stuff. Sometimes there would be a hundred messages popping up on the group, and it would just be the two of them going back and forth."
As positive as the bond he forged with Pollard was, Pooran faced a different set of hurdles with the Trindad & Tobago Cricket Board. His doctors felt the best way for him to truly recover full range of motion, speed and match fitness was to play, though he was still not 100%. The TTCB wouldn't select him until he received full medical clearance. A stalemate ensued.
Pooran says he aired his thoughts to T&T assistant coach Kelvin Williams. He trusted Williams, who had coached him coming up through Under-19 cricket. A mutual decision was then made for Pooran to leave the Trinidad & Tobago set-up, and instead he sought opportunities in club cricket with Queen's Park CC. He found a key ally in then West Indies coach Phil Simmons.
"He met me for the first time and he asked me why I couldn't make this team," Pooran says of a crucial encounter with Simmons. "I explained to him [what had happened with the TTCB]. So he was there and he told me in front of Kelvin Williams, 'Hey Pooran, this is what I want from you. Everything that has happened, it's gone. Leave it. I want you to focus on CPL, not focusing on batting or keeping. Focus on getting fit and ready for CPL.'"
At the CPL draft that February, Pollard's Barbados Tridents took Pooran in the fourth round for US$90,000 - the same price Andre Russell fetched from Jamaica Tallawahs. It put Pooran in the top ten most expensive local players in the CPL, lofty status for someone whose last formal match at island level was in December 2014, and who was still rehabbing his way back from catastrophic leg injuries.
"I think Pollard was the one who made that decision," Pooran said. "It was a big call, especially being the captain of Barbados Tridents. He showed faith in me. He's a person who believed in me and that was a big risk for him to take, to convince the CPL owners to buy me. I had some pressure heading into CPL. It was always in the back of my head, 'What if I don't do good?'"
By the time Pooran's first match with Tridents came around, it had been more than 18 months since his last first-class match. Fate determined that it would come against Trinbago Knight Riders at Queen's Park Oval. He was so eager to prove he was fit again that a bit of anxiety almost weighed him down. "Before I went into that field, I asked God and Jesus to give me strength and courage," he said.
Entering at 95 for 4 in the 15th over chasing a target of 171, Pooran was scratchy in his first few deliveries, and was involved in a run-out with David Wiese, but before long he had found his timing. He locked onto Kevon Cooper in the 18th, stroking him for six, four, six off the first half of the over to bring the equation down to 37 off 15 before he ran himself out to finish with 33 off 12 balls.
Though the Knight Riders management is not tied to the TTCB, the venue provided extra fuel for Pooran that night, and for the rest of the season. "I wanted to show the cricket board that 'Hey, I hope you can see now because I can play,'" Pooran said. "I guess this could answer all the questions now."
Pooran finished with 217 runs in eight innings at 27.12 for Tridents in 2016, including 81 off 39 balls in a Man-of-the-Match effort against St Lucia Zouks. Only AB de Villiers and Shoaib Malik scored more runs for Tridents, while Pooran's 18 sixes in the league stage put him fourth on that list, behind only Chris Gayle, Chris Lynn and Johnson Charles.
Pollard said that knowing what Pooran had gone through made him an inspiration for his team-mates. "I think he has been a revelation," Pollard said during the Tridents tour of Florida to end the 2016 CPL season. "Coming back from what he actually came back from, struggling and not being able to get into the Trinidad & Tobago team in 50-overs or four-day cricket. He played an entire season for Queen's Park. I thought there he did well. So he was looking forward to this tournament and he has shown what he can do.
"This is T20 cricket, so you don't expect a guy like that who bats and takes risks to be consistent. When he comes off, he wins games for you, and that's exactly what he did for us in a couple games. It could only go up from there for him. It's good to see that another youngster is coming out of hardship."
More than the runs, Pooran said he was most proud of being able to keep wicket throughout the season. He was steadfast in his determination that the leg injuries would not limit his workload behind the stumps. Thin and wiry before his injuries, all the work in the gym during his rehab has made his legs into tree trunks and enhanced his batting strength. To further prove he is healthy not just to bat but to keep wicket, Pooran doesn't wear a brace in the field on his surgically repaired left knee.
"I want people to say, 'Hey, Pooran had this major injury, major accident, we thought he would never keep again, never play again.' I just want to be that person - people can say, look to him as a motivation, because obviously it was a really bad accident, and if I can come back from it, anyone can come back from anything."
On the back of his CPL performances, Pooran was picked for West Indies for the first time when they travelled to the UAE to play Pakistan last September. He finished the series with a modest 25 runs in three matches, as West Indies lost heavily in a 3-0 T20I series sweep. Not that the numbers mattered much to Pooran: simply being able to take the field for West Indies, at age 20, mind you, less than two years after waking up in a hospital bed fearing he'd never play again, was reward enough.
"After all I went through, to get back where I am is a wonderful feeling," he said, when describing the moment he received the news he had been selected. "I wanted to play for the West Indies by 21. So that was a big goal for me and a big achievement.
"I really doubted it, especially getting back to full fitness. I really doubted it but I never give up on my dreams. Every day I keep working harder and harder. God makes everything possible, so all thanks and praise goes to him."
Pooran's 2016 season with Tridents under coach Robin Singh made an impression on the former India international, and the Singh-Pollard connection contributed to him being taken in the IPL auction by Mumbai Indians in February. Pooran also followed Singh to play for finalists City Kaitak in the Hong Kong T20 Blitz. During his time in Hong Kong, he was retained by Tridents in the 2017 CPL Draft.
"I believe that everything happens for a reason," Pooran says, his 18-month comeback journey from injury complete. "Maybe getting into the accident was a blessing in disguise. I appreciate life more now. I appreciate the life that I have and the talent that I have. I was blessed.
"What I learned is that every single opportunity you get, you have to grab it. When I was down and out, all I was waiting for was an opportunity again. Every opportunity I get now, I want to take it with both hands now. I want to give my best, give 100% every time I enter that cricket field now, whether I have a bat or whenever I keep. There's not one day I'll go onto a cricket field and I'll try to do less than I could. I finally got this opportunity after a year and a half and this time I'm not letting go."
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna