India U-19 allrounder Siddhesh Veer loves Captain America more than any other superhero. And he sees a little bit of the Marvel character in himself too.
"He's the oldest but also the smartest," Veer tells ESPNcricinfo. "The other superheroes have a lot of power, but he? He has a lot of willpower.
"He may not have all the superpowers, but he maximises his limited potential. Captain America appears to be the weakest, but he can extract the most out of himself. That's why I like him, because I play with the same mindset. I am not the strongest, but whatever strengths I have, I know them, like backing my sweeps, scoops and cuts."
Veer is in South Africa with the national team under unusual circumstances. Two months ago, Veer was in Bengaluru's National Cricket Academy, recovering from a shoulder muscle tear. It had come at an inopportune time, just a few weeks before India's squad for the Under-19 World Cup was to be announced. He had taken 20 wickets and struck three half centuries at the U-19 Challenger tournament that was held before the squad announcement, but the injury had dashed all hopes of Veer going to South Africa. Then came news that allrounder Divyansh Joshi had gotten injured, and in came Veer just a week before the World Cup began.
His cricketing journey began in Bhor, 50 kilometres from the Maharashtrian city of Pune, at around the age of 11. Growing up, he was a star in his apartment complex. None of his friends could dismiss him, but his parents didn't quite notice. They were busy at work, five days a week, and so it took an intervention from his neighbour to let the parents know how good he was.
"My parents didn't pay heed to the neighbour's words at first," Veer says. "I told my dad, 'I want to go to an academy', but he thought I was just throwing a tantrum, thinking I'll forget about my cricketing ambitions after a few days. But when I started to cry, he finally gave in. There was no club in Bhor, but there was one in Pune, so he made me join an academy at the Nehru Stadium, where I would go on the weekends.
"In the academy, they made me play in the senior group. I had no idea about the leather ball back then, but playing against really quick bowlers swiftly removed the fear within me. To continue playing, I had to settle in Pune. Things were getting serious and my father realised I had the potential, so we took a family friend's flat on rent where he and I started staying."
"In India, there are so many young players. But we 15 are here because we are consistent match-winners. That's my aim. Whatever I need to do, at whatever batting position, to make the team win, I'm here." SIDDHESH VEER
Father Ashok's devotion towards his son impacted the Veer family significantly. A respected lawyer at Bhor, he had to take his son to training every day, so he told his clients he was no longer going to represent them. Veer's mother, a middle-school teacher at a government school, took the onus of being the family's breadwinner. While Veer and his father stayed in Pune, his mother Shraddha and sister stayed back in Bhor. All the sacrifice seemed to bear fruit as he grabbed headlines at the Challenger tournament, but then came the injury.
"Since everyone's taken my cricket so seriously, when I got injured, my whole family was affected," Veer says. "I remember both me and my father talking to each other on the phone and crying together.
"Before my shoulder tear, I was confident of making it to the squad because I had done well and the selectors had acknowledged my performances. But the injury before the Afghanistan series made things difficult. You know… guys like Prithvi Shaw have made it to the Indian team from the U-19 World Cup stage, so at that moment, I felt very sad.
"At that stage, thoughts of giving up on cricket crossed my mind. I thought I can't go forward, but my parents reminded me why I started playing cricket. To play for India, and not necessarily India U-19. The first week I was in rehab, but after that, I went straight back practice.
"Rahul Dravid sir spoke to me a lot during my injury. He said that the U-19 isn't the only route to make it to the Indian team. Asked me to continue giving my best for my state. And that 'you never know what happens next. Don't get demotivated.'"
Now Veer is a key cog in the Indian team. In their World Cup opener against Sri Lanka, the batting needed impetus to close out the innings with a blaze when the fourth wicket fell. The score read 234 for 4 in the 44th over, and Veer struck six fours and one six - including an outrageous reverse-sweep off a fast bowler - in his 27-ball 44 to lift the team to 297. His cameo deflated Sri Lanka, and India won by 90 runs.
But Veer isn't just a finisher; apart from being a handy offspinner, he can also bat anywhere, and successfully. In a quadrangular tournament in South Africa ahead of the World Cup, Veer showed his versatility. Against New Zealand in Durban, he scored a match-winning 71 as an opener and two days later struck a 37-ball 48 from No. 6 to help India beat South Africa in the final.
"I used to be a regular opener," Veer says. "When I first played for India U-19 in Trivandrum, I was playing as opener. After that, because I bowl offspin and score at a good strike-rate, they chose to keep in the middle order as a finisher. So I've always been fluctuating between opener and middle order. Once I realised my bowling is an asset, I started focusing more on my bowling. My selectors and coaches told me to work on my bowling because it's an advantage for the team.
"If I have a set batting partner, then I have the license to go for the shots. I rely on my shots, the scoops, slogs. I play bindaas (carefree).
"And if I don't have a batsman at the other end, then I like to take it deep before slogging for the last three overs. In the death, bowlers either deliver full, short or slow. So I decide areas on the field for each delivery, and then back myself.
"Whatever I play, scoops or paddles, the team has backed me, because these are my legitimate shot options. When you see AB de Villiers play them, it doesn't prove you're technically weak. At the end of the day, runs are what matter, doesn't matter how you get them. I am equally strong at the straight drive and the scoop. At the death, you can't just rely on sixes over the bowler's head because he will vary things. And importantly, the shots - even if they look outrageous - are low-risk shots, because I'm playing them on the ball's merit and the field.
"In India, there are so many young players. But we 15 are here because we are consistent match-winners. That's my aim. Whatever I need to do, at whatever batting position, to make the team win, I'm here. If regular bowlers aren't doing well, and the captain reaches out to me to stabilise the innings, I'll raise my hand."
Veer is the kind of player you can't judge off the scorecard. He's the team's man for all seasons. You may not find him on the list of top run-scorers or wicket-takers, but ask anyone in the team, he's a bonafide match-winner.