12 February 2022, Rohtak - Sitting in his team hotel room in the middle of a Ranji Trophy campaign, an anxious Riyan Parag played the waiting game - watching four franchises in a tight bidding war at the IPL mega auction in Bengaluru.

Meanwhile in Guwahati, a whirlwind of emotions enveloped the Parag household, as the family gathered around their television set and waited in anticipation. Nerves, everywhere.

Back in Bengaluru, the Royals straightaway got into the act with the opening bid for him, followed by Delhi Capitals almost immediately. DC pulled out of the race after a few bids and Chennai Super Kings stepped in with much interest. But the Royals were persistent, and CSK eventually dropped out. The battle then heated up between us and new entrants, Gujarat Titans. GT looked determined to go all the way, so they continued to raise the stakes. But eight intense rounds of neck-and-neck bidding later, Riyan Parag was back in pink. He was back home at Rajasthan Royals.

A few days after the auction, Assam were up against Maharashtra in a Ranji Trophy match at Lahli. It turned out to be a fruitful outing for Riyan, who top-scored for his team with fifties in both innings (88 & 56). He then went on to smash a 79-ball 91 in his next match, and picked a five-wicket haul in the following one. Perhaps, it was his way of marking his return to the Royals going into the 2022 IPL season. 

“Riyan’s father and I were very happy and relieved that the auction went well and that he was back at the Royals. We always wanted that. We were anxious and jittery, but also confident that he wouldn’t go unsold,” said Riyan’s mother, recalling the auction day.

The excitement in his mother’s voice was palpable. After all, it was at the Royals that a 17-year-old Riyan had gotten his first taste of the IPL back in 2019, and being back for his fourth season with the franchise felt like a homecoming. 

It is safe to say that sport runs in the veins of this family. Riyan’s father, Parag Das, played first-class cricket for Assam in the 1990s. His mother, Mithoo Barooah, was a national record-holder swimmer for India. So when they watched their son pick up a cricket bat for the first time at just 16 months of age, they weren’t surprised. Cricket was going to be a collective dream for this sporting family. 

A quick look at Riyan’s Twitter profile suggests he is a complete gaming enthusiast and an ardent fan of Virat Kohli, and those are literally the two things he talks about the most when he’s not wielding his willow. But once he’s out there, his monstrous six-hitting, athleticism on the field and unique celebrations make him stand out from the crowd. And that’s exactly how Riyan’s first IPL season turned out to be. In just seven games, he amassed 160 runs at a strike rate of 126.98 and an average of 32.00, including a record fifty. His ability to smack the ball fearlessly and hit the big shots with ease earned him much admiration from his team and the cricketing fraternity alike. His ‘Bihu’ dance moves added a refreshing twist to on-field celebrations in cricket. His debut season was full of excitement and promise.

But the next two seasons were far from perfect for both Riyan and the Royals. Between being applauded for becoming the IPL’s youngest half-centurion to facing flak for his performances - the pendulum swung quickly. His on-field celebrations soon started to be perceived in a different light as the Royals failed to win regularly, but in reality it was just an excited youngster soaking in the moment on T20 cricket’s biggest stage. As a newcomer stepping into the glittering world of IPL, it would’ve been much easier for Riyan to get carried away or react impulsively to the unpleasant situations that faced him. Instead, his happy-go-lucky nature has helped him remain unaffected by the criticism over the years. He has, and continues to take everything in his stride, not by further stirring up non-incidents but by respectfully pulling away from them, going back to putting in the hard yards, day in and day out.

The 21-year-old has kept a cool head on his shoulders, which has helped him shut out the noise, whether it’s the negative reception of his on-field antics, the criticism around his batting style or something as irrelevant as his tweeting pattern. He attributes this approach to a number of factors - the unconditional support of his parents, the confidence of his teammates and coaches, his belief in himself and the determination to keep fighting till the end.

“A lot of who I am right now is because of Rajasthan Royals. They gave me my first game, my first IPL. There are no words to thank them.”

“I’ve learned a lot here. Handling pressure and failure would be at the top of the list. At every net session, after every match, Sanga sir (Kumar Sangakkara) would always say positive things to me. I don’t remember a single negative thing that he said. Sanju always tells me to be myself and enjoy the game as I do,” he said.

It is a quality that inspires his mother, by her own admission.

“He has handled it very maturely. When he had the lowest of lows, I told him to believe in himself and he did. He has been the inspiration behind my efforts because the sincerity and the tenacity with which he works is really admirable. Anybody who sees him would say that,” she said.

In the IPL season earlier this year, Riyan had his sights set on a number of goals. But the most important one, according to him, was taking up more responsibility and helping his team win matches. Whether it was with his handy batting cameos, responsible innings like the one against RCB where he rescued us, his part-time spin, catching everything that came his way with one of the safest pairs of hands, or simply by bringing his infectious energy on the field. 

While he may not have gotten his fair share of opportunities (or balls to face) last season, the youngster tried to make the most of the ones he did get - with an overall batting strike rate of 138.64, a career-best tally of 183 runs scoring from different positions in some tough situations, 21 boundaries and 17 catches - the most by any non-wicket-keeper this season. His gritty, match-winning fifty against RCB being the highlight of the season.

“I bat at a position (number 6, 7) where players like MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya have batted.”

On his day, Riyan’s all-round skill set can have a huge impact on his team’s overall performance. And it is why he continues to have the unflinching support of Sanju and Sanga, and the rest of his teammates. Add to that, the way he chooses to silently go about his job in one of the toughest batting positions in the IPL, knows how to have harmless fun without being disrespectful, and continues to hit the ball as hard as ever - even if there are just a couple for the taking - it all makes him an integral part of the Royals’ core unit at present, and in the years to come.

Last season, an in-form top order and frequent shuffling in the Royals’ middle order meant that Riyan had relatively less time to adjust to the conditions, had to score runs much quicker in fewer deliveries and almost always had to ensure the team finished on a high. And it is probably why getting him more game-time will be high up on coach Sangakkara’s to-do list for the next season. 

Add to that his performance in the recently concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and his case only strengthens. Batting at number four for Assam, Riyan finished as his team’s leading run-getter in the tournament. In 7 matches, he scored 253 runs at an enviable average of 63.25 and a 150-plus strike rate, including match-winning knocks and a couple of crucial fifties. But more importantly, his contributions with the ball and the occasional ball (6 wickets) meant that Assam won 4 of their 7 matches and ended with 16 points in a group of domestic heavyweights like Mumbai, Vidarbha, etc. A fruitful outing like this only bodes well for the talented all-rounder ahead of an exciting 2023 season.