Growing up in the township of Race Course in the parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, can be a daily struggle. Even if all you want to do is play sport.
Take the case of one such young boy, born in the wrong kind of neighbourhood. He’s got four brothers, all but one older, with whom he tags along to play ball as soon as school is done. Even before he hits his teens, one of his brothers is shot and killed, at 16. It’s that sort of place.
The boy has talent. He can hurl a ball 22 yards without bending his arm, at frightening speeds. He makes progress. The brothers can’t keep up, and they settle down to jobs. As the boy would later say, “You’ve got to eat”.
He moves to the capital, Kingston. At 20, he’s the victim of a stick-up by three men when he goes to an ATM before heading to the local supermarket. When he speaks of it later, he laughs. “They don’t rob with less than guns over there. I had to give them my money, watch, chain…”
But cricket has lifted him. He is spotted by an icon of his country and drafted into a T20 franchise. The next year, he gets his hero out in the CPL for a duck. Then he gets an international debut in India, rattling a star-studded top order. He is picked in the IPL. He dismantles England. And now he’s going to the World Cup.
It has been quite a journey for Oshane Thomas. To make it through the sort of childhood he had takes uncommon fortitude. To make it through to top-level sport means having uncommon talent too. Thomas, clearly, has both. His recollections of childhood are chilling, but he’s chill.
We’re sitting in the cafeteria of an understatedly opulent hotel. It is luxury far removed from Clarendon, and it’s apt, because Thomas is now far removed from the struggles he once faced, his face untroubled even when he talks about the gun violence in the place where he grew up.
Did he actually see any of it up close?
“All the time, man,” he laughs. “I got used to it at one point, to be honest. I’ve seen my brother get shot and killed. He was 16, I was probably 11. [But] I was just never in any wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn’t trouble me anymore.”
Thomas has played nine ODIs and seven T20Is for West Indies so far, mostly on batting-friendly surfaces, which means his bowling figures aren’t immediately striking. But it’s what he has done to get here that has made people think of him as a new fast-bowling hope from the land that used to factory-produce them at one time.
As a Jamaican growing up in the 21st century, his cricket heroes have been Chris Gayle and Andre Russell. It was Gayle who spotted him at a nets session for Jamaica Tallawahs – Thomas had been told they needed bowlers – and was immediately impressed.
“I was in high school in 2016,” Thomas says. “I was just bowling, bowling, and Gayle saw me and I got selected. Made my debut in the semi-final and final, and did fairly well. The year after, I only played two games. Got Chris out for a duck because he went to St Kitts Patriots!
“That was a great feeling. Any youngster would love to get him out. I was pumped up and had nothing to lose. Got advice from the captain, Kumar Sangakkara to ‘just run in and bowl fast. Back yourself.’ I did that and got the result. In 2018, I played ten games in the CPL and finished second, with 18 wickets.” He has bowled to Gayle four times in all, and the opener has only managed 16 runs off 28 balls faced, being out once.
Thomas didn’t get to bowl to Russell until this year’s IPL, though he has bowled to him in the nets plenty of times. But just like with Gayle, the first time Thomas bowled against Russell at the top level, he got him out.
“Yo, when I bowl to Andre in the nets, he don’t hit my ball you know,” Thomas smiles. “In the nets it’s kind of scary for batters. Most of the guys, when I’m bowling in the nets, they hold their bats far.
“In a match, with my pace and everything, I’ll just make him hit every ball from here,” Thomas says, pointing at his shoulders. “If I’m going full, it’ll have to be a yorker, because if you miss, you’re going to get hit out of the park. He’s kind of weak wide outside off – he could hit it but he’s weaker, and with the pace, you could probably beat him. I always tell myself he has to hit me from here [shoulder height] because he’s not strong there.
“But he’s a really hard guy to bowl to. You have to have it in the back of your head when you’re running up, and be clear what delivery you want to bowl. A slight mistake and you are going to get hit over the park.”
Thomas seems to be a man who can stick to a game plan. Of the six balls he bowled to Russell in the IPL, one was a yorker, and four were back of a length or shorter. The MVP of IPL 2019 could take only four runs off Thomas’ deliveries, and was out too.
In childhood, Thomas first played with taped tennis balls, until he was old enough to join his brothers with the hard ball. He started by throwing the ball, until he learned how to bowl. Then came the nets session that kick-started his rise.
More highs would follow in quick succession. The 2018 CPL got him sustained success, and he made his international debut on West Indies’ tour of India in late 2018. Bowling with searing pace, consistently hitting the high 140s and even touching 150, he got Shikhar Dhawan out three times in five games.
“In 2018, I was on top of my game in the CPL, picking up wickets like crazy every game,” Thomas says. “I couldn’t do anything wrong at that point. Then coming to India and getting Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit [Sharma] out in the same over [on T20I debut] was a great moment for me as well. Two great batsmen for India… then bowling to Virat Kohli. I should have gotten him out for a duck.”
A regulation chance off a thick edge on the second ball to Kohli was grassed by Jason Holder at slip in the fifth ODI, but while Thomas didn’t get the wicket, but he got attention.
“When I made my debut here in India, Rajasthan Royals called me over for a trial in Mumbai, so I met with most of the guys,” he says. “I played a practice game, and so I knew at the back of my mind they would have probably had me in their line-up at the auctions. I’m really thankful for the opportunity, because I always wanted to play in the IPL. Great feeling. Everyone shows me love here – it’s really like a family. I love it man.”
He was with the T20I squad in Bangladesh on the day of the IPL 2019 auction in December last year. “I was watching with Keemo Paul, [Sherfane] Rutherford, Shimron Hetmyer, Carlos [Brathwaite], Nicholas [Pooran] – and all of those guys got picked. I mean, it was just happy tears from all of the guys.”
Better was to follow when Thomas dismantled England – the best ODI batting line-up in the world – with a stunning five-wicket burst in March. “It came pretty quick,” he says. “In five overs. It was a really great day for me. I probably could have got more in the game, though, to be honest. I was bowling up the hill and I told the captain that if I go on the other side, I’d have probably got six or seven. He told me to bowl two or three overs from that end [up the hill] first. So I bowled three from there and I got one [3-0-16-1].
“But it was a struggle coming up the hill. Plus with the breeze, my pace was cut and everything. But as soon as I got on the other side, I bowled two overs and got four wickets [2.1-0-5-4]. The wicket was bouncy, so I knew I could get the better of them, and I wanted the ball from the other side.”
For the World Cup, his game plan is simple. “I’m looking forward to helping my team to go as far as possible. Setting some goals also, like finishing in the top five wicket-takers. Very excited. First World Cup, can’t wait.” (Cricinfo)