RP Singh played for India A before Ranji Trophy, had a five-wicket haul in Lord’s, helped India win a T20 World Cup and Test match in Perth, and won an IPL Purple Cap. Yet, he played only 82 times for India, and never after his 26th birthday.

Rudra Pratap Singh was not even the first Uttar Pradesh seamer of that name – not first or middle or last but full name – to play for India. His namesake had opened bowling in two ODIs in 1986/87, and is the father of Harry, who has played for England Under-19s. It is a miracle that our man spent a career without a suffix attached to his name.

But that was not the only peculiarity about RP Singh (let us not use ‘Jr’). In nine decades, India have had only six left-arm fast bowlers taking new ball in more than 15 international matches. The last four – Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, and RP – had overlapping careers.

The Indian new-ball attack of the first decade of the new millennium, thus, bore a look different from its counterparts at any other point in history. Of this curious quartet, RP Singh arrived last (2005), and left first (2011).

Forty wickets in 14 Test matches at 42.05 do little justice to the fact that RP starred in India’s two famous wins – the Test series in England in 2007, and the Perth Test match that winter. His ODI numbers – 69 wickets at 33.95, economy 5.48 – are not extraordinary. And despite being the first Indian bowler to win an IPL Purple Cap, he played only 10 T20Is, seven of them in India’s triumphant World T20.

Early days

RP Singh hails from Raebareli – a fact that defined his career. In an interview with Cricbuzz, he elaborated on the sports geography of the enormous state of Uttar Pradesh (almost the size of New Zealand). Proximity to the sporting goods manufacturing hub of Meerut resulted in availability of more new cricket balls. The area has, thus, produced Praveen Kumar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. A fast bowler from Raebareli – 650 km from Meerut – had to learn to master the old ball.

His career took an unusual route in its early days. By 15, he was playing for the Uttar Pradesh Under-19s. By 17, he had played for India A – against the touring New Zealanders – before playing in the Ranji Trophy. In a way he was fortunate, for this was 2003 – the year after BCCI had launched their Talent Research Development Wing with the aim to scout for talent beyond the popular powerhouses of Indian cricket.

That winter, he also played in the Under-19 World Cup. Eight wickets at 24.75 were a reasonable return, and he rose through the ranks to make his ODI debut – at 19. India were not reluctant to pool together as many left-arm fast bowlers as they could find. By the time he was four matches old, he already had 4-35 and 3-33 against Sri Lanka.

He made his Test debut the year after, in Faisalabad, on the kind of wicket where, to quote the Wisden Almanack, “bat dominates ball so unforgivingly that ‘contest’ is hardly the word to describe it.” The 27 sixes were, at that point, a record for a Test match. With 4-89 in the first innings, RP, part of a left-arm triumvirate, outshone Irfan and Zaheer.

India’s debacle at next year’s World Cup ended Greg Chappell’s brief, turbulent tenure as Indian coach. The team left for England that summer without a coach. India’s pace attack consisted of Zaheer Khan, whose stint with Worcestershire had transformed him into the spearhead of the attack; S Sreesanth, who had swung India to their first Test match win on South African soil a few months ago; and the 21-year-old boy from Raebareli.

Lord of Lord’s

On a recent tour of Bangladesh, both Zaheer and RP had bowled from both over and round the wicket to the batters. The English batters were not accustomed to facing two left-arm fast bowlers swinging the ball in either direction from both over and round the wicket. In the first Test match, at Lord’s, RP took 2-58 and 5-59. Both the second-innings figures and match figures were the best for a left-arm seamer at Lord’s since 1961.

In the second innings, he ran through Michael Vaughan’s defence from round the wicket, and bounced out Paul Collingwood. India rode on luck, rain, and MS Dhoni to save the Test match.

India then won at Trent Bridge for the first time. While Zaheer and jellybeans played their part, so did RP. After beating Kevin Pietersen several times at Lord’s, he now trapped him leg-before for 13 and 19. With a draw at The Oval, India won a Test series in England after 21 years.

Zaheer finished the series with 20 wickets at 20.33; RP, with 12, at 28.91. “There had not really been anyone in international cricket who had swung the ball both ways from round the wicket since Wasim Akram,” wrote Nasser Hussain in the Wisden Almanack. The series helped earn him a brief stint with Leicestershire.

Two months later, in the World T20, he returned 4-0-13-4 in a match India needed to win, against South Africa, and 4-0-26-3 in the final. That January, there was a 4-124 in Sydney. In the next Test match, he had 4-68 and 2-95 (and surprised everyone with a vital 30 from No.10) to help India win at Perth for the first time.

At this point in his career, he seemed destined for bigger things.

The decline

Between that 2007/08 of Australia and the 2010/11 tour of South Africa, India played only three Test matches away from home, in a series in New Zealand. By then, RP had lost form completely. Zaheer’s ubiquitous presence and Ishant Sharma’s rise meant that the two fast bowlers for Test matches in Asia were sealed.

There was one hurrah, in 2009, when the IPL had to be shifted to South Africa. Back to conditions he thrived in, he took 23 wickets to clinch the Purple Cap to help the Deccan Chargers win the title after they had finished last the year before. That earned him a call up in T20 Internationals, but he was no longer the RP of 2007.

By 2010, Zaheer was the only one of the Indian left-arm pacers playing Test cricket. When he missed the Centurion Test match of 2010/11, the selectors, keen on a like-for-like replacement, flew out not RP but an uncapped teenager called Jaydev Unadkat.

RP’s international career ended in almost comical fashion. On the 2011 tour of England, India had been trailing 0-3 as well as hit by injuries. For the fourth Test, at The Oval, they summoned RP, who had not played a Test match in over three years and had been vacationing in Miami. Dhoni even asked a ‘cheerfully overweight’ RP to bowl the first over of the match. The first ball was slow and wide, down the leg side. He bowled 34 insipid overs, and never played for India after that tour. At 25, his international career was over.

Five IPL franchises, a switch from Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat – nothing could help him find a way back to where he had once belonged. In another era, he might have had a chance once Zaheer walked away from international cricket. Unfortunately, RP’s decline came in the 2010s, the decade that marked the emergence of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, and Jasprit Bumrah in Test cricket.