IPL stars who could have been Olympians: Dhoni the fastest runner, De Villers a tennis freak

Did you know RCB’s AB de Villiers beat Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson at junior level and Chennai Super Kings’ MS Dhoni still runs at 32kmph between wickets?
By Utathya Nag

Over the past 12 years, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has been the yearly melting pot for the biggest names in world cricket.

Each IPL player, in his own right, is a top athlete and quite a few of them, if the wheels of fortune had deviated ever so slightly, could have championed another sport.

Many, in fact, excelled in various Olympic sports during their formative years and could have very well opted for another path.

Here’s a look at some IPL players, both from present and past, who could have ended on an Olympic podium rather than vie for Orange and Purple Caps in the IPL.

AB de Villiers: Tennis and golf

AB de Villiers is a star player for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL.

Royal Challengers Bangalore’s South African star AB de Villiers features amongst the top 10 run-getters in IPL history and is considered a superman in the limited overs format of cricket.

Over the years, there have been grand tales about the ace cricketer excelling at several other sports like hockey, football, athletics, swimming, badminton, tennis, rugby and golf at the national level when he was young.

Mr 360’s talent pool, however, may not have been as deep as the rumour mills suggest.

The RCB batsman himself dispelled the hearsays but admitted he was pretty handy at golf and was, on occasions, ranked No. 1 in his age group at national-level tennis.

Former ATP world No. 5 and two-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson attested to AB de Villiers’ talent.

“AB was a well-known tennis player in the junior circuit. I was two years junior to him, and we used to play against each other all the time. I remember this one time when he defeated me in straight sets,” Anderson recalled.

“AB’s best part was his court coverage, he had an amazing backhand as well,” the South African Olympian added.

Brendon McCullum: Rugby

Brendon McCullum scored a century for Kolkata Knight Riders against RCB in the very first match in IPL history.

The IPL’s first-ever centurion, Brendon McCullum’s explosive batting during his time with Kolkata Knight Riders, Chennai Super Kings, Gujarat Lions and Royal Challengers Bangalore has been a sight to behold.

The former New Zealand cricket captain, however, was earning plaudits for a very different sport when he was young.

McCullum was an accomplished rugby player during his school days and it’s well-documented that he even kept the All Blacks -- New Zealand rugby team -- great Dan Carter out of the South Island secondary schools rugby team.

Carter, a three-time International Rugby Player of the Year, is considered among the best to have graced the sport of rugby.

Speaking about McCullum’s rugby days, Carter revealed, “That year, he was playing some awesome footy, so I spent a fair bit of time on the bench. He was a natural sportsman.”

MS Dhoni: Football and sprinting

MS Dhoni will be hoping to turn his side’s fortunes around in IPL 2020 in SRH vs CSK.

MS Dhoni – who led Chennai Super Kings to three IPL titles – was a talented footballer when he was young.

In fact, the World Cup-winning captain’s cricketing career traces its roots from football. Keshav Banerjee, Dhoni’s childhood coach, was so impressed watching him play as a goalkeeper for his school football team that he decided to train him as a wicketkeeper.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Still a massive football fan, Dhoni co-owns Chennaiyin FC – one of the Indian Super League (ISL) franchises. Whenever he gets the time to be around his team, it’s not uncommon for Dhoni to occasionally join the players for a kickabout.

“He may have been a goalkeeper back in school. But when he’s playing, it has been evident that his skills with his feet have not left him. He’s quite good,” Indian football team and former Chennaiyin striker Jeje Lalpekhlua revealed.

Besides football, Dhoni, throughout his career, was known to be one of the swiftest runners between the wickets.

Broadcast analysis shows that even at the age of 36, and with full batting gear on, he could reach top speeds of around 32km per hour – numbers which would make even national level sprinters proud.

Sourav Ganguly: Football

Sourav Ganguly’s four seasons in the IPL was equally divided between Kolkata Knight Riders and Pune Warriors.

Hailing from Kolkata, often considered the Mecca of Indian football, it’s not surprising that former India and Kolkata Knight Riders captain Sourav Ganguly shares a personal connection with the beautiful game.

Before turning to cricket, the Prince of Kolkata was a deadly striker when he was a kid and represented his school at various tournaments. Ganguly’s family too shares a close relationship with Mohun Bagan – one of India’s oldest legacy football clubs.

Like Dhoni, Ganguly co-owns Kolkata-based ISL franchisee ATK -- now ATK Mohun Bagan – a three-time ISL champion team.

It’s a little-known fact that Kolkata’s Premier division football team Chirag United (United SC) tried to sign Ganguly after he retired from international cricket in 2008. The club was playing in the I-League – India’s top tier football competition at the time – that year.

With the IPL starting that same year, icon Ganguly had already committed to play for KKR.

Kane Williamson: Basketball and rugby

Kane Williamson has been with Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL since 2015.

Standing at a modest 5’ 6”, it’s hard to imagine the current Sunrisers Hyderabad captain as a force on the basketball court, but the Kiwi was good at shooting hoops during his childhood.

A dominant shooting guard for the Tauranga Boys' College senior basketball team, Kane Williamson even won the MVP award at the mid-northern junior secondary schools tournament back in 2005.

Williamson’s mother Sandra, was an accomplished representative basketball player during her time.

Kane Williamson was also quite handy with rugby. He played one season of Roller Mills (2003-04) – the leading intermediate-aged national rugby tournament in New Zealand – and helped Bay of Plenty to a second-place finish.

A concussion, however, ended his rugby career.

Ben Stokes: Rugby

Ben Stokes is set to play in IPL 2020 for Rajasthan Royals.

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Ben Stokes moved to England with his father Gerard Stokes – a former New Zealand rugby league player – when he took up a job of coaching Workington Town in the British Rugby League.

The Rajasthan Royals star, before he started concentrating on cricket and eventually helped England win its first cricket World Cup in 2019, followed his father’s footsteps, excelling at rugby at the junior level.

The burly Stokes played rugby union for his town Cockermouth and the Rugby League for Broughton Red Rose - a famous amateur club back in the day.

By the age of 14, he was also in the England system but opted to concentrate on cricket.

Jos Buttler: Hockey

Jos Buttler made his IPL debut in 2016 playing for Mumbai Indians.

Stokes’ England and Rajasthan Royals teammate Jos Buttler, meanwhile, earned his stripes in hockey during his junior days.

In fact, the ramp – an unconventional cricketing shot made mainstream by Buttler – was inspired by his time playing hockey.

Jonny Bairstow: Football, rugby and hockey

Jonny Bairstow made 10 appearances for Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2019.

Yet another Englishman in the list, Sunrisers Hyderabad player Jonny Bairstow was a multi-sport talent growing up.

Bairstow was part of the Leeds United youth setup from the age of seven and continued playing for the English Premier League club until he decided to shift his focus to cricket at the age of 15.

England football internationals Danny Rose and Fabian Delph were Bairstow’s team-mates during his time at Leeds.

He has also played Rugby Union as a fly-half for Yorkshire Schools and field hockey for Leeds Met at the University level.

Chris Green: Tennis

Having been drafted into the Kolkata Knight Riders squad for IPL 2020, Australian all-rounder Chris Green seems poised to make his much-awaited debut at the premier T20 competition later this year.

Growing up, Chris was an accomplished tennis player and only decided to hang up his racquet in favour of the willow at the age of 20.

Chris’ parents Warren Green and Lisa Gould Green were both professional tennis players – good enough to play at the Wimbledon. His younger brother Cameron also turned pro a couple of years back.

Kumar Sangakkara: Tennis

Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakkara in action for KXIP in the IPL.

Sri Lankan ace Kumar Sangakkara was a top cricketer during his playing days, but growing up, his first love was tennis.

During his schooldays, Sangakkara won several national-level age-group championships in tennis. He was reportedly a very good badminton player.

Kumar Sangakkara’s dad Kashema, in an interview, insisted that his son was more skilled with the tennis racquet than he was with the bat.

“Kumar was more talented on the tennis court. One day Saranga (his sister) beat him though in an inter-family battle of the sexes. That’s it. He never played tennis seriously again,” Kashema explained.

Kumar Sangakkara’s sister Saranga was a top Sri Lankan women’s tennis player and became the senior national champion at the age of 15. She held the title for four years.

Sangakkara played in the IPL for Kings XI Punjab, Deccan Chargers and Sunrisers Hyderabad from 2008 to 2013.