On a cold December night in 1984, Khushi Cheema returned home and asked his wife to pack their belongings. The following day, the Sikh family from village Cheema Khurd near Jalandhar boarded a train for Delhi. During the 52-km ride, 5-year-old Harpreet kept asking his father where they were going. He only got a smile as an answer.
“I can never forget that night and the next morning. It still feels like it happened yesterday. My father took that decision to keep his family safe after the rise of insurgency in Punjab during the mid-1980s,” Harpreet tells The Indian Express over phone from Amstelveen in the Netherlands.
Cut to the present, Khushi Cheema is back on his farm in Jalandhar, and Harpreet is running a transportation company in Amstelveen.
His 19-year-old grandson, Vikramjit Singh, tipped to be one of the brightest cricketing talents in the Netherlands, will take guard against India, the country of his forefathers, on Thursday, which he calls “the biggest match of my international career”.
After the win against Pakistan in the opening game, India will start as favourites against a nation where cricket isn’t a mass sport.
“I was five when I came to the Netherlands. It was very hard; you didn’t know the language, it was a completely different culture. It took me a few years to settle down,” says Harpreet.
He goes down memory lane, recollecting his family’s hardships and the discrimination he faced growing up.
“Back then, there was racism. I faced a lot because of my skin colour, turban and beard,” says Harpreet.
But with time, things eased. Khushi Cheema, who started driving a taxi in his new country, handed over his transportation company to his son before moving back to India in 2000.
“My father handed over the business to me and moved back to India. He said his duty as a father was done, we are well settled here now, and he wanted to go back to his pind (village), to his people,” Harpreet says.
The family’s bond with India was too strong to cut off. Vikramjit was born in Cheema Khurd and he moved to the Netherlands only after he turned seven. He never had to face problems like his father.
At 11, he was spotted at an U-12 tournament by then Dutch skipper Peter Borren, who spent hours and hours in the nets to groom the youngster. He also got a sponsorship from Beat All Sports (BAS), a sports goods manufacturers company that made bats for Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh.
At 15, he was already in the Netherlands ‘A’ side and two years later, made his senior team debut.
“For me, cricket started in Cheema Khurd. When I moved to the Netherlands, I used to go with my father as he used to play in the local leagues. At 12, I played alongside him when he was captain,” Vikramjit says from Sydney.
Borren got Vikramjit enrolled at his club VRA, Amsterdam, where he was captain.
“Not sure what he saw in me but I feel lucky that someone like Peter, with so much international experience, is my mentor. He has guided me throughout my cricketing career so far,” says Vikramjit.
It is not easy to be a professional cricketer in a country obsessed with football with a cricket season ending in September before resuming in March.
Here, Harpreet came to his son’s rescue. During his playing days, he had become friends with Amit Uniyal, a former Punjab and Rajasthan Royals bowler, who used to play league cricket with him in the Netherlands. From 2015-16 to 2019-20, the youngster spent six months at Uniyal’s Gurusagar Cricket Academy in Chandigarh.
“I had my doubts first. NRI kid, will he be able to train twice a day? Will he be able to get along with the local lads? But he surprised me with his temperament, his immense self-belief and hard work. He never complained and I am not surprised to see his rise in International cricket,” says Uniyal.
In 2021, Vikramjit shifted his base to Jalandhar and started training with former India U-19 player Taruwar Kohli, who also used to play for a club in Amsterdam.
“The sole reason was that Taruwar Kohli’s academy was near my village (Khurd Cheema), and now my mother doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. It was kind of exhausting for her too. Above all, I got to spend more time with my Dadu (grandfather),” says Vikramjit, who has gifted his Netherlands jersey to his grandfather, a die-hard cricket fan.
“He has supported India throughout his life. Hopefully, not on Thursday because it will be the biggest match of my international career so far,” he says.