Attending functions at a $3.2 billion mansion in Mumbai, starring in a Netflix documentary series and travelling around Karachi in armoured vans is a world away from cricket star Mitchell McClenaghan's humble beginnings. Neil Reid reports
Tens of millions of sports fans around the world have soaked up a rare glimpse inside the workings of cricket's cashed-up Indian Premier League via Netflix's Cricket Fever reality TV series.
The show, which was released by the online streaming giants last year, goes behind the scenes of the mighty Mumbai Indians side; a franchise developed and owned by the Ambani family – who live in a $3.2 billion mansion - and whose playing roster includes former Black Cap star Mitchell McClenaghan.
The glam and big dollars of the IPL – which annually is worth an estimated $270m to the Indian economy – couldn't be further from McClenaghan's humble background; including working as a teen at a South Auckland freezing works after leaving school without University Entrance.
The future Black Caps pace bowler – alongside fellow future internationals Colin Munro, Colin de Grandhomme and Mark Craig – had his first stint at the meat plant during school holidays.
The teenager was offered a reality check when his father Dennis told him the freezing works could be where his future lay if he didn't give professional sport a serious crack.
"I had pissed around in my last year [at secondary school]," the 34-year-old told the Herald on Sunday. "I am not a dumb bloke, but I just mucked around and tried to stay out of class to play as much sport as I could.
"Dad said, 'Go to the meatworks and work fulltime, or go to the UK, get a club and a job and try to give cricket a crack'."
McClenaghan – who has gone on to represent New Zealand at one-day international and Twenty20 level – eventually took his father's advice.
But before then were many hours of back-busting hard slog on floor at an Ōtāhuhu freezing works; a period which he now recalls as "a real eye-opener".
"It was really hard work, getting down and pushing beef down to the back chillers . . . every day doing that 600 times," he said. "It was pretty exhausting, but super rewarding."
Not only did the job keep him physically fit, it also armed him with a mental fitness that would later pay off in the heat of battle in cricketing arenas around the globe.
Because of his age, McClenaghan said he "copped a bit of s***" on the freezing works floor.
"They get stuck into you . . . you learn a bit of mental fortitude copping an ear-bashing and the odd hose-down if you are not doing your job properly.
"But you learn about hard work and also if I didn't apply myself to what I wanted to do in terms of cricket or university, well this was the option [for my future]. It wasn't a bad option, but it gave me motivation to really push myself."
"Fuelled mainly on hate"
McClenaghan's sporting dream ultimately saw him fly to the UK, where he played club cricket, then spending half a season playing on Australia's Gold Coast before returning home.
He later enrolled in university, where he studied marketing and accounting.
But cricket remained his burning desire and he said the fact he had missed out on selection for a selection of age-group sides had provided him with "so much resilience" and also saw him "fueled mainly on hate" in his bid to succeed.
"I would pick a target and would go, 'I didn't make these sides because this, this and this'. That was my motivation in the early days to try to drive myself to be better," he said.
He was eventually picked up by Central Districts, making his first-class debut in 2007.
The stint was ended after he battled injury, with Wellington offering McClenaghan a career lifeline.
That shift never eventuated after Dennis McClenaghan stepped in again with some worldly advice.
"Dad asked me: 'What do you want to do? Do you want to be a first-class cricketer? Or do you want to play international cricket?'," McClenaghan said.
"Obviously the answer was international cricket. So he said, 'Why don't you come back to Auckland and go and talk to [Auckland coach] Paul Strang, say you want to play for Auckland'."
At the time Auckland's pace bowling stocks were packed with Black Caps internationals Chris Martin, Kyle Mills, Andre Adams, Daryl Tuffey and Michael Bates.
Given the talent ahead of him, it was a decision that initially would mean he would have little chance of breaking into match elevens.
He turned up every day to train alongside some of the big guns for free.
"Dad said, 'If you can compete with them, when you do get the chance to play for Auckland, not only will you be ready but you will be ready to play for the Black Caps'," McClenaghan said.
He finally got his shot for Auckland during the 2011-12 season, taking 5-30 in his debut and then backed it up with a haul of 6-41 in his next match.
Cracking into the big time
His rise was rapid, becoming a Black Cap in the Twenty20 and one-day international arenas on the side's tour of South Africa during late 2012-early 2013.
"It was huge, pretty special. You pinch yourself," he said after his earlier battles.
McClenaghan has since played 48 one-day internationals and 24 T20 clashes for New Zealand.
Although he has been a proven match-winner in lucrative Twenty20 leagues around the world – including India, the UK, Australia, Pakistan and the Caribbean - he has not worn the silver fern since March 2016; opting to turn down a New Zealand Cricket contract in 2017 so he could chase contracts in on the global T20 circuit.
It was a move driven by a desire to win titles and also make him a better potential match-winner for the Black Caps in limited-overs cricket.
His first major offshore contract had been with the Mumbai Indians for the 2015 IPL; a tournament the side won.
And it remains his highest-profile team – where he is on a $217,000 retainer – and where camera crews from Netflix's Cricket Fever have highlighted his personality and ability to a sports audience around the globe.
Pressure cooker life in the IPL
The Mumbai Indians are owned by one of the Asia's richest families; the Ambanis.
The family's wealth – including father Mukesh Ambani who has an estimated net worth of $121b - comes via a vast network of refining, petrochemical, retail and telecommunications interests.
The side is co-owned by Mukesh's wife, Nita, and their son, Akash.
The Ambanis feature heavily during Cricket Fever; making the presence felt at team trainings, giving post-match team talks and also hosting the side at their 27-storey $3.2b mansion, called Antilia.
"I had never experienced anything like it," McClenaghan said of the Ambani's hands-on role. "But you get used to it. I am very good friends with Akash [Ambani] now.
"They are good people. You just have to understand that they are just like us, they want to win. And they win at a lot of things . . . the Ambanis are successful at a lot of things.
"They want to win and when you get your head around that you understand where the messages come from. For them, it is pride as well. They have built a very valuable brand in the Mumbai Indians and they want to hold on to that value and see their team win."
He added of their plush home: "It is pretty cool to see what they have achieved and the place is awesome."
The environment in the IPL – and not just the Mumbai Indians – came with the pressure of winning. Those who couldn't handle that "get swallowed up pretty quick", McClenaghan added.
"You have to go out there and want to win, not just participate," he said.
Crowds were routinely "going nuts" at match venues two hours before a ball was bowled.
McClenaghan and his teammates stay in a Mumbai hotel for the duration of the IPL. It is routine for thousands of cricket fanatics to flock around the hotel trying to catch a glimpse of their sporting heroes before and after matches. Team buses can also be mobbed.
Becoming a reality TV star
For the 2018 season, the team operated amid the extra focus of the Cricket Fever film crew following them.
"If you didn't want something to go on the camera roll, you would drop a couple of expletives in there and they couldn't use the footage," he joked. "That was the trick of the trade.
"But they were nice fellas and we socialised with them quite a bit. They became part of the MI family."
The film crew wasn't the only group tracking the players during the IPL.
Tight security for McClenaghan's teammates – and the other seven IPL teams – includes scrutiny over where they go and who they meet with.
It was one of the steps taken by tournament organisers to ensure players were not exposed to potential match-fixers.
"If you are going to leave the hotel you have to let the anti-corruption [people] and security know that you have left and if you are going to see people, who you are off to see," McClenaghan said.
"They take the integrity of the tournament pretty seriously."
The pace bowler's non-playing travels in India are mainly restricted to trips to the gym, a restaurant about 150m from the team hotel or to a local golf club to catch up with other New Zealanders playing in the IPL.
McClenaghan's cricketing travels came to a shuddering halt earlier this year after the Covid-19 outbreak.
Pakistan security: Travelling in armoured vans
As the deadly virus spread its way around the globe, he was playing Twenty20 cricket for the Karachi Kings in the Pakistan Super League.
By playing in the league he became one of the few New Zealand cricketers to play in Pakistan since the deadly bomb blast outside the Black Caps' hotel during the 2002 tour there.
Seven years later the bus taking the Sri Lankan national team to Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium for a test clash against Pakistan was attacked by terrorists; with six police officers and two civilians being killed. Seven Sri Lankan players were injured in the attack, including Mahela Jayawardene, McClenaghan's coach at the Mumbai Indians.
"Obviously I was nervous, but they looked after us really well," McClenaghan said of Pakistan's security arrangements.
"We were in armoured vans to and from the ground. They would close off all the streets [when we travelled to venues] and basically made it as safe as they could for us to travel around. They don't want anything to go wrong."
McClenaghan made a rapid dash from Pakistan towards the end of the T20 tournament, returning to New Zealand shortly after the country went into level 4 lockdown. He completed a two-week isolation period at his Auckland home.
Since returning home he has thrown himself into running an F45 gym in Howick, which he owns with his sister, Annie.
He had previously invested in the businesses to help secure his financial future post-cricket.
Everyday Kiwis inspiring cricketing star
McClenaghan's rise to cricketing stardom is both a tale of determination and a source of inspiration.
He has a whopping 234,000 followers on Instagram, and has linked with Auckland-based brand partnership and content creator company WeAreTENZING.
As he waits to kickstart his playing career again – including pushing for a recall to the Black Caps for the 2021 and 2022 T20 World Cups – he doesn't have to look far for his own inspiration.
Breaking into the Black Caps in late 2012 and winning three IPL titles are among the pinnacles of McClenaghan's own sporting career.
But he said he garnered just as much joy in watching everyday Kiwis achieve their own fitness goals at his gym in Howick.
"It has been more rewarding than I thought," he said. "Not financially, but more from what I have seen people achieve.
"Literally people have changed their lives coming here. It has been pretty inspiring.
"People have lives, 9-to-5 jobs and families. But they turn up every morning at 5am or 6am, get their sessions done and achieve their goals with all that other stuff going on in their lives. It is awesome."