He used to wake up at 4 to catch the Dombivli Fast to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) for net practice at Azad Maidan. Clearly, the dedication paid off. Recently nominated for the Arjuna Award by the Board of Control for Cricket in India and named vice captain for the tour to the West Indies, Ajinkya Madhukar Rahane, 27, says he is ready for newer challenges.
“Being vice captain of India is a really proud moment. From Dombivli to CST or Shivaji Park to Sabina Park (in Jamaica), the journey has been good but tough. There were challenges along the way but I like taking them on,” says the feisty Mumbaikar who has acquired the reputation of a hard-as-nails finisher who relishes taking on pace bowlers.
Ask Dale Steyn, one of the most feared fast bowlers in world cricket. In the middle of a venomous spell, where the South African took six wickets in a Test at Durban, one of Steyn’s thunderbolts hit young Rahane smack on the helmet. Unfazed, Rahane stood up, gathered his wits and belted Steyn for boundaries in his next two overs, in the process hitting his maiden half-century and staying unbeaten. “I got hit but I didn’t want to react. The world’s eyes are on you. The bowler is watching you after the bouncer. I wanted to send out a strong message: I am not scared of Steyn. I am here to play and I am going to dominate him. It was important not to give him an inch. We broke for lunch but I didn’t eat. I kept sitting in the dressing room with my pads on, thinking about how I’ll dominate Dale Steyn. Being hit on the head actually worked to motivate me,” says Rahane, during an exclusive interview with HT Brunch.
The steel in Rahane’s character could be the outcome of an economically deprived childhood, tempered with a baptism by fire when he failed in both innings of his Test debut. Or it could be a function of his training as a black belt karateka. Having grown up on the wrong side of the railway track, in a lower-middle class family staying in the suburbs of Dombivli, gave young Ajinkya a fire in the belly.
Doing the hard yards
As a child, Ajinkya was frail and diminutive. Growing up in a modest home with an engineer father and a homemaker mother meant he couldn’t afford an auto-rickshaw to and from the cricket ground. “When I was very young, I could not even lift my kitbag. So my mother [Sujata Rahane] picked it up in one hand and held my younger brother Shashank in the other and the two of us walked to the nets. At times we ended up walking for 10 kilometres under the harsh sun. My mother then sat outside for three hours till I finished practice and then we walked back.”
When he was in class V, his father Madhukar Rahane allowed Ajinkya to join karate classes. “I got my black belt First Dan at the age of 12 and I was the youngest in my training centre. I practised karate till a few years ago and it has helped enhance my flexibility, stamina and mental toughness,” says Rahane. “Karate taught me to channel my aggression. During a martial arts exam, I once broke 50 bricks with my hands. Another time, 20 sugarcanes bound together were broken on my back and I smashed more than 15 tiles with my head.”
Rahane doesn’t believe in wearing his aggression on his sleeve. But put a bat in his hand and he’ll show you who’s in command. “I am aggressive from the inside. When I am batting on the crease, I am the boss. I want to dominate the quickest bowlers in the world, whether it is Dale Steyn in Durban, Mitchell Johnson in Melbourne or James Anderson at the Lord’s,” says Rahane, his brown eyes gleaming.
Commentator and TV anchor Harsha Bhogle considers Rahane’s hundred on a seaming wicket at the Lord’s in 2014, where he helped his team script a dramatic win over a rampaging English attack, as one of the best Indian victories overseas in recent times.
It was the first time India emerged victorious at the Mecca of cricket in 28 years. “That affirmed my faith in Rahane as a match-winner. Like VVS Laxman before him, young Ajinkya scores when India needs him most and when the critics are least expecting him to. Throughout his career, he has been proving critics wrong. Although he is a tough character, he gives a lot of respect to the game that has made him who he is,” says Bhogle.
During his fourth IPL season, when he switched from Mumbai Indians to Rajasthan Royals, Shane Warne gave the moniker ‘Jinx’ to Ajinkya, reasoning that Rahane’s prolific scores were jinxing the opposition’s best-laid plans. It was also the season when Rahane got to play alongside role model Rahul Dravid. “Outside cricket, I idolise Roger Federer and in the gentleman’s game, I look up to Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Not only were they great players, but the way they conducted themselves off the field evoked respect. The way Sachin and Rahul handled success is something I can identify with. I learnt the importance of staying grounded from them.”
Ajinkya Rahane is a student of the celebrated Bombay school of batsmanship. “In Mumbai cricket, only merit counts. And one has to prove oneself consistently to get picked for the Ranji side,” says Rahane. “When I was growing up, if it wasn’t for coaches such as Arvind Kadam and Vidya Paradkar [who is also Zaheer Khan’s coach] who recognised my potential and encouraged me, I wouldn’t have reached where I have. Kadam Sir and Paradkar Sir even paid for my sports gear, since I could not afford it. Along with my present coach Praveen Amre, I can never forget the contribution of coaches from Mumbai’s domestic cricket in my life,” says Rahane.
One of the few players to have scored 1,000 runs in a single domestic season, Rahane amassed 1,089 runs to help Mumbai win the Ranji title in 2008. But he waited patiently for a national call-up. After being in the reserves for more than 15 Test matches, where he played water-boy, young Rahane made a disastrous debut at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla against the Australians in March 2013. With scores of 7 and 1 to show in his opening match, it seemed the jinx had struck. “Being on the bench for 16 matches wasn’t easy. But I learnt by watching seniors such as Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Dhoni prepare for matches. I learnt how to focus and how to react in different situations.”
Ahead of the tour to South Africa, he practised with a wet tennis ball with his coach, former India batsman Praveen Amre, at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex.
In his third Test, Rahane scored fifties in each innings in Durban before making his maiden Test century against New Zealand. Then Rahane overcame his demons when he returned to Feroz Shah Kotla, the very ground where he had failed against the Aussies, and hit a hundred in each innings. In the Delhi Test, Rahane’s two brilliant tons put India in a commanding position. “Temporary setbacks don’t faze him. Like Arjun, he has his eye on the long-range goal: becoming the best batsman in the world,” says Praveen Amre. “Which is why, on every overseas tour, he has prepared well and excelled even in alien terrain.”
Rahane’s love for net practice is well-known. Amre recalls the instance when he had to call in a cake in the nets on Rahane’s birthday. Is it true that Rahane had to be dragged out of the nets a couple of days before his wedding in 2014? “Yes, cricket is my passion and even my wife [Radhika Dhopavkar] knows that batting is my first love,” he smiles.
His obsession with training doesn’t end with batting. He is supremely fit and can do 100 metres in less than 12 seconds. The world-record holder for the most number of catches in a Test match (he pocketed eight catches against Sri Lanka in 2014) also takes at least 100 catches every day. “One or two catches or run outs can tilt the match your way,” he reasons.
In the 2016 IPL season, Rahane was on a hot streak, hitting six half centuries for the Rising Pune Supergiants. But he is far from satisfied. “I batted okay. I was happy with the way I was batting this IPL. But another 600-700 runs would have been much better.”
The Writing on the Wall
Whether it is because of the solidity that he lends to India’s top order or for his non-flamboyant countenance, Rahane has often drawn comparisons with Rahul ‘The Wall’ Dravid. Being called the second Wall is something he has got used to. “It is a big compliment but I tell people not to compare us. He [Dravid] achieved so much and I am just a few years into my career.’’
The comparisons were inevitable. After 10 Tests, Rahane had more hundreds than Tendulkar, Laxman or Dravid at the corresponding stage of their careers. But when he actually got to play alongside Dravid, Rahane gained valuable life lessons, he says. “Opening the batting with him helped me grow. One thing Dravid sir told me, something that I hold dear, was to think only about things that one can control.”
The days Rahane didn’t have money for an auto-rickshaw are behind him. He now glides around town in a glistening white Audi Q5 and has shifted from his Dombivli house in the suburbs of the city, to an upscale Thane apartment. Rahane has more than 10 pairs of his favourite True Religion jeans in his wardrobe and boasts more than a million followers on Twitter. Still, the lower-middle class boy who wanted to emulate Sachin Tendulkar has his head firmly on his shoulders. “I want to give respect to everybody. If I take care of this game, the game will take care of me.”
When he is not working on his technique in the nets or on tour, Rahane likes to read, listen to rock music on his iPod and spend time with his wife Radhika. During the Brunch shoot, he seeks her approval while trying out different outfits. Clearly, the relationship is on a solid wicket. “Radhika understands my routine. When I am in my room, I like to think about the day’s play. She plays some game on her iPad and doesn’t disturb me. It is not easy for our partners, waiting for their husbands. That is why I make sure to take her out for a movie and dinner after a match.”
The Rahanes are big Bollywood buffs and in the season of biopics, says Ajinkya, he would want Aamir Khan, his favourite, to play him if a film based on his life were to be made. “I loved him in Lagaan,” he says.
It isn’t difficult to imagine Rahane essaying a Bhuvan, turning a ragtag bunch of cricketers into doughty heroes.
Chale, chalo Ajinkya!
His hunger and talent always stood out: Rahul Dravid
Ajinkya Rahane has been India’s most successful batsman over the last year and a half in all conditions all over the world. Knowing him, he’ll only build from this to have a very successful career.
It is never the right thing to draw comparisons between players. Ajinkya and I played in completely different generations and eras. He has grown up in a time when all the three formats of the game are important and so he is much more of a modern player - he’s adept at all three formats of the game. The great thing for India is that Ajinkya has found success in all three formats. In my case, I struggled initially to cope with ODI cricket because growing up, we only aspired to play Test cricket for India.
My best memory of Ajinkya is his knock of 103 against the Royal Challengers Bangalore at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. For someone who started out not known as a T20 player, it was a tribute to the work and effort he put in to play that kind of innings.
He’s always had talent and ability, but it’s his hunger and desire that has always stood out and his willingness to never back down from a contest.
What the others say
Cricketer VVS Laxman: “His best quality is adapting to the situation. Since Ajinkya has very sound technique and at the same time a lot of attacking shots, he can adapt to whatever the situation is. Even in the longer format, whenever the team requires quick runs, he can up the tempo. And when the team is in a tight corner, he can play the waiting game as well. That is why he is such a consistent performer not just in India, but on all the overseas tours.”
Senior cricket editor Pradeep Magazine: “In times of slam-bang cricket, it is good to see a cricketer who has all the skills required to excel in Test cricket.”
Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle: “I am extremely fond of Ajinkya. He is a strong character. Just like Rahul Dravid, he is willing to bat anywhere in the batting order. He is one of the few Indian batsmen who relish playing pace bowlers. And like Dravid and VVS Laxman, he has a penchant to play crucial innings when India needs him to score the most. If Kohli is wow, Rahane is class!”
Different Strokes: Getting into Ajinkya’s Mind
On Captaincy : At the moment it isn’t important. My focus is on doing well for India in all formats. Even on the field, I don’t like to confuse Virat. I may give my inputs during the lunch break or after the day’s game.
On changing gears from Tests to ODIs to T20: There are no big changes needed technically. I work on my batting day by day, session by session. I have added the reverse sweep to my repertoire for T2O matches. That is something I practise a lot in the nets. I played a couple of reverse sweeps against Sri Lanka when I got my hundred. I’ve been training with Praveen Amre sir. When you practise alone, there are chances of making some small mistakes.
On his goal of becoming the world’s best batsman: The process is always very important. If you focus on the small things before and after the game, before the tour and after the tour, you take small steps towards your goal.
His non-cricket idol: Roger Federer. He isn’t impulsive. He doesn’t let any difficulty faze him.
5 songs on Jinx’s playlist
Malhari, from Bajirao Mastani
Hall of Fame, by The Script
A Sky Full of Stars, by Coldplay
Superheroes, by The Script
Zehnaseeb, by Shekhar Ravjiani
On his book shelf
Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi
Amish’s Shiva trilogy
From the reporter’s notebook
by Aasheesh Sharma
Ajinkya Rahane is incredibly nice for an Indian cricketer. That he looks up to Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, who never played a loose shot off the field, may explain part of this. But there are other old worldly qualities that make Rahane endearing. He arrives for the shoot a few minutes late and apologises profusely. He formulates his answers carefully and speaks softly. But don’t let this Stefan Edberg meets Anil Kumble demeanour deceive you into thinking he is a pushover. A few minutes into the interview, he feistily declares: “When I have a bat, I’m the boss,” and one thinks
‘Bajirao ala re’. So, that’s how the black-belt karateka braces up to face Dale Steyn, Mitchell Johnson and James Anderson on the pitch!
Growing up in a suburban lower-middle-class household, Rahane caught a local train early morning to travel to the maidans around Shivaji Park to perfect his cover drives. He stayed on the bench for more than 15 matches before he could earn his India cap: only to make a famously disastrous debut. That he bounced back to exorcise his ghosts and go on to become one of our most successful Indian batsmen and now the vice captain for the Test team to the Caribbean, displays his resilience. That he can also play those breathtaking pulls to midwicket and backfoot punches through point, only makes one root even more for the boy from Dombivli. Point to be noted!
Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, July 17, 2016
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