I would never have become a serious cricketer had I not been a problem child. I was extremely difficult to manage and had seriously high energy levels that would invariably get me into trouble. At that stage, my brother thought that summer camp could be the making of me — it would give me no time for pranks or mischief. Somehow, the idea worked and those eight hours I spent on the field everyday changed my attitude towards life. I became very serious about the game —it was a single-minded focus where nothing else mattered.
The other thing that really helped me was having my coach insist that I play practice matches constantly. This is something I feel was crucial as it gave me an edge later in my career — it made me intensely competitive. You can practice for hours but it can never be the same as being in the middle, protecting your wicket or trying to get one.
Consequently, it was never just “nets” for me. In fact, when I would head to practice straight from school, my coach would often tell the opposition that Sachin will come in and bat at No. 4. On my part, if I got out first ball, my practice was over. It meant I had to focus every ball and later, this made dealing with match situations much easier.
Little drops of water…
Why I’m detailing this really, is because I want to point out that every little step towards success, towards the attainment of a dream, in my case, towards playing a higher level of cricket, counts. I think, often, people dream big but gloss over the process involved in realising that dream. I honestly believe that we need to focus on smaller targets that stack up towards that final goal.
I would badger my brother every time I played a game, scored a hundred, did something special: “What next?” I wanted to compete, needed to compete, to push myself even then.
It’s really funny when I look back now, but then, as a 12-year-old, even though I knew I wanted to play for India, I didn’t know how one got there. I was clueless about the Ranji, and Duleep or anything. In my little world, I had some vague idea of things — you played well at Mumbai’s club games and were magically transported to playing for India.
And then, it happened. I started doing well at those games and found myself suddenly in state contention, rubbing shoulders with men I’d only seen on television. Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri, Lalchand Rajput… many more. My being there with them first gave me the confidence to believe in my own ability and then, that season, when I became the highest run-getter for Mumbai despite the presence of several stars, it became more special. It gave me the confidence to know I wasn’t out of place. I belonged here.
The power of the mind
And then, suddenly, it was all happening. The centuries in my Ranji, Duleep and Irani debuts took me to Pakistan and a whole different world. Pakistan was a unique experience, one in retrospect, I was too young to fully fathom at 16. I was just so excited to be part of the Indian team.
But even then, cricket-wise, I was very focussed on being there, knowing that once I was there, I had to stay there. This is where my years of preparation and early training in visualisation, a concept introduced to me by my brother, helped infinitely.
It wasn’t something that I was formally trained or told about specifically but even during school games, I used to prepare by letting my imagination take over. I would imagine situations, plan out things, try and get into the opposition’s head. Somewhere, in those early years, I had begun training my subconscious mind.
I’ve always believed in the power of the mind, it goes way beyond imagination, in its ability to push itself beyond what you might think is its limit, in its ability to readjust, realign and refocus. It is something incredible, the mind, and if you focus, there is no limit to one’s imagination and what the mind can accomplish. I’ve tried to bring that power of the mind to my game. For instance, when I walk into the middle, it is my fourth or fifth walk, as I have already done so several times in my head. It gives one an edge.
The importance of being grounded
Coming back to what happened, playing for India was obviously my dream. And once I was in, that was one dream realised. The next one was staying put there. Thereafter, once I had a reputation, it was all about living up to that. I lined up targets, one at a time. I competed with myself to achieve and better them.
For instance, if I made 300 in one series, I would tell myself I had to better that in the next. I had to push those boundaries, stay competitive, all the time.
The hunger and the desire to get there, do that, was always there. At no stage did I let myself relax, say I’d already done so much, think I could afford to let things be. I could not, that was not me.
What really helped immensely was the support I received from my family, my coach… no one got carried away by my success, so neither did I. There were no big celebrations in my house if I did something, it was accepted as normal.
Like when I got back after making my first hundred in England, all I did was have some friends over for a meal and chat about it. Our little ritual centred around seeking blessings from God, so 100 times out of 100, that’s all I would do, seek blessings. And focus.
Even later, whenever I did something, my brother, who has really been the driving force behind my cricket, would never tell me it was exceptional or brilliant. He would more likely point out that say, ‘in the 29th over, fourth ball, you didn’t quite play that shot correctly’.
My father’s son
I think I was blessed in my family, because they allowed me to choose and follow my dream, they supported me, yet, did not overwhelm me. My father for instance, played a huge role in ensuring I stayed focussed on cricket. I was never forced to do the more conventional things, to try and concentrate on being a doctor or engineer.
He sat me down a long time ago and we talked, he told me that if I was serious about wanting to play for India, I should go for it, said that if you dream, then dream properly, go after that dream, believe in it and yourself and concentrate on realising it.
That freedom to choose allowed me to focus my energy in one direction. I think for a lot of kids, that energy is divided, either because of a lack of choices or a lack of support when you make those choices. If that happens, then your focus obviously cannot be single-minded and it takes away from your effort.
To succeed, you need no detractions, no distractions. As a student of sport, I always tell people, you also have to figure out what works best for you. Often, it is sheer instinct; a basic feeling in your gut that tells you this is what you have to do.
I can’t explain this logically, there’s no rational explanation or technique involved here but ever so often, a movement, a glance, an angle, something just triggers a feeling and sends out a subconscious signal — it happens often between bowlers and batsmen and it comes with and, is developed by, dogged, determined concentration.