Quiet and reserved are two epithets one hears most while talking about Ajinkya Rahane to those who knew him well before he became an India cricketer. Yet, slotting the batsman like that may not be fair as Rahane, though mild-mannered, has transformed into a player who seldom shies away from playing aggressively.
Illustration: Siddhant Jumde
From a wary young boy to an attacking batsman who took on the Australia pace attack in the recent Test series Down Under, Rahane’s transition into one of India’s best batsmen is an interesting story.
There are instances that trigger change in a sportsman’s life, pushing him to excel beyond expectations. In Rahane’s case, one can attribute this change to a key decision his father took during his formative years.
“He had a weak constitution, and he was also very reserved,” says Madhukar Rahane. Keen to get his son into some activity that would make him fitter as well as help find new friends, Madhukar put him in a karate class at the Unity Martial Arts Center in Dombivali, a town 50 km from Mumbai City, where Rahane lived when he was very young.
According to Sharad Pandit, co-founder of the club and Rahane’s instructor, it was here that the ‘timid’ boy toughened up. “As a young boy, he was easily frightened. I felt he was like any other boy, shy and scared to get into a fight,” says Pandit. “But, soon I realised he had a lot of fight in him. He had natural athleticism. From the outside he looked a pushover, but he was quite the opposite,” he adds.
“His quiet nature helped him to focus. But he never shied away from attacking the opponent. And he was quite tenacious as a fighter. I guess that helped him to become bold. I would like to think karate has played a part in his personality development.”
Rahane went on to get a junior black belt and with it dispel the notion that he was too submissive. With his confidence soaring, young Ajinkya was soon dominating older boys in cricket in his colony. Neighbours began to point out the boy’s cricketing talent to his father.
The Rahanes came from a modest background. Madhukar, a government employee with his office in the main business district of Mumbai, used to go to the Azad maiden during his free time to watch cricket. Thus, he enrolled Ajinkya in a small coaching camp in Dombivali. The camp run by Khaatu was mostly for local children, who practiced on matting wicket.
Rahane’s father recalls an incident. “Khaatu sir took out two photographs and asked Ajinkya to identify them. He identified both and added that he wanted to play with them,” recalls Madhukar. The photographs were that of Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. The workout, on the cricket field as well as the karate class, worked wonders for Rahane. He was soon making a mark in zilla parishad (district level) games for his school, Tilak Nagar Vidyalaya.However, a lack of infrastructure at Tilak Nagar prompted a shift to SV Joshi High School, where the talented boy got good playing facilities. SV Joshi school nets also had turf wickets. Here, Rahane came under the tutelage of Mumbai maidan stalwart Vasant Dhanipkar, who recognised the boy’s maturity and made him the school captain.
“Ajinkya had power in his shots at an early age. He would play expansive shots with ease, but was otherwise very sober. It was a perfect combination,” says Dhanipkar.
In a local zilla parishad match against Patkar High School, Rahane bludgeoned 300 runs in a 45-overs a side game. He quickly found recognition after that.
Consistency in Giles and Harris Shield cricket tournaments kept the focus on Rahane, who went to Mumbai city and began playing professional cricket for Esplanade Club. He went on to play for Mumbai’s other premier clubs like MB Union and Sind Sports Club.Rahane would travel two hours daily lugging his heavy kit bag, sometimes changing three trains to reach the maidans from Dombivali. The family shifted to Mulund, considerably reducing travel time. "I would be desperate to play well because I didn’t want to sit in the pavilion the entire day after travelling that far," Rahane once said. He never looked back after his initial struggle, progressing through the age-group teams to break into the Mumbai Ranji side.
CONFIDENCE IN HIM
“We always knew he would make it to the Ranji team,” says Dhanipkar. “His climb to the Indian team was a pleasant surprise but is a testament to his hard work.”
Through all this, he remained quite reserved. Aatish Gawand, a close friend of Rahane, says the glamour of playing international cricket has not changed him. “One would think after playing around the world, his personality would change, but he is as grounded as he was while growing up,” adds Gawand, who also plays professionally.
“I began playing cricket after Ajinkya moved to Mulund, but he guided me throughout. Even now, when he gets back from tours, he rings me up and asks about my cricket,” adds Gawand, a Mumbai U-22 player.
Despite cementing his place in both the Test and ODI squads, Rahane still lives in Mulund, a distant suburb, with his wife, Radhika, parents, sister Apurva and brother Shashank.
“He is very close to his mother, he calls her almost every day while on tour,” says his father. “He craves for home food. He had a few favourite dishes earlier but now he eats whatever is served at home. He is still the well-mannered boy he was.”
Dhanipkar is delighted that Rahane has surpassed expectations. “When we coached him, we thought he could be a fine talent. But who knew he would be the one to continue Mumbai’s batting legacy?”