The diminutive new vice captain of India has the defence of a Dravid and the match-winning brilliance of a VVS. We present: Ajinkya Rahane How he never backs down
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 a 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 lower-middle class 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 channelise 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 matchwinner. 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
“As a child, my mom picked up my kitbag in one hand and my younger brother in the other as we walked to the nets.”
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 wellknown. 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 worldrecord 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.
“When I am batting on the crease, I am the boss. I want to dominate the quickest bowlers in the world.”
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!
Hair and Makeup: Ashwin Shelar Clothes and styling: Reza Shariffi
ONE FROM THE ALBUM Ajinkya with his wife Radhika Dhopavkar