AJINXYA!

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

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - BY RAHUL DRAVID

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.

JINXING NAYSAY­ERS

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

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