Zen & The Art of Cricketing Nirvana

Ajinkya Rahane remains unflappable on and off the field.

zen-and-the-art-2 Ajinkya Rahane

I know what Ajinkya Rahane could do once his cricket career is over. He could well set out to be a motivational guru at events across the country, write self-help books, perhaps even have his own show on Epic or Netflix. This guy’s supreme self-assurance is a wee bit unnerving. It’s like sitting with a Zen master who can second-guess my questions before I voice them, and then get the perfect measured response. Any googly of a pointed question comes against a wall (the irony is delicious) before being efficiently and effectively tossed over the boundary with the most composed, polite and profound answer.

For one of the brightest stars in Indian cricket’s Milky Way, an alternative career, one can say with confidence, should be light years away. His place right now is at the crease, nonchalantly carrying the burden of the expectations of millions on his shoulders. There are many records to break and many milestones to cross before he calls it a day.

It’s been a long day since I greeted the vice-captain of the Indian cricket team on the porch of a swanky suburban hotel in Mumbai as he drove up in a BMW. Ushered to the presidential suite of the hotel, a small army of fashion stylists, wardrobe assistants, hair stylists and make-up artists set to work on him in a whir of blow-dryers, fragrant sprays and racks full of designer garments. This is Rahane’s first full-fledged fashion photo shoot and as the flash bulbs pop and the camera shutter clicks, I look for a hint of stress or worry about an unfamiliar situation creasing his face. There’s none. Rahane is the height of composure. He could well be flipping a yorker over the Wankhede stands as much as shooting in luxury designer wear for the cover of a national magazine. It’s like the face of an enlightened young lama (of sorts), who knows what is expected of him and puts his all into accomplishing it. When the photographer tells him it’s not working, he needs to relax, or to change his expression, or angle, Rahane is all concentration and patience, his energy focused on taking in the semantics of this aspect of stardom. He absorbs in the instructions without complaint and works at his posture and pose.

zen-and-the-art-3 Ajinkya Rahane

This patience and resilience helped him along the way, even when lady luck decided to play hide and seek with him. Despite getting noticed and playing A-class cricket since 2007, it was a long six years before he was deemed suitable to play a Test for India. Although named in the Test squad against the West Indies in November 2011, Rahane had to bide his time in the player’s rooms for one and a half years before he got to play, seeing seven other players make their debut. Enough to get a young talent disillusioned?

Rahane surprisingly has a different take on that. “I felt it was a good thing… My time was yet to come! If you want to play international cricket and represent your country, you have to earn it. There is so much you have to learn—how to work hard, how to conduct yourself and how to deal with various situations and conditions. If you get such a position too easily, you won’t attach value to it. That’s why I think it was good it came a little late. I developed patience. If you want to become a successful international cricketer, it is important to have patience. And, your mindset has to be just right.”

Mindset, in what way? “Often, things don’t go according to plan. It is easy to become negative: ‘why do these things always happen to me?’ rather than stay positive and think: ‘If this is happening, how do I change it for the better?’ If you keep your mindset positive and respond positively to a situation, whatever you need to achieve, you will, absolutely!”

If you want to represent your country internationally, you have to earn it. There is so much you have to learn—how to work hard, how to conduct yourself and how to deal with various situations and conditions. If you get such a position too easily, you won’t attach much value to it.

Those are some strong fundamentals, considering his mixed bag of luck those days. After waiting years for that golden chance, it was quite serendipitous when it arrived—fellow batsman Shikhar Dhawan, who was in dazzling form then, had a knuckle injury while his replacement, Gautam Gambhir, had a bout of jaundice. Rahane was handed his Test cap. He was, significantly, the first Test player from the once-formidable Mumbai side in six long years. Rahane had more than just himself to prove.

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Averaging in low double digits in both the ODIs and T20s, he desperately needed to make his mark. But it was not to be—in the first innings, he scored a measly seven in 19 balls before being caught out. The second was worse—one run from five balls. Was his dream over before it began?

Luckily, despite the disastrous beginning, Rahane was included in the team for the South Africa tour later that year. This time, he rose to the occasion, averaging 69 runs in the series, including a near century (96 runs at Kingsmead in Durban). “He has taken his chance with both hands, even though it arrived in the most difficult of conditions to bat in,” said cricket expert, Sidharth Monga.

Fighting against the odds and patiently coming up trumps is what Rahane excels in. At seven, he was sent off for cricket coaching after neighbours in Dombivli, a neighbourhood in the eastern periphery of Mumbai, complained about his propensity to break windowpanes while batting. Rajiv Hambarde, a surgeon neighbour, was more constructive—he told Madhukar, the boy’s father, that the lad showed promise and should be trained properly.

zen-and-the-art Ajinkya Rahane

It wasn’t a smooth journey. Accompanied by his mother, young Rahane would walk five kilometres to the Dronacharya Cricketing Academy. “We could not afford a rickshaw, so I’d take one in 10 or 20 days and walk for the rest.”

Learning karate at the same time, and at the cusp of adolescence, the young boy found it all too much. “I would practise cricket in the morning, study in the afternoon and go for karate lessons in the evening—it was difficult managing all three! Initially, I used to say ‘I don’t want to learn karate, I want to focus on my studies’. Eventually, it became the opposite. I’d say, ‘no, I don’t want to study, I want to play cricket!’

If you tie your left pad first and if you get a hundred and the next day you don’t do it and you get bowled out fast, then it starts playing on your mind. Superstitions have been created by us humans only. It’s all in your mind. If something happens, it is not because of your left pad or something else - the fault lies with you.

In cricket, there was no stopping him. His coach Suresh Khatu pushed him to play with Under-19 players, and satisfied with what he saw, sent him for the Under-14 selection trials. At 11, Ajinkya was the youngest to be selected, and won the Man of the Match in his very first match, leading to his selection in Mumbai U-14. He progressed steadily through the age groups. His stellar performance in the India U-19 team during the New Zealand tour, where he scored 700 runs in six games, got him selected to the Mumbai team for the Ranji Trophy.

A bigger moment was scoring 180 runs for West Zone against a visiting team called England Lions, which had international stars like Monty Panesar. “The U-19 success (in New Zealand) gave me the confidence that I could score anywhere in the world. But playing against England Lions gave me the belief that I could play at the highest level.”

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That was delayed, never denied. With a string of records and feats to his name now, those were lessons well learnt on the way up. Rahane broke the world record for the maximum number of catches in a Test match in 2015. He is only the fourth Indian batsman to score a century on his Lord’s debut and the fifth to score two centuries in a single Test. The nation honoured him with the Arjuna Award last year. While he has captained the team on occasions in the absence of Kohli, he is considered almost unanimously as the ‘mainstay’ of Indian cricket’s Test batting line-up.

The legends of the game think so, too. Rahul Dravid, with whom many compare Rahane for his style of playing and cool-headed demeanour, is often considered a father-figure of sorts to Rahane. Then there’s Sachin, of course. Tendulkar asking Rahane to meet him on the day of his emotional last match in Wankhede Stadium is now a part of cricketing folklore. Sachin told him, “Your attitude will take you a long way. Just remember one thing, respect the game. Be what you are, don’t change anything. You have to take this team forward, and I am sure you will.”

“It was really inspiring,” recalls Rahane.

While he inspires millions with his exploits on the field, perhaps even more inspirational is his mind control with that whole guru-like approach to life and the game. He claims nothing can make him lose his cool. On being prodded, he smiles, but gets serious. “See my thinking is this, what do you get out of losing your cool? You’ll only become unhappy when you get angry. I don’t want that. I agree that sometimes we may need to get angry, but we need to understand that when we get angry or frustrated with something, we only end up losing.”

The teachings of Swami Parthasarathy help him, particularly when it comes to superstitions. “I realised that superstitions only make you more nervous. If you tie your left pad first and if you get a hundred and the next day you don’t do it and you get bowled out fast, then it starts playing on your mind. Swamiji told me I’m not going to score a 100 by being superstitious. It’s all in your mind. If something happens, it is not because of your left pad or something else—the fault lies with you. Superstitions have been created by us humans. The important thing is to play good cricket, and play passionately.”

QUICK TAKES

Favourite food

Sushi

Favourite fashion outfit

Jeans and T-shirt, sometimes track pants

Fave jeans brand

True Religion

Fave music

Depends on my mood

Do you get to practice karate now (he’s a black belt)?

I don’t, but I know enough to defend against two or three people!

PHOTOS VINEET VASHISHT ❖ STYLING ABHILASHA NANDWANI ❖ HAIR TEAM HAKIM AALIM MAKE-UP STACY GOMES ❖ TEXT K. SUNIL THOMAS ❖ LOCATION HYATT REGENCY MUMBAI

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