The glorious vision of a batsman taking a massive swing and the ball soaring out of the ground was what Nikhil Naik says got him hooked on to cricket. Clustered around a small, portable television set along with other seven-year-old boys on rain-soaked evenings in his coastal hometown of Sawantwadi, on the edge of the Maharashtra-Goa border, Naik says muscling the ball deep into the stands was the only thing that he wanted to do.
Naik says his father Shankar was a force on the tennis-ball circuit in Konkan and watching his father take apart bowlers in tennis-ball matches coupled with his own intense desire to whack the hide off the ball were the two factors that led the senior Naik to enroll his son at Sawantwadi’s only cricket academy, in operation at the small town’s sole ground.
However, though Naik was very adept at catching the ball, his burning desire to plonk the ball past the boundary seemed to be rather difficult. “I just could not hit a six. I was made a wicket-keeper on my first day, and since then keeping came naturally to me. But, whenever I batted, I tried to hit sixes but I couldn’t even manage to get the ball past the 30-yard circle,” he chuckles.
The burly Naik’s wicket-keeping soon got him noticed and he was so assured behind the stumps that he was drafted into the Maharashtra under-15 side, aged just 12. Since then, the formerly plump boy has made steady progress. He has appeared for all of Maharashtra’s age-group sides, leading the under-16 and under-19 teams to national titles, along with being a destructive force with the bat.
The 6-foot tall, heavily built Naik says once he started concentrating seriously on fitness and focused on shedding his fat, his batting underwent a transformation. “As my fitness started improving, my batting became better. I didn’t have to try desperately to hit big shots.
Everyone in my family is big-built and when I shed some weight, I could use my natural heavy structure, to deposit the ball behind the ropes rather easily,” says Naik, a huge grin plastered across his face. Hitting the ball hard is Naik’s chief selling point, but the 19-year-old has a mature head on his broad shoulders. His level-head was on full display as he kept his composure, batting for seven and a half hours mostly with the tail, scoring 217 against Kerala in a Colonel CK Nayudu semi-final against Kerala. Naik’s knock helped Maharashtra take the first-innings lead, eventually clinching the title.
Naik’s clean striking of the ball has already started winning him a host of admirers. The 19-year-old’s performances have also aided in helping add to his flock of admirers. Naik made his debut for the senior Maharashtra side in this year’s Vijay Hazare trophy qualifiers. Two typically aggressive half-centuries and 238 runs at an average of 58.50 saw Yusuf Pathan seeking him out at the end of a game to compliment him on his powerful striking. The wicket-keeper was easily Maharashtra’s best performer and his returns saw him end the west zone group at number three on the highest run-getters’ list.
Naik’s marauding ways also drew attention from IPL franchises, with Mumbai Indians flying the youngster down for trials. At the Wankhede, he only got to face five balls in a match-scenario but the fish-vendor’s son ensured that he dispatched two of those deliveries into the third tier of the stadium, something even wizened Ranji Trophy regulars could not do. However, for all his exploits, Mumbai Indians coach John Wright assured Naik that the franchise would go for him at the auction, the strapping Naik will be watching the T20 extravaganza on television, having gone unsold at the auction.
“I don’t know what went wrong. They had told me they would pick me up but it did not work out. Now in the T20s I need to ensure that I leave no room for any doubt, I have to score big runs,” he says. His confidence is not misplaced. Naik already has a very healthy Twenty20 average of 28.25 and formidable strike-rate of 141.25. He has suddenly become Maharashtra’s go-to man when the chips are down, with his ability to clear the ropes at will.
However, the road to the senior side has seen the Sawantwadi lad leap over a number of obstacles. He lost his paralytic mother four years ago, his father has a modest business, auctioning and selling fish. The imposing Naik says that he has often had to scrounge and scrimp for kit and bats, but he says that is not something he really wants to dwell on for too long. “Everyone has made sacrifices to come up to this level. I have not had the easiest of rides but I had my big arms and head to take chances when I saw them. I am here now, I need to make it count. I have already started off well, I just need to show that I can stay at this level.