Each time Harsheel Dani swats a shuttlecock deep into his opponent’s backhand corner,something about the lazy swish of his racket and the almost bored expression on his face reminds you of Yuvraj Singh. Harsheel,like Yuvraj,is 6’2,left-handed and extravagantly gifted. And he’s only 15. Not that you can tell. The mugshot on the Maharashtra Badminton League (MBL) website depicting a jug-eared boy with an earnest,wide-eyed expression and smooth cheeks that have never felt the scrape of a razor is clearly outdated. I shot up by eight inches in 2010, says the Mumbaikar,who has just finished his 10 th standard at Chatrabhuj Narsee Memorial School.
Harsheel’s body language,moreover,is barely that of a junior player in an open tournament. Between points,he seems lost in a bubble of self-possession,unaware of the person beyond the net beyond radiating a sort of icy disdain for him. This,coming from someone so young,must intimidate any opponent. At this point,Harsheel is quickly dismantling the feeble challenge of Amit Kshatriya,a fellow junior,to bring up his fourth win in five matches. A day before,he had shocked Akshay Dewalkar,eight years his senior and boasting a world doubles ranking of 42. Purchased by Gorgeous Gannets for Rs. 90,000,Dewalkar was the most expensive player at the MBL auction.
But it wasn’t an entirely unexpected result. As a category ‘C’ (junior) player,Harsheel was available a base price of Rs. 15,000. But such was the frenzy surrounding his name that it finally cost Graceful Gulls Rs. 70,000 to land him. The second most expensive category ‘C’ player,Kaushal Dharmamer,cost Sensational Skylarks Rs. 45,000. Our mentors had been watching Harsheel for the last one year, says Shekhar Jadhao,team owner,Graceful Gulls. The category didn’t matter. We had to have him at any cost. What is it that sets the National under-17 champion apart from everyone else in his age group? Whoever you ask,they invariably come back to his natural talent. I’m not very qualified to talk about him,but I play a little bit of badminton myself,and I can tell you that he has so much time to play his shots says Jadhao. He has enough time to play the same shot twice.
Back in Mumbai,Harsheel trains at the Uday Pawar Badminton Academy. I’ve seen him since he was 5 or 6 years old,a total beginner, says Pawar. He’s one of the most skilful players I’ve seen,full of inborn talent,and has a very good temperament too. But it’s not enough that you can play every shot in the book,and initially he was quite erratic. But he has matured well in the last two years,and now he knows when to play what shot. And his height and reach give him a big advantage.
You can see that in his court coverage,which allows him,with a mere couple of skips,to reach for shots that others would scamper yards to get to. His height also allows him to play overhead shots a significant fraction earlier than most,giving his opponent less recovery time.
With all these gifts,how far has Harsheel set his sights? I have three All-India tournaments in July,back-to-back,and I’m looking to do well in those so that I can qualify for the under-17 Asian Badminton Championships, says Harsheel. My aim is to be in the regular India team. If I get more exposure now,it will only help me get better.