A GLISTENING white Audi Q5 has been the cynosure of the parking lot at Mulund’s Lok Nisarg Apartments for nearly two years now. Located at the foothills of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, the housing society is indulgently middle-class: eight blocks of matchbox-size flats, four on each floor, with a clutch of rundown grocery stores lining each side of the wing-entrances. Vehicular movement on the approach road is limited and a single BEST bus halts every half hour at the society, its last stop.
Inside, the old-fashioned elevator in the B-2 wing leads one to the fifth floor, to the home of the owner of the fancy SUV: Ajinkya Rahane, the nifty right-hander who has become India’s most versatile batsman across formats, regardless of whether he’s opening the innings or batting in the middle-order. During India’s recent England tour, when Virat Kohli suffered a major blow to his batting stocks, it was the 26-year-old Rahane who stood out with his dogged defiance amid the carnage. In the IPL, where Cheteshwar Pujara struggles season after season to make his mark, Rahane, with his blazing centuries, is Rajasthan Royals’ mainstay. An ardent Rahul Dravid fan, the young man, according to many, is in the mould of the batting great, even if he has adapted to the shorter formats quicker than his idol.
Yet, Rahane’s inroads into the game were far from smooth. Cricket can be a fickle mistress and he would find it out soon after his debut in first-class cricket. A string of junior records and consistent performance for Mumbai for five years later, he finally found himself in the national side in 2011. But he would have to wait two years and spend 14 Tests as the 12th man before making his Test debut in early 2013. In that period, players such as R Ashwin, Cheteshwar Pujara, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, R Vinay Kumar, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shikhar Dhawan would go on to make their debuts.
The unpretentious 650 sqft 2BHK flat Number 502, holds the key to the story of how Rahane transformed himself into a multimillionaire cricketer with an opulent IPL contract and all the right shots. Rahane has always chosen to stay out of the limelight and anchored to his humble roots. An introvert who takes his time to choose his company, he even makes for an unusual client, says Atul Srivastava, founder of Gaames Unlimited and Rahane’s manager. “He’s the only cricketer I have dealt with in 10 years who says I don’t want endorsements and that ‘we will think about things at the right time’,” says Srivastava. He has also left the management of his finances to his father and doesn’t even carry a credit card.
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At home, the only item of luxury on view in the spartan living-room, with its pink wallpaper and purple curtains, is a wide-screen television mounted on top of one of the many shelves holding his cricketing trophies. The walls are adorned with pictures of deities and a sketchy image of a 15-year-old Rahane holding his first junior India cap. His father Madhukar is seated on one of the two single leather sofas and Rahane occupies the other one. “A lot of people wonder why we still live here despite his success. I’ve told him he should look to buy a place in the city. But he’s maintained that he will keep his family with him forever. He has always been the ideal son,” says Rahane senior.
Rahane’s technique in the greens is as measured as his upbringing. On the field, he has chosen sobriety over temerity — he’s forever the earnest young student, restrained in displaying emotions, but still the team player. In cricketing parlance, his bat and pad have remained close to each other at all times. His father worked as an engineer with BEST and, as the eldest child, Rahane learned early the value of money and the importance of stolidity. Playing a cross-batted shot might have added flamboyance to his batting, but it could result in broken bats too. “I knew I couldn’t afford that, bats were expensive. So I thought if I could score by playing straight, why try things you aren’t confident about?” he had told the The Indian Express in an interview a few months ago.
Unlike Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, two hugely talented contemporaries, Rahane was never a prodigy. He didn’t make it to the U-19 World Cup squad in 2006, the only time his father remembers seeing him “desperate and emotional”. But he was hardworking and consistent, raking up thousands of runs each season for Mumbai. Even then, his selection was never a foregone conclusion despite his obvious promise. His quietness was often mistaken for submission. Many considered him “too soft” to play international cricket, a reputation that gained ground after a disappointing Test debut in Delhi against Australia. Rahane was dismissed for single-digit scores in two innings, at a time when India needed him to hold fort.
The path to redemption that he chose for himself was again away from the public glare. He went on to hire another unsung cricketer — Pravin Amre — as his mentor and coach. In the confines of the Indoor Academy at the MCA-BKC centre in Mumbai, he reshaped his career and his life. The results have been apparent in the last nine months.
Rahane first met Amre during a U-17 camp at Bangalore’s National Cricket Academy. “He was in the same batch as Virat (Kohli) and (Ravindra) Jadeja, and to be honest, he didn’t catch anyone’s eye because of his body language. But since we spoke the same language, we got along well and I discovered the real Ajinkya,” the former India batsman recalls.
Not long after, Rahane would make his Ranji Trophy debut for Mumbai with Amre as coach. Nilesh Kulkarni, former India left-arm spinner and the then Mumbai captain, recalls that the only time Rahane would come out of his shell would be to talk about the game. “He always preferred spending more time with the seniors, picking their brains. We would spend hours in the train discussing cricket,” he says. Rahane’s reticence often led to him being bullied — in the dressing room, he would forever be the butt of jokes, but he would never react. “He isn’t quite the simpleton people think he is. He gets his work done quietly. He just chooses to stay aloof,” says former teammate Iqbal Abdulla.
While Amre is credited with turning his career around, his father has remained a pervasive influence. When Rahane had just started out, his father would go to his school-ground with a colleague after work to weed out the grass and roll the pitch. A strict disciplinarian, he insists that Rahane makes that one call home on every overseas tour and returns home after parties, however late they turn out to be. “I would get worried when I read about players getting seduced by the excesses of the IPL. I always told Ajju, even before the IPL, that if he remains the same, he will never go wrong in life,” says Madhukar, who now works for a real estate firm.
THAT the boy with the curious eyes had it in him to make it big was a conclusion many had made ever since he picked up a bat and joined a local coaching camp at Dombivili’s Railway ground. Madhukar was then posted at Dombivili, 50 km away from Mumbai, and the family stayed at Triguna Apartments at Sangitavadi, a rickety establishment with tiny houses, located in the middle of a congested street that had no bus access to the railway station back then. Rahane, who has a black belt in karate, wouldn’t take too long to set upon the path destiny had chosen for him. The exposure to karate gave him an early lesson in fitness and a competitive edge.
Rahane was the opener of the Young Stars club in 1996-97, the youngest player in the team at eight and Lilliputian in size. In the incredulously crowded local trains in and out of Dombivili, the older boys would secure their key batsman a seat and distribute his kits amongst themselves so he could sit unburdened. The distance from the station to home would have to be covered by foot, but these challenges did not deter the young boy. “Cricket was his life. When we would go to our village near Nashik, he would pick up a log of wood and make his grandmother throw the ball at him.
He once got hit on the mouth and broke his tooth, but never complained of pain. It was only after the doctor gave him an injection, that he began wailing,” Madhukar says.
Amit Shah, an associate of Srivastava and in charge of handling Rahane’s daily affairs, was one of the Young Stars’ older members back then. Shah recalls a moment which exemplified the grit of the puny right-hander. It came during a practice match at Azad Maidan. “The bowler was a strapping waiter from a nearby Udipi hotel. He was 25, Ajju was 10 and he hit the little boy on his maroon helmet, a few sizes too big for him, with the first ball. Ajju was on the floor and weeping, but he refused to come off,” Shah says. The next five deliveries, he smashed to the fence. In Shah’s mind, a star was born then.
Some 15 years later, in December last year, Rahane would get hit on the helmet again. The venue was Kingsmead in Durban, the bowler Dale Steyn, and any misjudgement from India’s new number 6 batsman would prove costly for both the team and him. Rahane responded with scores of 51 not out and 96 in the Test. Six months later, he would have notched up centuries in Wellington as well as at Lord’s. He had finally come of age.
Amre had only suggested minor changes in his ward’s technique to allow him greater freedom on the field. Rahane already possessed the rare flexibility that allows him to swiftly move from Tests to IPL to the one-day format of the game. With these changes, he has managed to put together more centuries overseas, than Sachin Tendulkar or Dravid had at the same stage in their careers.
Comparisons between Rahane and Dravid have been rife ever since the former decided to move to Rajasthan Royals from Mumbai Indians, despite the sizeable pay-cut involved in the shift. In IPL7 this year, with Dravid retired, Rahane took up the mantle of being his team’s talisman. Many believe that captaincy can come calling soon. Madhukar is confident that when the time comes, his son will be ready. “Boys generally go astray between 20 and 25. That’s been the time Ajju has experienced fame and money, but still remained humble. Middle-class values stay with you for life,” he says.
The article was first published on October 12, 2014.
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