Earlier this week, Shardul Thakur got off the Emirates flight on his return from South Africa with the Indian team. He then went to Andheri railway station and boarded a local Mumbai train to Palghar, just like he has almost his entire life. Only that this time he was an Indian cricketer and not an anonymous one struggling to make his mark. In an interview to The Indian Express, the 26-year-old fast bowler talks about the changing perceptions about Shardul Thakur on the train, on the field and in his own head.Excerpts.
What was it like during your long train journeys back and forth between Mumbai and Palghar?
People would often ask me when I’ll play for Mumbai and India in the train. Some would taunt me as well saying ‘why are you after cricket, itna door se aa ke thodi koi India ke liye khelega. Stop doing time pass’. But I knew what I had to do. I have devoted my life to cricket, and at the same time also finished my graduation.
Has their perception changed now that you’re an India cricketer and still taking the same train?
They say the boy who used to travel with us is now playing for India. This time I boarded the train in Andheri after getting off the flight from South Africa. Straight from business class to first-class. I had my headphones on and just wanted to get home soon. But I could sense people in the compartment looking at me and wondering whether I really was “Shardul Thakur”. A few college kids then Googled my picture just to be sure and then asked for a selfie. I told all of them to wait till I got off at Palghar. Many were amazed that an India cricketer was traveling with them. Some old-timers were recalling how they’ve been seeing me in the train for years. But my feet remain very grounded. I have not received anything on a platter and worked hard for it.
You talk about not having received anything on a platter.
I had to work hard for everything from the time I graduated from under-19 cricket to the higher levels. But before that, I wasn’t even picked for under-19 in my first year. So I worked harder and got picked the next year. It was a blessing in disguise I think now because it meant I matured very early. I realized you have to face failures. It’s about improving your game and your fitness all the time. The best part is when you go back a second time and succeed where you’d failed before. Somewhere deep inside, I knew I’m the best and that drove me to strive further.
Do you believe you’ve had to prove people wrong at every stage?
People would taunt me saying “arey yeh mota hai”. Again I went back and worked harder. I proved them all wrong the next season, taking wickets when the senior bowlers were away. Next, they said he’s not bad with the red-ball but doesn’t have the skills with the white ball. But if you see, there isn’t much T20 cricket in Mumbai, and even when there is it’s played with a red ball. My only experience with the white-ball was during the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali, where I’d get a maximum of four matches each in both formats to develop my game, which wasn’t enough. I started practicing a lot with the white-ball then, bowling for the same periods with it as the red-ball. I would replicate match scenarios in practice. Like say with the yorker, I will keep aiming at the base of middle-stump and then try different angles. Whenever there have been doubts over me, I have dealt with them by practicing more.
Those who’ve followed your progress have said that you weren’t always the easiest player to convince when it came to your cricket.
I was not a good listener in my teens. There are a lot of instances in my life that changed me as a person. I was really adamant back then and never listened to anyone. It took me a while to get better at it. Like during my under 19s, I had a big argument with the coach. After the game, I realised it was me who’d failed. In my first Ranji Trophy season in 2012, I was not fit enough. I had good stamina when it came to bowling, but my execution of plans or my fielding weren’t up to the mark. Being overweight didn’t help. It’s then that I told myself, I have to listen to people. I will not be right always. I realized there were some good people who wished well for me, and I actually started jotting down things that I realised I had to work on.
Who are the people you consult the most?
Dinesh Lad (his school coach) is someone I discuss my cricket a lot with. The best part about him is whenever I bring up a failure; he immediately calls it the first step to success. He asks me to focus on why I failed instead. And once I find the answers, I work on them in the nets. That’s exactly what I do. He’s taught me to think about my game at the end of each day’s play, rather than stress over what the batsman’s trying to do to me, I should make my own plans and stick to them. Other times, he would remind me about how I have got the best batsmen out caught behind and trapped them in front and there’s no reason why I can’t do that again. He never sympathised with me even when I felt like I was wronged. The same goes with Abhishek Nayar, who’s also someone I talk to a lot. If anything do gaali dega mujhe. He keeps telling me about how I’m so talented and why I shouldn’t waste my time bothering about things that are not in my control. He taught me how to practise specific things. Wasim Jaffer taught me how to use different angles of the pitch to get wickets.
What is your strength as a fast bowler?
My strength is that I can swing the new ball. I am not focused on bowling at over 140 kph. I’m happy if I can bowl at 137-138 kph and have control over my line and length. It’s also about not going all out always. I get the ball to leave the right-hander. So in the longer format, I just prefer keeping the ball out there and play on his patience. In one-dayers, I start with that same mindset, occasionally holding the ball cross-seam. In the death, it’s all about having skills and executing them. T20 cricket is different, where the situation of the match changes nearly every two balls. You have to be flexible and keep your ego aside. You are making and changing plans out there. I’ve learnt to bowl the knuckle ball over the last one year. I’ve also tried learning the leg-cutter from Bhuvi (Kumar).
Is there one dismissal in the South Africa series where you set up a batsman and finally got him?
It was of Hashim Amla in the sixth ODI. He’d let go off 4-5 balls in one over of mine and then swung the last ball for four. Virat (Kohli) was at mid-off and told me if I was confident to slip in a bouncer after just two length deliveries in my next over. He’s gotten out to the short-ball before too. I tried it once and he tucked it for a single, but I did it again in the next over and I had him caught by the keeper down the leg side. It was a perfect setup.
You had mixed experiences at the IPL. Punjab sent you back early but you did really well at Pune.
When I was sent back by Kings XI Punjab midway, it didn’t sit well with me. When they said they wanted to release me to Pune (Rising Supergiants) it took me 15 minutes to say ok. It was for the best. I’ve realised that you can achieve a lot in the Ranji Trophy and nobody watches you, but even one good performance in the IPL and everyone’s talking about you. I remember meeting Pravin Amre sir during that IPL I sat out and he told me that whenever my chance will come I had to be ready. So that’s what I did. I worked really hard on perfecting my yorker, slower ones and also kept visualizing various scenarios from the bench.
At every level, you were a wicket-taker. What makes you one in your opinion?
Maybe, it goes back to my school days when I was the leader of the bowling pack. I could set up batsman well. I bowl that channel outside off-stump consistently and batsmen in today’s time are restless and they will eventually flash at one.