Shailaja Sundar’s voice quivers with excitement as she recounts her fondest childhood memory. It involves her younger brother Washington and Chennai’s Marina Beach. Every weekend, in a bid to escape the drudgery of school, the cricket-crazy siblings would squeeze themselves into their father’s Bajaj scooter and reach the busy shores for a game of cricket. Their equipment was pretty banal — a plastic bat and a ball.
The crowded beach precincts didn’t dampen their spirits. Every time, their little cricket game would end with Washington getting mobbed by impressed beach idlers who were entertained by the big hits of the little boy. However, the sudden attention from strangers would bother the shy batsman. Sensing his son’s discomfiture, his father would call off the game.
“Every week, the same story would get played out. Our game would end as curious onlookers would stop by to shake hands with him. He was barely five back then, but the way he batted with that plastic bat gave people enough hint that he was a natural. This remains my fondest childhood recollection,” Shailaja, who is eight years elder to Washington, reminisces.
Those weekend Marina jaunts would not only attest Washington’s burgeoning cricketing talents, but also illustrate his introverted nature. The traits have stood by him. He still is almost apologetic when taking a wicket, his celebrations are subdued and, like was the case when he was receiving the Man-of- the-Series award in Colombo on Sunday, he is almost embarrassed to be in the spotlight.
Shailaja goes on to narrate another interesting tale about her younger brother when he was just a three-year-old toddler, big enough to barely walk. “He was just three when I remember he would take my mother’s big wide-tooth comb and stand in the front of the mirror in an upright stance, ready to face a bowler.” Seeing this early interest in the game, father Sundar would gift his son a plastic bat.
Sundar, a long-time coach, would go on to take the toddler and Shailaja to his academy in Roypettah. That move, in many ways, helped Washington streamline his talent and would prove to be pivotal in his smooth progression through the various age-groups. After his initiation into the academy, Sundar would ask his son to bat left-handed. Shailaja was baffled at first. “Why would he ask a right-hander to bat left?” she wondered. With time, she would finally get the answer.
“While batting, it’s the top hand that generates all the power in your strokes. So, if a right-hander bats left-handed, his top hand would be his natural right hand. It makes sense, doesn’t it?” she explains.
Washington isn’t the first right-handed cricketer to bat leftie, there are others who have made this switch — from left to right or the other way round. Sourav Ganguly and Inzamam-ul-Haq benefitted enormously after making the early change.
Shailaja adds that batting left-handed made Washington idolise Brian Lara and Yuvraj Singh during his formative years. “He is an ardent MS Dhoni fan now,” she notes.
The elder sister, an accomplished cricketer herself, having represented Tamil Nadu at the U-19 level, says that the game was the sole talking point while growing up with his talented sibling. After school, on the dinner table, cricket had taken a vice-like grip over them. Playing cricket together at the same academy, under the watchful gaze of their father, would intensify the sibling camaraderie.
It, therefore, does not come much as a surprise to note that movies and serials were not on their radar. Instead, they would only binge on cricket matches with relish. Despite the overwhelming dominance of cricket, it did not in any way hamper Washington’s studies. Shailaja remembers his brother as a bright student, who won the ‘Best Student Award’ in the first grade.
She attributes Washington’s recent success in Sri Lanka to him being a keen learner, backed with a refreshing level of maturity. “When he was much younger, he would constantly discuss ways to dismiss batsmen. For this, he would constantly watch videos of players, trying to figure out their weaknesses. Apart from being a natural, he had a studious zeal with a maturity well beyond his age,” she remembers. It’s this trait that has helped him progress without much fuss into international cricket. “He was barely 10 when he was already playing at the U-14 level, and by 16 he was part of India’s U-19 squad,” Shailaja recalls.
Those endless hours spent playing the game and later discussing it at home has gone into the making of this thinking cricketer. His powerplay bowling, where he prised out eight scalps from the five T20 games, is cleverly orchestrated as he diligently preys on the opposition batsmen’s weaknesses.
Since his initiation into international cricket, there has hardly been any talk of cricket in the Sundar household. After his frenetic stints, he prefers to relax, unwind and take his mind away from the game. “We hardly talk cricket these days. Whenever he is around, he prefers to unwind by watching movies or going out for shopping. Of late, he’s hooked to Playstation as well,” she adds.
Shailaja admits she was nervous watching Washington bowl in the Powerplay overs in Sri Lanka last week. But every time she saw her brother on the telly, images of them playing merrily on the Marina Beach would flash in her mind. It was a gentle reminder of Washington’s talent and his growth as an international player.