The quiet of Pimpri, Chinchwad, is unsettling as you head towards the Vengsarkar Cricket Academy. Like every other city in the grip of Covid, Pune is in the middle of an extended sleep. We don't see those 12-year old around, lugging along their cricket kits, hands dripping sweat, and ambition tattooed on their chests. But this is Covid-era, and the new normal is staring at us.
Closer to the academy's entrance, Ruturaj Gaikwad is waiting. This writer is irresponsibly late for an interview, but he brightens the mood with a generous smile. The 24-year-old, the batting flavour of the IPL, doesn't merely comfort us and the Chennai Super Kings with the bat. He speaks like a boy next door, almost apologetic about the attention he's getting.
“People now recognise me as Ruturaj when I go to temples or make the odd visit to a café. This is what you work hard for,” he says.
The softness is only in the voice. Give him a bat, a different creature emerges. Coaches instill in you the values of getting to the pitch of the ball. Ruturaj, too, is the classical mould, but he can follow his own grammar of batting. Last season, he cleared the in-field against Varun Chakravarthy with a couple of casual strides towards the ball and just plain extension of hands. His audacious sweep off Jasprit Bumrah, of all people, activated YouTubers last week. It's natural to ask, just who's this bloke?
Sarfraz Khan and Prithvi Shaw made you follow their careers with eye-blinking feats in school cricket. Cricket wasn't even a conversation in Ruturaj's family, let alone having an Ajit Tendulkar to influence his formative years. He doesn't remember who initiated him to the game. “In many of my childhood pictures, I see myself holding a bat, so somewhere I must have got connected to it. My mother Kavita Gaikwad played kho-kho. Maybe, I got my sporting genes through her, he says.
He elaborates on the early days, “I would practise at a local ground, CQAE, close to my place. They would tell my father Dashrath Gaekwad that I should represent top clubs to pursue cricket seriously. The NCL (National Chemical Laboratory), the Star Club and the PYC Gymkhana shaped my early cricketing sensibilities. In 2008, I cleared the selection trials for the Vengsarkar Academy in Pune.
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