A spinner comes of age
"In Test cricket you have to hit the right line and length for hours and hours, which I am prepared to do," said Pragyan Ojha, after being picked for India's tour to Sri Lanka.
It wasn't always so with Ojha. Talented but also afflicted by youthful frivolousness, he didn't seriously start working on his game till the 2006-07 Ranji season. Kanwaljit Singh and Vivek Jaisimha, the bowling coach and head coach of Hyderabad, think the opening game of the season against Maharashtra in Karad was the turning point of Ojha's career.
Hyderabad were bowled out for 385 in the first innings and the captain, VVS Laxman, Kanwaljit and Jaisimha decided it was time to have a chat with Ojha. "We told him, look you are our strike bowler," Kanwaljit says. "This is a wicket aiding spin and we are confident you can run through them. Show us you can." Ojha took 6 for 84 and his first small step towards maturity.
Before then, Ojha knew he had the talent, but that incident drove home the realisation that he also had the responsibility to use that talent well. He remembers the day as the one when, in his mind, he turned into Hyderabad's strike bowler. "I remember Laxman bhai and my coaches telling me to go and bowl them out and I did it. That match gave me the confidence that if I can do it today, I can do it again and again."
On Cricinfo, Ojha's birth place is recorded as Khurda, a small district in the eastern state of Orissa. But he requests that it be changed to the state capital, Bhubaneswar. "The Orissa chief minister was trying to find my place in Khurda and he told me to use the proper name of my city of birth."
Ojha moved to Hyderabad in 2000 as a 13-year-old because his parents wanted him to have a proper education. Instead, there he met coach Vijay Paul and flourished as a cricketer. With Kanwaljit and Venkatapathy Raju, the former India left-arm spinner, also stepping in, young Ojha worked hard on his bowling. He played in the Under-19s and took a five-for on Ranji debut, in the semi-final against Railways in 2005. But there was still a gap between potential and his performance.
Jaisimha identified the problem the next season. "He is a bowler who needs confidence. He is a captain's bowler and once he knows you have confidence in him and the backing of the captain, he turns into a match-winner. I am confident that under a captain like [Mahendra Singh] Dhoni he will thrive.
The 2006-07 season was the one of his transformation. Jaisimha recalls the "slightly overweight" Ojha sweating it out in the gym. The baby fat disappeared and a bowler serious about his art emerged. Kanwaljit remembers Ojha seeking him out frequently during nets to talk more about the game. "He had become a serious pupil and now everything was coming into place for him."
Ojha would mark out a spot in the nets and try landing every ball on it, over and over again, for hours. That diligence helped get him eight wickets against a South Africa A side that included Test players Hashim Amla, Ashwell Prince, Boeta Dippenaar and Justin Ontong, in Delhi in November 2007. "I had seen the Kotla wicket on television, and knew pretty much how it was going to be," Ojha says. "I wanted to flight the ball and keep it on middle and off. I marked out a spot and bowled right there. I didn't want to get over-confident." He looks back at that game as another important signpost on his way into the Indian team.
After that, Kanwaljit and Jaisimha knew Ojha's India selection was just a matter of time. "As with any kid at that age, distractions were there," says Jaisimha. "And he has overcome that. He now knows he has it in him to play for India. He is really focused and mentally stronger." Kanwaljit says Ojha's strength is his lovely loop, bounce, and the fact that he knows when to experiment and when not to. "A very patient bowler."
Ojha got his international call-up for the Kitply Cup and the Asia Cup, though it was in the latter that he made his debut. He was understandably nervous, by his own admission, but decided to stick to what he knew. Still, it must have been unnerving when asked to bowl to a rampaging Sanath Jayasuriya in the final? "I had a simple plan," Ojha says. "I just wanted him to hit me to long-off and long-on and wanted to prey on his patience. No experiments. Stick to the basics. Dhoni bhai told me to just relax and keep things simple." Though he didn't get any wickets, Ojha conceded only 38 in his ten overs.
Ojha knows the road ahead can be a devilish spin track. "I am not going to celebrate wildly about this call-up. I want to stay in the team, and if given a chance, perform. My aim is to play long for India."
How many of the 258 players who have turned out for the Indian Test team do we remember? Time will tell whether Ojha will slip into anonymity or walk into the hall of fame.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo