'You need to feel bad when you don't get picked'
Aakash Chopra scored three double-centuries in the 2007-08 season - enough to be picked in India's national squad, one would think. The call from the selectors never came, though. The disappointment was not new for Chopra, who has scored plenty of runs over the last two domestic seasons but not got a look in at the highest level. Chopra has just finished writing his first book - a diary of his last domestic season. The challenge before him at 31, he tells Cricinfo, is as much to evolve as to enjoy his game and his life.
Last year you spoke of how you had stopped thinking about getting back into the national reckoning and instead started enjoying your game. Your runs in the last two seasons are clear evidence that you're doing just that. How has it worked for you?
I'm sticking to that formula. Each time you go in to bat, you want to play for the country. But after I got dropped I wanted to make a double-century every time I went out to bat, which didn't happen and won't happen either. But when you are doing well, like I have been in the last couple of seasons, then you build a lot of pressure on yourself where you think, 'Okay, fine, now I've scored runs and now I'm so close to getting back to the team.' That can probably get you in the same rut again. But I realised the reason I play this game is I enjoy it and beyond that it's not in my hands and I've made peace with that. Yes, I would be lying if I say that I don't feel disappointed when I don't get picked, because if you score runs you want to get picked, and if you don't get picked it's human to feel bad. It is probably important to feel bad, because you are playing for some purpose - you are not just turning up and not hoping to achieve anything bigger.
You've spoken about how hard you work during the off-season. What did you do before the season started?
I wanted to take a break. Last season was a nine-month long, rigorous one, so I took a break, which was a first, when I didn't touch the bat for three weeks. I didn't play but I was doing my training and gym. I thought that was necessary so I could come back recharged, refreshed, with my desire back again.
I also realised that peaking at the wrong time or peaking too early, when there is no cricket, can actually ruin things, and I wanted to avoid that. Now when I'm picking the bat up, I'm as hungry as I was when I started to play cricket - it's that exciting.
How's your book coming along?
The book is one thing that has taken my mind away from the game for a while in a very good sense - it has given me time to reflect on what I did last year. When you go through the chapters you know where you were wrong, what things you did right, and how it worked, and how you felt at that point. It gives you perspective because you tend to forget a lot of things and remember what you want to remember, but when it is documented it refreshes the memory. It gave me something to do.
So have you been taking care of your personal life rather than only focusing on your professional life?
During the IPL [Tatenda] Taibu told me that whenever you don't do well there are three check-boxes to tick. One, are you hitting enough balls in the net or are you working hard enough ? Two, is there a fear of failure? And three, is everything fine in your personal life? If you are not doing well, invariably one of these boxes is not ticked. If you are not content in your personal life, it is very difficult to play naturally. So I took care of that this off-season by spending a lot of time with my family. Watched a lot of movies, did a lot of stuff I wanted to do, spent time with friends. At times playing sport day-in-day-out adds nothing but pressure and boredom creeps in and it becomes monotonous.
|It doesn't really matter to anyone in the world except for yourself and your family whether you play for India or not, or if you ever play for India again. Cricket will go on. I'm not blaming anyone, because no one should care|
Four years ago you played your last Test and it was against Australia. Which areas of your game have changed in this period?
I've evolved as a player. In my batting I've worked hard. When I played for India I played in a certain manner, which was right at that point of time. Couple of seasons after that, I got dropped. I was a confused, confused man. From 2005 to mid-2006 I didn't bat the way I used to bat. I was too preoccupied with getting back into the team, and secondly, I thought the only way to score runs was to go out there and bat the whole day and exercise patience, but it didn't work out. So I got bogged down and I didn't do myself any favours and I didn't make enough runs. Without playing a single rash shot I was getting out, so there must have been something wrong somewhere. Then I decided to loosen up and start enjoying my game. So that brought a change in attitude.
As far as batting goes, instead of looking to occupy the crease and play out time, I've started to open up, dominate the bowlers and look for runs at every given opportunity. And if the opportunity isn't there, try to create one and not be afraid to fail. I've also started to use my feet a lot more. That has helped me to play my best cricket in the last two seasons.
You've dealt with disappointments. Obviously, each time the Test squad was announced, you expected your name to be there, but were there any particular instances when you especially felt you deserved the opportunity?
I wouldn't say I was expecting a call every time the team was announced, but when India toured Australia [2007-08] I was near 100% confident that I'd make it, for the simple reason that my name was in the 24 probables. The only other opener was Gautam Gambhir and he got injured. And I had scored nearly 800 runs in the domestic season. A week before the team was announced I'd scored my second double-century of the season, against Himachal Pradesh. So that was very disappointing. I didn't know what more to do. The last time I played for India I was picked on my domestic performances. You can sulk, crib and cry and it will never make a difference to anyone else.
Did any of the selectors ever call up to explain where you fell short?
Not one selector has ever spoken to me.
Players these days seem to be vocal with their disappointments. Is that a good approach?
It's probably right. As a player I need to know what more I should do to get picked. I'm not asking why they didn't pick me, and I respect them, but at the same time people need to talk to the player.
As a player, you have to put disappointments behind you because there is no other way. It doesn't really matter to anyone in the world except for yourself and your family whether you play for India or not, or if you ever play for India again. Cricket will go on. I'm not blaming anyone, because no one should care. It's your pain, your joy, your happiness.
Has the thought that you might never play again for India crossed your mind?
Yes, that thought has crossed my mind. It would be really disappointing if that happened. Bigger picture: I've played for India and no one can take that away from me. So I've made my peace with that.
Last year you spoke about how Rahul Dravid met you at Hove and said you were in contention for the opener's slot still. What has Virender Sehwag's advice to you been?
Viru will always give you a perspective in as few words as possible. You might like it or might not but he has your best interests at heart. For example, when I wasn't picked this time for the Australia series, he said "Aakash, you'll play for India. If myself or Gautam [Gambhir] don't make runs in the next four Tests, your name might come again, but if both of us make runs then your name will not come up." He is black and white always in what he says or does. And you need to take him at face value.
There are many cricketers who are in positions similar to the one you're in. What would your advice to them be?
Michael Atherton once told me that at the end of the day you need to remind yourself why you started playing the game. The basic reason was that you actually wanted to play. Any game has to be enjoyed, and as long as you can keep that enjoyment going, you should keep playing. One should always aspire, but not at the cost of enjoying the process of making it to the top.
A year after I was dropped from the Indian team, there was this pertinent question: "When will you be happy?" I always thought that I'd be happiest when I played for the country. But happiness doesn't lie in one particular achievement. We tend to believe that. We tend to pin it on that one moment, which is not actually the moment. You will never achieve that one certain thing. That is what I've learned after being dropped. There are more reasons to be happy in day-to-day life.
Did you ever think that not playing ODIs has hurt your chances?
It does. If you are playing ODI cricket, it does automatically enhance your chances for playing in the longer form. I know playing one-day international cricket for India is probably not going to happen for me. Having said that, I will not agree to the criticism that I'm not an ODI player. In List A games my average is in the mid-40s and my strike-rate is right up there. I scored three run-a-ball centuries for Delhi last season with an average of 332. So it's not that I cannot play ODIs. The difference between me and the people who play in both forms in first-class cricket is not more than seven runs. But that perception remains. If I go out and do a Shaun Marsh and score the maximum number of runs in the next IPL, I'll play for India in ODIs. My performances in the Deodhar Trophy and Ranji one-dayers count for nothing.
Where do you rank yourself as an opener in the national reckoning?
Logically there are two people who are opening for the country at this point of time, who are the best at the moment. But the other side of it is that there could be someone who deserves to be playing but is not. I might be wrong, but I don't know. But I think I should be right up there given the number of the runs I've been scoring. Also, I'm made to believe I'm in the loop, since I've been called for national camps. More importantly, I've been knocking loud enough when the opportunity has come. Anyone who has scored three double-centuries a season will play for the country. It was just unfortunate.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo