"A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor."
If you get close to the old-school Mumbai batsman Siddhesh Lad, you may notice a certain scribble peeking out from under the sleeve on his right arm. It's not a style statement because Lad is not a big fan of tattoos. He got one because it sums up his struggles and the hard days he is putting in to make it to the "next level".
A consistent performer and batting mainstay for Mumbai for the last few years, Lad - who averages 53.58 this season - is reaping benefits now of the seeds he has sown since childhood.
"You can't become a strong person if you don't face tough situations in your life," he tells ESPNcricinfo in Mumbai. "I have also had to work hard for what I've achieved, I've had to fight for them."
Like the stories of many Mumbai players, Lad has had to travel in the sweaty local trains from the suburbs to south Mumbai. He used to study at the Swami Vivekanand International School in Borivali and when he was barely 10, the director of the school spotted his flair and approached his parents. Soon, Siddhesh's father, Dinesh, was asked to coach at the school, the father-son duo started training together and Dinesh thought it was time Siddhesh started making the trips to south Mumbai, where the "real cricket" was. A new academy was coming up then at Shivaji Park Gymkhana, where former India batsman Pravin Amre was the head coach.
"Dad told me, 'try kar ja ke (go and give it a shot)'," Lad recalls. He impressed Amre in the Under-14 trials and thus began his journeys. He would begin his day by first practising at school before classes began, then attend classes, hop on the local train to commute from Borivali to Shivaji Park (nearly 30 km). Lad would be so tired sometimes that he would sleep through his stop (Dadar), end up at the last one (Churchgate) and then take another train back to one of the most chaotic stations.
"It was quite an experience to travel at a young age in that kind of crowd for so many years. If you go through all this at the age of 11-12 at the beginning of your career, it shapes your mental toughness."
"Whenever I have faced a challenge, I have done well by accepting the challenge and bailing the team out. I really enjoy doing that"
Lad was carrying not one dream but three during those train rides. His father was a former cricketer who represented Western Railways, and wanted his son to become "an even better player". The second dream was of representing Mumbai, and the third of playing for India.
"My first aim to was to represent Mumbai," Lad says. "Right from my childhood I dreamt of getting selected in the Mumbai Ranji team and then perform to get into the Indian team. I had never thought that I would get to play four-five seasons for Mumbai.
"Dad told me from the beginning how I'd have to work hard if I wanted to play for the Indian team. Pehle se ek junoon tha (that passion was always there from the beginning)."
Rising through age-group cricket, Lad made his first-class debut in the 2013-14 season with several established batsmen already in the side - Wasim Jaffer, Ajinkya Rahane, Suryakumar Yadav, Hiken Shah, even Sachin Tendulkar played a match that season. What even Lad wouldn't have known then was that his best knock of the season would offer a glimpse into his promising future.
On a green pitch in Bengaluru against eventual champions Karnataka, Mumbai were reduced to 61 for 4 in reply to the hosts' 251. In only his third first-class match, Lad exhibited the maturity many only attain after a few seasons; he batted with the tail, looked comfortable against both pace and spin, and fought a potent bowling attack for over four hours for his 93 runs. Even though Mumbai lost, Lad had pulled them out of a crisis for a first-innings lead.
Two seasons later, Lad was batting at No. 7 after Tamil Nadu had piled up 434 and Mumbai were reeling at 52 for 5. Batting with the tail again, he burst through the mountain of pressure with a counter-attacking 150 off 184 balls - still his highest score - with 16 fours and seven sixes to take them past the follow-on mark. Such was the effect of his fightback, Mumbai then shot out Tamil Nadu for 95 and then chased down 236 in dramatic fashion on the last day with only one wicket in hand.
"I don't think too much about pressure, I bat depending on the match situation," Lad says. "Before I go out to bat, I'm nervous but I don't take much pressure in such situations. It's a challenge for you that if you bail the team out from here, it will be great for the team. And if you can't do it, there's no problem, all the blame won't come on you. I go with a positive mindset that if I can score in such situations, then it will have a different impact and I'm not very nervous."
A few months later, Lad was playing his first Ranji final, against Saurashtra. After bowling them out for 235, Mumbai knew they had to take a substantial first-innings lead on the green track in Pune. From 195 for 3, Mumbai collapsed to 268 for 9 with Lad holding one end and No. 11 Balwinder Sandhu for company. The two stretched the score past 350 with a record stand of 103 that eventually earned them an innings win on the third day.
"That was a memorable knock for me because it came in the Ranji Trophy final," Lad says with glee. "I counterattacked with the last wicket, I was playing my shots, I was playing well."
A match that doesn't bring as much happiness but some level of satisfaction to him is Mumbai's historic 500th, at the Wankhede Stadium last season. For the momentous occasion, the Mumbai Cricket Association held a felicitation for former Mumbai players, their 41 titles and the current squad that was carrying the legacy forward.
On the first day itself, though, Mumbai were skittled for 171 by Baroda, who went on to amass 575 over the next two days. When Mumbai batted again, they were buried under a deficit of 404 and were soon 125 for 5. Before batting with the tail, Lad, at No. 7, had Suryakumar at the other end as his last hope. Suryakumar (44) batted for over three hours while Lad remained unbeaten on 71 after surviving for five hours, with a strike-rate of under 30. Mumbai's skilled sailor had salvaged them through troubled waters yet again, this time for a draw.
"If you do well in IPL, it's almost like you're ready for international cricket. That's something I've missed in the last four seasons"
"I was personally hurt in that because one day before the match we had a function and so much was said about Mumbai cricket," Lad says. "And then I was hurt to see the situation the next day. Baroda didn't have such a strong team then, they had a few debutants also. Despite that we got into a tricky situation so there was a drive that if I do well in this situation, it will be a great boost for my confidence too. I spoke to daddy a day before the match, Pravin sir had also come. I spoke to some senior players also about what to do. I just decided that day to not get out."
Such knocks have earned Lad the title of Mumbai's "crisis man". Whenever Mumbai have been in trouble in recent times, Lad has stood up against threatening attacks, on lively pitches, in crunch situations, in big matches and has almost always helped his team to victory or safety.
"Whenever I have faced a challenge, I have done well by accepting the challenge and bailing the team out," he says. "I really enjoy doing that. Achha kiya hai to naam gir gaya hai (I've done well so I've been given that name). But I don't think much about that, I'm a normal batsman and I need to play with responsibility."
Now a senior in the squad in the absence of Rohit Sharma, Rahane and Prtihvi Shaw, Lad is playing a different role. After starting the first-class season with 88 and 68 for India Red in the Duleep Trophy, he scored a flurry of half-centuries in the Ranji Trophy, mostly in the middle order, including a 99 and a 93. Then he decided to move up the order and immediately scored two centuries - 130 against Baroda and 108 versus Saurashtra as Mumbai's hopes of making it to the knockouts started dwindling. So far in 12 innings this Ranji season, Lad has accumulated 643 runs with two centuries, four half-centuries as Mumbai's highest scorer and seventh on the overall charts.
"Given the option, I would want to bat at No. 3 or 4. If you want to move to the next level, you will have to bat in the top order because that's how you get time to score big runs. I've always been consistent but I didn't get the time while batting at No. 6. Last year when I got to bat at No. 3 in Vijay Hazare then I scored three hundreds in five innings. In T20s I was the highest run-scorer [for Mumbai] last season. When you bat in the top order, the field is also attacking so you get more chances of scoring."
Lad belongs to that rare species in domestic cricket that has not played IPL yet and has to bank on his first-class and List A performances to make the India cut. He has been with the Mumbai Indians set-up since 2015, training with international players and coaches such as Lasith Malinga, Ricky Ponting, Mahela Jayawardene, Shane Bond, among others. Even though he rues not getting the chance to make his IPL debut yet, he is finding his own ways to prepare himself for the international circuit if the chance arises.
"I feel performing in the IPL has a different impact because it's a platform where you are exposed against international players. If you do well there, it's almost like you're ready for international cricket. That's something I've missed in the last four seasons in the IPL. If I had played and done well, I could have been somewhere else right now.
"It's important to be prepared for how to dominate international bowlers because thinking about it is not enough," Lad believes. "I need to prepare for months for that because I'm not playing international cricket. My preparations are going on for that."
One of Lad's ways of preparing is batting against the wet rubber ball, another is standing in the middle of the pitch and setting the bowling machine at a speed of 60-65 mph, which, he says, is effectively 90-95mph. He feels he is "almost there".
With plenty of runs under his belt and maybe many more to come, the father-son duo's aim left to be fulfilled is to reach the destination Siddhesh set out for when he started those train journeys many years ago.