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'I make it tough on myself at practice so I'm comfortable during the game'

Ajinkya Rahane talks training, temperament, learning, captaincy and more

Wait for it: "I love the ball coming on to my bat. I am a naturally aggressive batsman, but I also like to leave the ball as well"  •  Getty Images

Wait for it: "I love the ball coming on to my bat. I am a naturally aggressive batsman, but I also like to leave the ball as well"  •  Getty Images

Ajinkya Rahane arrives at the MCA's Bandra Kurla Complex facility at 8am on the dot, exactly when we are scheduled to meet. Dressed in T-shirt and shorts, an India cap on his head, he extends a warm handshake: "How are you, man?" Except for his use of "man", not a lot has changed about Rahane. For the next hour, India's newly appointed vice-captain speaks about the mechanics of his batting, leadership, his squeaky-clean image, and relentless love for learning.
Do you train even during your downtime?
It's important to train even if you're not batting. You just have to do that routine every time. After IPL I didn't bat for almost 20-25 days. I was just training, did my pool sessions. I just started my batting seven-eight days back. It's important to get into that rhythm. It's a long season ahead.
You played with wet rubber balls ahead of the Australia and South Africa series, and practised with a plastic ball before the England tour. How are you prepping for the West Indies tour?
In West Indies, from whatever I have heard, a few wickets have good bounce and pace. Jamaica has good bounce. Few wickets might have some turn, some help for the spinners. So I am just practising according to that. It's rainy season in Mumbai, so I am just practising indoors, but just simulating whatever conditions I am going to face.
I was practising with wet rubber balls just to get my reaction right, my hand-eye co-ordination right. Because sometimes wickets are softer, two-paced wickets, it helps to practise with a tennis ball. The tennis ball comes [on to the batsman] slightly slower than a rubber ball. So I have been practising with a tennis ball, rubber ball and leather ball.
This is going to be a long but rewarding home season in terms of the quality of opposition. What are the personal and team goals you want to achieve?
Personally, I am right now just focusing on the West Indies series. Yes, it's a long season for us. We are going to play 17 to 18 Test matches, but it is important to stay in the present. Right now, our goal is to do well in West Indies because we did pretty well in Test cricket in the last one, one and a half years. It's important to continue that form. We are going to play Test matches after a long time. The start will be very important for us as a Test team.
You are now the vice-captain. Did you expect that appointment?
I never think about such things, but I am really happy, really excited. Thanks to BCCI, who gave me this new opportunity, new challenge in my career. It's very good to see that selection committee actually believes in you, so that gives me confidence, motivation to do well for my country.
"I spend half an hour, 45 minutes the day before the game visualising. I sometimes sit, sometimes I hold my bat and do shadow practice"
Do you see yourself as a natural leader? Are there any situations you remember - on or off the field - where you demonstrated leadership qualities?
I was captaining the Mumbai Under-19 team in the Cooch Behar Trophy and we were playing against Odisha in Cuttack. It was a four-day game, and for the first-innings lead they needed ten runs, with five to six wickets in hand. I was a bit confused whether to give the ball to a spinner - the wicket was turning and there was low bounce - or fast bowler. I backed my instinct and gave it to a fast bowler, and he actually took all the wickets. We took the lead by two to three runs.
I think as a leader, as a captain, it's important to back your instincts, whatever you feel. Yes, it is important to take advice from your colleagues, but in the end what your instincts tell you, you should back that. Whenever I am on the field, I always try and think: If I am the captain, what should be my field? What will I do in certain situations, certain conditions? I always think that way, so that whenever opportunity comes I am ready for that.
How important was the Zimbabwe series last year where you led a young side?
It was a very good experience for me as a captain. Because, I remember the first game, it was so close. Bhuvneshwar [Kumar] bowled really well. With ten runs to win in one over, he just gave four to five runs. That actually taught me a very good lesson - that as a captain you should back your team-mates, you should support them, give them confidence all the time. And as a captain, you also learn so many things from your team-mates, from your opponents, how they think, how they play with you, their composition and tactics against you. So you should be very open-minded to learn new ideas.
Was it an opportunity to discover a side of you that you weren't aware existed?
Maybe, yes. I was captaining after a long time - I just captained Mumbai U-19, and after that I went straight to the Indian team.
You have to think for your team-mates and give them positive response. Whatever happens as a captain you have to take the responsibility. Backing my team-mates and supporting them was the biggest learning.
When did you start expressing yourself more in team meetings and strategy discussions in the Indian team?
I think it started maybe two years back. Actually it started when I was with Rajasthan Royals and when Rahul [Dravid] bhai was the captain. He gave me the confidence to express myself - not only on the field but off the field in team meetings or wherever we travel. He just told me, "Whatever you feel, just be free to express it, so that your mind will be freer. You will start thinking more and more."
When I first started expressing myself in the Indian team I was pretty confident at because the same team was there from 2011. We had been playing together for a long time, so I was confident of what to say in the team meeting and how I should express myself. My thinking is, I always want to learn, I am always open to new ideas so I can learn much faster and I can learn many more things. That is actually inbuilt in me.
You bat in different positions in different formats. You have spoken about making mental adjustments, but how do you compartmentalise your mind? Is there a series or game you are proud of for the way you quickly adapted?
I think maybe after the Test matches in England and in Australia, we played one-day series immediately and I did pretty well. Technically you don't have to change many things but mental adjustments are very important. If you play one-dayers after Test matches, you should know where the gaps are. You should be able to rotate the strike very often.
It would seem that preparation is something you never compromise on.
That's what is important. Preparation is something you can control; results you can't. If you see, even Sachin [Tendulkar] paaji or Rahul bhai used to prepare well before series. I saw Sachin paaji preparing here even before his 200th Test match. You have to have that dedication, that determination, that willingness to prepare.
I believe that preparing before the series is important rather than going into the series and thinking about the game, thinking about the series. Your mind is already occupied. I always want to prepare ten to 15 days before the series. Once you are into the series, you just go into game mode. You just think about your game, just keep it really simple. You don't want to strain yourself mentally.
Before the Delhi Test against South Africa, you were averaging about 8 in India, in contrast to your fantastic record overseas. What was your mindset going into that game, where you eventually scored two hundreds?
I wasn't looking at my average. It was just a number. I knew that if I played one or two good innings… I mean, it was just a matter of spending time at the crease.
I actually didn't spend time at the crease in that particular series. I was batting well but somehow I got out. I made that conscious effort before the Delhi Test. Me and Sanjay [Bangar] bhai went to the stadium in Nagpur after the [third] Test match got over. I batted two hours in the nets. I was just defending the ball, I didn't do anything special. We did two sessions like that. Even in Delhi, before the match, I wasn't facing the bowlers, just throwdowns, and I was just defending the ball.
"I have made one rule - after every practice session or a game just think maybe 15-20 minutes about what you did on the day. Good decision, bad decision and just switch off after that"
You can play shots any time but defence is very important when the wicket is turning. I actually practised it and it helped me during the game. My intention was to spend time in the middle, and later on, take my chances.
You considerably lowered your backlift in the first innings in Delhi on a pitch with variable bounce.
Analysing is very important. In India sometimes there is no bounce like in Australia or South Africa. In India the ball comes just below your waist height. I was thinking about it and realised that keeping my backlift low would be very important. I had a discussion with Sanjay bhai and with Pravin [Amre] sir over the phone about it. Both gave me a very positive response and told me to back myself.
When you sit in the dressing room, you keep analysing your game. When I was in Nagpur, sitting in the room, I saw a couple of my Ranji Trophy videos. I realised that keeping my backlift low was important. I was practising keeping my backlift low also and kept defending the ball, so that you don't try and push yourself. You look to play really late when your backlift is low.
Are there instances where you have tweaked your stance or backlift in the middle of an innings? At Lord's or in Melbourne, for instance?
Yes, many times. It is completely how you feel in that particular moment. Sometimes my backlift is so high. In South Africa [during the 96 in Durban] it helps you in playing some shots like the cut and pull. It just comes instinctively, once you spend time in the middle and you get an idea of the wicket.
Some batsmen like to feel ball on bat, but some others, like M Vijay, can go for a long periods without playing the ball. Are you comfortable batting for long periods without feeling ball on bat?
I am comfortable both ways. I love leaving the ball, actually, it's a good sign. As an opening batsman, it comes pretty naturally because you face the new ball all the time. I batted at the top of the order for Mumbai, I have batted at No. 3, so I know how to handle the new ball. However, once you bat at No. 5, No. 6, sometimes it is important to score runs. You play the second new ball, but before that, when the ball is old, you are thinking about scoring runs.
Nowadays it's important to score runs rather than just defending the ball. Defence is important, but when you bat with the lower order and tailenders it's important to get runs on the board. I love the ball coming on to my bat. I like to score runs and I am a naturally aggressive batsman, but at the same time I also like to leave the ball as well.
Pravin Amre once told you to focus on the action and not on the reaction. What is your understanding of that?
What he meant by that was, if you think about actions, as in backlift, don't think about the reaction, what is going to happen next. Just play one ball at a time. If you just take care of this part - playing close to the body - action and reaction will happen automatically.
Between balls you move away a little and close your eyes. What goes on in your mind then?
I just switch off for a bit. Sometimes I talk to myself. It is important to switch off between balls. Just go out of the crease, chill for two-three seconds, take a deep breath and come back and switch on. If you want to focus for long periods as a batsman, it's important to switch on and off between balls.
During times when you are batting fluently, like in the Melbourne Test, where you were taking the bowling apart, do you feel like not switching off to keep the momentum intact?
If you switch off, it's not like you will break your momentum. Switch off means you don't want to think too much about too many things. In Melbourne I wanted to dominate completely but at the same time I wanted to switch off between balls so that the focus is really there. You want that fine focus. When the bowler is about to deliver, you want your concentration at the peak.
How have you trained your mind in terms of focus?
When I am batting I don't think about any other things. My only focus is to watch the ball every time. The noise in the crowd actually motivates me. I always think the crowd is there to support me, not to go against me. Even in Australia I saw that the crowd were enjoying our batting when we were smashing the Australians. That's what you want as a foreign team. We gained that respect. It's important to just focus on that moment and not worry about what's going on around.
Do you meditate?
Yes, I do meditate everyday. That's my routine now. It's actually helping me to concentrate more, focus more and just think better.
Whenever I am on the field, I always try and think: If I am the captain, what should be my field?
When it comes to visualisation, some batsmen imagine themselves scoring hundreds, some imagine playing a particular stroke. What's your method?
I normally do it a day before the game, and even during the game when I am sitting in the dressing room before I go to bat. I spend half an hour, 45 minutes the day before the game visualising. I sometimes sit, sometimes I hold my bat and do shadow practice, keeping in mind who I am going to face tomorrow and what the conditions will be.
I just visualise how they will bowl to me, what my strong points are and what areas they are going to bowl. Even in the dressing room, before going to bat, you get a bit of an idea how the wicket is behaving, what the bounce is like, what's the pace like off the wicket. I visualise that I want to spend some time in the middle, give respect to the bowlers, and what the shots are that I am going to play against a particular bowler. It helps when you go in to bat. Your mind is already ready, the data is already there in your mind, so you just have to react to the ball every time.
Can you recall any innings where almost everything you visualised fell into place?
I think both times in Melbourne - the innings against Australia in the Test match and the 79 against South Africa in the World Cup. I was actually thinking in both the innings how I was going to dominate them, because the teams that did well in Australia, they played aggressive cricket. I was visualising which shots would be important on that particular wicket.
Against South Africa, I went in in the 29th or 30th over [28th]. Shikhar [Dhawan] was batting really well, and Virat and Shikhar had had a good partnership. In one-day [cricket] you have to continue that momentum. So straightaway I told Shikhar, "I am getting a good feel and you can take your time. I will go after the bowling straightaway." After five or ten runs I started attacking. I was visualising things and similar things happened in the middle.
Are you a cricket nut who thinks about the game all the time?
Yes, I am that kind of person who thinks about my game. I love that. It's my passion. The more you think, the more you learn. That's my theory. But it's important to switch off. When someone like Rahul Dravid tells you that you are thinking too much, you just have to chill (smiles). I get the best out of me when I think, but you should know when to think about your game and when you should completely switch off.
How do you avoid overthinking?
I have made one rule - after every practice session or a game just think maybe 15-20 minutes about what you did on the day. Good decision, bad decision, just analyse that day completely and just switch off after that. Then I don't think about cricket, I don't talk about cricket. That is actually helping me because keeping your mind fresh in this era is very important, because we play so much cricket, we play all the formats.
Who are the contemporary batsmen across the world you enjoy watching? What have you picked up from them?
I enjoy watching Virat and Rohit [Sharma] in my team. [Among the] foreign teams I enjoy watching Kane Williamson because of the way he plays in Tests and one-dayers. Our game is a bit similar because we normally play cricketing shots even in T20s, and his consistency in Test matches and one-dayers is incredible. I enjoy watching Steve Smith's game. He's a different player. He has a different method of scoring runs. It's important you learn many things from different batsmen, how they score runs, what their mindset is.
What I like about Virat is his consistency and his hunger to score runs in all formats. Keeping that mindset all the time is very challenging. It's very important to learn this thing from Virat. From Rohit, scoring big hundreds in one-dayers. He has got three-four 150s and two double-hundreds in ODIs. After scoring a hundred the 40 or 50-plus runs are very important because once you are set, you know how the ball is coming. These 40-50 runs will give us a good cushion. I am the kind of person - I just sit back and observe them. What they are doing on the field I just try and learn from it.
On pitches where the ball doesn't come on to the bat quickly, you find it difficult to rotate strike. How have you worked around that issue?
I did pretty well against South Africa in India. Sometimes, if the ball is not coming [on to the bat] it's difficult to rotate strike, but you don't want to hurry or play some rash shot. So I prepared myself really well. I was actually playing on rank turners and unprepared wickets here at the BKC [facility in Mumbai]. I wanted to make it really tough for myself so that I would be comfortable during the game. Making myself uncomfortable during practice is the key factor.
On the slower tracks, it's important to play as late as possible and use your feet against spinners. If you look to hit the gaps the ball will go to the fielder. If you look to hit towards the fielder the ball will eventually go into the gap. If you look to play towards midwicket the ball will go here (points to square of midwicket) but if you look to play towards mid-on the ball will go to the midwicket fielder because of the slowness. I am working on getting those angles right. I keep the cones and I try to hit in the gaps. I think using my feet is helping me.
"Preparation is something you can control; results you can't. I saw Sachin paaji preparing here even before his 200th Test match"
This is something people have often wondered: does Ajinkya Rahane ever get angry? How does he show his anger?
Yes, I do get angry. In the end I am also a human being. But I don't like to show it. I always like to keep it cool and calm. Anger is inside me. I don't like to show it on my face. I have never sledged or showed my anger in the cricket field. Never. Whenever I stay cool and calm, I actually perform better.
In the Indore ODI against South Africa, you were involved in a mix-up with Kohli, after which he reacted angrily against you. What goes on in your mind in situations like these?
Sometimes misunderstandings happen on the cricket field, but it is important to stay calm. Everyone has a different personality. Being aggressive helps Virat to perform better on the field, and staying cool and calm helps me perform better. I think you should respect each and every one's character.
Are you the odd man out in a team that has a lot of flamboyant characters?
Everyone wants to carry themselves differently on and off the field. Everyone has a different character, and so do I. My focus is to perform consistently on the field. Off the field I am just a normal human being.
I always want to respect every individual on and off the field. It's important to carry yourself really well off the field. My managers are looking after that. It's important to build your image as well. As a cricketer you focus on your game, but off the field they focus on your image. Their job is to focus on my image, but my job is to keep contributing for my country.
In a world where you are surrounded by PR agents, is it difficult is to be the person you are because there is an image they want you to have?
My mantra is simple: I will work hard on my cricket and completely love the game. For me it's important to score runs on the field. For them it's important to take care of me off the field. It's important to trust your manager completely. From a player's perspective, you can't think of stuff off the field. That's their bread and butter. They will take care of your image. If you take care of the game, other things will happen automatically.
You have said your wife, Radhika, has been a reason for your opening up a lot more recently. Could you tell us about the impact she has had on your life?
We were dating for six to seven years, and in September it will be two years since we got married. She's been helping me a lot. Whenever we're at home, whenever we travel together, whenever she's there on tour, she always tells me it's important to say what you feel. Because I am a guy who just sits quiet and doesn't say much. She is like, "As a celebrity, as a sportsperson, it's important to say what you feel." She also helps me keep researching new things, so I can get some knowledge about what's going on around me.
Have you taken some of your team-mates by surprise recently by being more talkative or cracking a joke or two in the dressing room?
Not yet. Maybe in the West Indies series they will be surprised. (Smiles)
Going back to the personality question, how do you blend in with some of the more flamboyant guys in the team?
We gel well together. This group has been playing together for the last two to two and a half years together. We have a good combination, we enjoy with each other not only on the field but off the field. We go out for dinner, go out for lunch, sometimes we just talk not only about cricket but in general about what's going on in the world. I think that journey together is what we have. We enjoy each other's success in the team. Things like these actually help you stay together and build the team. You get to know so many different things about different players and their character, how they think about certain thing.
As top batsmen and athletes you are in a sense competing with one another, but are also working towards the same goal as a team. How do you balance the two?
Competing with each other would be the wrong word. I think we help each other. That's the right word. During our fitness sessions, during our net sessions, we try and help each other to improve our game and improve our fitness. We motivate each other - that's the important thing.
If you are willing to help your team-mate, if you are willing to improve your team-mate's game, eventually your team will go up and you are helping yourself also.
You have also spoken about how carrying drinks is a very good thing. What are the things you learnt when you sat out so many Tests before making your debut?
From those 17 to 19 Tests I really learnt a lot. I was fortunate be there with those legends. That time everyone - Sachin paaji, Viru bhai [Sehwag], [VVS] Laxman bhai, Rahul bhai - was playing. I learnt a lot about how to approach different situations and how to react to them. Carrying drinks is a very good thing. You are helping your team-mate. I actually wanted to run on the field every time and give water to my team-mates. And sometimes you have discussions on the field. When you give water to your team-mates, they tell you about the conditions and that this is what is happening.
Even sitting in the dressing room your mindset is to learn many things. My only motivation was to improve my game, improve my fitness, all the time. I used to wake up early and do my gym and running sessions. The intention was to just learn, learn and learn.
Are you a fitness addict?
It's important to stay fit all the time. We play so many games throughout the year. As an individual it's your responsibility to look after your fitness, look after yourself and look after your diet as well. If you want to play 15 to 20 years you will have to sacrifice certain things.
Do you still practise karate? Have you ever used it on anybody?
No, I don't. I have never used it on anyone and I hope I don't ever have to use it. (Chuckles)

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun