Rachin Ravindra - the cricketer you want, and the friend you need
From PlayStation challenges to Test match dreams - how Devon Conway and Tom Blundell were part of Ravindra's journey
As Tom Blundell presented Rachin Ravindra his New Zealand Test cap in Kanpur last week, the third member of the trio - Devon Conway - was glued to his television some 12,000 kilometres away in Wellington, feeling "gutted" at not being around for his mate's big moment - only an injured hand preventing him from being there on the spot.
The three are the best of friends who live close to each other, play for the same domestic team, frequent coffee shops and restaurants together, drop into each other's homes for meals. They used to spend their free time on the golf course too, until Ravindra put it on hold after being advised by one of their good friends, Sriram Krishnamurthy who is also one of the coaches in Wellington, to stop playing as it could potentially hamper his bat swing.
They bond over other things too, like marathon PlayStation sessions - "sometimes well into the night, 2-3am," laughs Conway - trying to pass missions on Grand Theft Auto. Yet for all the fun off the field, it's the camaraderie through cricket that they cherish and respect the most.
As Conway watched Ravindra hold his nerve and bat confidently against three top-class spinners in a gripping final session in fading light, his mind jogged back to three winters ago in Wellington.
"That's a special memory for the three of us," Conway reminisces. "We said, 'Let's create a group of three or four to train through the winter.' Andrew Fletcher [their Wellington colleague] was also there. We devised a routine for ourselves. Running in the morning between 7.30 and 8.30. From 9.00 to 10.30, we'd be in the gym. From there, we'd shoot to the nets from 11.00am to 1.00pm.
"We didn't necessarily have coaches. It was just the four of us trying to direct ourselves and help each other out. We'd have real conversations on where we can improve, what we can do to get better to help add a layer to where we've gotten as individuals. We were going through tough physical exercises as well as into the technical side of batting and bowling."
The idea was to feed off each other's strengths and work on their weaknesses. "The three of us have different strengths," Conway continues. "Rachin is really good through the onside. He has typical Indian wrists, hits them beautifully. Tom is really good on the short ball, I'm strong square on the off-side. And we're always asking questions of each other. 'How do you access a particular side of the wicket? How do you get into position for a particular shot?' and stuff like that.
"It was cool to learn from each other. I'm, for example, a little limited on the leg side, so those conversations on how he (Ravindra) dominates in that area helped. He'd give me his clues, triggers, how to get into strong positions to execute. After that stint, we grew as players, not just as batters, but physically too. We were thinking ahead. Fact that we're all there together, playing in the environment we are, is special. The hard work we've put in in the past is paying off. That's why I was gutted for not being there to see him receive that cap from Tommy. That would have been special."
It's the winter of 2017. Ravindra is told he's in New Zealand's plans for the 2018 Under-19 World Cup. He'd already played as a 16-year old in the 2016 edition in Bangladesh, but with limited success. After exhaustive preparation, spanning three months in Lincoln, Ravindra could've afforded some time off.
But the cricket nerd in him wanted to tackle spin better. So he gets on a plane to India to "freshen" his game against spin instead. He lands in Bangalore, drives three hours to Anantapur to the Rural Development Trust which runs an organised cricketing set-up. The curator there, a friend of his father Ravi, who brings his Hutt Hawks Cricket Club on preparatory tours every year, prepares multiple strips that aid turn.
Ravindra would sometimes go through four sessions a day, with small breaks for lunch and tea. He'd then test himself in local matches and head home after a fortnight. Much of Ravindra's spin-game has been honed batting in these conditions every year since 2013. And alongside him, a number of other New Zealand players, such as Blundell and Jimmy Neesham have benefitted too, having toured with the Hutt Hawks.
Conway, who has had a ringside view of Ravindra's development as a young batter, isn't one bit surprised. Conway believes Ravindra's manner of tackling R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja, playing forward and back with assuredness, was down to the mindset that has come about due to hours of training.
"The way Rachin held his nerve, he seemed so calm, relaxed. I asked him the following day on a zoom call how he felt, and he was like, 'I felt fine, was in the moment, tried to keep everything out, felt a lot calmer than I expected.' For a 22-year old coming in and absorbing the pressure the way he did on debut, was outstanding."
"I saw him get through the pressure we put on him in the training session, it didn't shock me that he was able to do what he did in the Test match. For a 22-year old, he has got a 35-year old head on his shoulders."Devon Conway on Rachin Ravindra
Conway looks back to a preparatory camp in Lincoln in 2019, around the time Ravindra first broke into the New Zealand A team, where he was amazed at the youngster's game against spin.
"We've done quite a lot of spin training to the point where it's funny," he says. "I remember a couple of years ago, we did a very similar training session at our winter camps in Lincoln. It was on very used surfaces in the marquee nets. Balls were turning and bouncing, balls keeping low. They were outrageous wickets it was really good because what the coaches did was they told us, 'If you get out in this net, you're out. You're here to try and save a Test.'
"Funny enough, he was the only guy who managed to bat through the entire session without getting out, to the point where all of us players who had gotten out, had to come and stand around the net, not inside, to try and put him off, say the odd chirp, try and get under his skin to get him to make a mistake. That was brilliant, when I saw him get through the pressure we put on him in the training session, it didn't shock me that he was able to do what he did in the Test match. For a 22-year old, he has got a 35-year old head on his shoulders."
Ravindra wasn't meant to play international cricket in 2021. In January this year, he was assisted off the Basin Reserve during a Super Smash game. He had hurt his right shoulder while diving, and scans soon revealed considerable damage to his shoulder cartilage. He was going to be out for at least 10 months.
The unavailability of his surgeon, who had his slots for the next month booked out, got him to work on a rehabilitation program. Nishil Shah, the strength and conditioning coach at Wellington Firebirds, devised a strengthening program. Not wanting to keep a cricket-nut away from the game for long, the Firebirds had Ravindra within their mix. He sat in the dugout and watched them being crowned Super Smash champions.
Two weeks later, Ravindra, with his shoulder strapped, was back on the field, carving a 55-ball 84 in a club game.
By then, he was already on the selectors' radar. A stylish 144 and a six-for, for New Zealand A against the touring West Indies had the selectors and head coach Gary Stead convinced of his abilities. That it came on the back of a wretched run of form - 81 runs in seven first-class knocks - made it all the more special.
Maybe it was a quirk of fate, but the delay in getting a slot for his shoulder surgery proved to be a blessing, as Ravindra was picked for his maiden tour of England with the senior team. He returned home without a game, only to quarantine for two weeks at home, before jumping on the plane to UAE, Pakistan, UAE again, and now India.
Ten months on from the injury, Ravindra is now a capped player in Tests and T20Is. The hectic travelling for tours has left him with no time to attend lectures or give examinations for his Computer Engineering degree.
"When it comes to his cricket, I'm the one constantly asking him or telling him things. He's such a cricket-obsessed guy, these days even his girlfriend phones me up to talk cricket."Ravi - Rachin's father
"I've told my wife to be less harsh on him," father Ravi laughs. "She doesn't follow much of his cricket. She gets far too nervous. When it comes to his cricket, I'm the one constantly asking him or telling him things. He's such a cricket-obsessed guy, these days even his girlfriend phones me up to talk cricket (laughs)."'
None of this surprises Conway, a close friend of the family. Conway and Ravindra first met in the summer of 2018. "What I remember is the confidence he had as a young guy," Conway says. "As a rookie coming into the Wellington setup, he felt really comfortable to he himself in and around the squad. I enjoyed that about him.
"For a young guy coming in, you'd naturally be within yourself as a person but he just came out, just himself, quite vibrant. That's how we got talking, it's been cool to know him and his family. We often have them over at our house, or we go over to Ravi's place for some Indian curries."
Conway, who is nursing an injury that put him out of the India Tests, now awaits the return of his good mates. The bantering, coffee, lunches and cricket chats are set to resume. And when they're off for the next tour together, it'll complete a circle of sorts for the trio - from best friends who played and trained together, to best friends who are team-mates for New Zealand.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo