By Jaideep Vaidya
It was a pleasant February afternoon in South Mumbai. The city’s Mecca of cricket, the Wankhede Stadium, was hosting the home team, Mumbai, for a practice session ahead of the Irani Trophy tie against Rest of India starting in three days.
One of the stars of Mumbai’s 40th Ranji Trophy title – Abhishek Nayar – was occupying one of the practice pitches, with a bunch of Mumbai and local bowlers having a go at him. Nayar, 29, had had a breakthrough domestic season. He was the second-highest run-getter in the Ranji Trophy 2012-13 with 966 runs at an average of 96.60, including three hundreds and eight fifties. The all-rounder had also bagged 19 scalps and announced himself on the big stage.
The repercussions were almost immediate as the Pune Warriors India (PWI), owned by the wealthy Sahara group, acquired Nayar’s services for the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) for a handsome sum of US$ 675,000 – he turned out to be the most valuable Indian player at the auction. From a mediocre IPL 5 last year when he scored just 45 runs in total for the Kings XI Punjab, to be acquired for over Rs 3.5 crore, Nayar had come a long way in the last 10 months or so. Along with that, he’s also got an opportunity to face Michael Clarke’s Australians for a warm-up game in Chennai later this month.
Crouching low in his very atypical, rather striking batting stance, Nayar cut a confident figure in the nets and was letting the bowlers know it. He was swatting them all around the park, whether they were fast bowlers or spinners. Finally, after wrapping up his session, he walked back to the dressing room with good mate Rohit Sharma. The handful reporters and cameramen who were idling around outside the boundary line, immediately sprang up to their feet and began clicking away, before surrounding Nayar for bytes.
Rohit, meanwhile, smiled and walked up the steps leading to the dressing room. Once up on the balcony, he playfully cheered his friend’s newfound success and recognition, “Abhi…Abhi!”, much to the latter’s amusement.
CricketCountry’s Jaideep Vaidya caught up with the man in demand for a few minutes after the media interaction. (Nayar appeared shocked when the writer asked for 20 minutes, saying he was going out for another shot at the nets in the afternoon. Talk of commitment!)
CricketCountry (CC): This was your fourth Ranji Trophy win as a Mumbai player. Would you say it was the most satisfying?
Abhishek Nayar (AN): I’ve enjoyed it [this season’s win]. I can’t say it’s the most satisfying one. Obviously this one’s brought a lot of relief, but I think the first Ranji Trophy win I was part of was very satisfying for me (Mumbai beat Bengal by 132 runs in 2006-07). I enjoyed that a lot. But taking things as they come, I think what’s more important is to continue what we’ve done this year and carry it on to next year.
CC: You scored 99 in your second Ranji final in 2008-09 against Uttar Pradesh. Wasn’t that performance more satisfying?
AN: Obviously I did well there and we won; it’s satisfying. Here, I think I bowled pretty well (Nayar took two for 14 and one for three). Obviously, I didn’t contribute a lot with the bat (scored 26 in Mumbai’s innings), but the team won. So, I think every final has its own place and I can’t compare them.
CC: Talk us through the recently-concluded Ranji season. What were the team’s goals?
AN: I think when we started off, we wanted to get in the knock-outs; that was our first intention. Once we got there, we were looking to take it each game at a time. I think we played some clinical cricket during the knockout stages. But I think what’s more important for us now is to carry that on.
CC: Mumbai was often criticised for being too defensive this season. There was some criticism saying the team was satisfied with going through on first-innings leads, and didn’t go for wins. Do you think that was a fair assessment?
AN: Our first goal was to qualify. Once we did, we wanted to do well in the knockout stage. I think we took it step by step; we weren’t obviously worried about what everyone else thought. It was about the team and what the team thought was right.
CC: The thriller group match against Madhya Pradesh, which ensured Mumbai’s passage through to the knock-outs, was one of your best performances (Nayar scored 26 and 62, and took three for 46 and three for 56). Talk us through what went through.
AN: It was a close game for our team and that kind of changed the momentum [for the season] and shifted it towards Mumbai. I feel it was a very important game and it was important for someone to stand up in the team and I think the whole team stood up at that point, absorbed the pressure and helped each other get through.
CC: How is Ajit Agarkar as a captain?
AN: I think he’s brilliant. I think he communicates really well with players and I’ve always believed he’s the right man for the job.
CC: Are you excited about playing with the Pune Warriors India, alongside the likes of Michael Clarke and Yuvraj Singh?
AN: It’s going to be amazing; I’m very excited. I’m really looking forward to it and, touchwood, I hope it goes well.
CC: Your career was hampered with wrist and ankle injuries in the last couple of years. You’ve said that then Mumbai coach Pravin Amre had helped you a lot during the time. Now, with him at the helm of the Pune Warriors, are you looking forward to working with him again?
AN: I’m very excited to work with him in the IPL again. Hopefully, it can be fruitful like it has been for my Ranji.
CC: You worked with a performance expert during your time at the Kings XI Punjab and mentioned he helped you immensely. Do you think all sportsmen should hire a performance expert or mental conditioning coach?
AN: I feel everyone has their own way of expressing themselves and [have] their own people that they talk to. It’s up to individuals to decide what’s best for them, but I feel most sportsmen do that anyway. I felt I needed it, so I took all the help that I could.
CC: Do you think you’re cut out for all three formats of the game?
AN: If you ask me, obviously I’ll tell you [I’m cut out for] all. I’ve always enjoyed cricket, so no matter what the format is, I’ll always enjoy playing it.
CC: Do you think you’ve reached your peak as a cricketer?
AN: No, there is a lot more to come. I’m looking to get better day by day. I’m obviously not the kind of guy who can come up and tell you that this is where I stand and…I’ll always look to get better and hopefully I do get better.
CC: At a time when the Indian team is looking to infuse young blood into its ranks, do you think that could play a role in your possible selection?
AN: I don’t know about young or old, but I think it’s about being fit, and I am fit. So that’s all I think about.
CC: MS Dhoni had once said that he wasn’t sure whether you were a batsman who can bowl or vice versa. What do you have to say to that now? Do you think you’ve proved your worth?
AN: He [Dhoni] is a legend. What he thinks is what he thinks; I can’t sit and comment. But I think I’ve done well enough for anyone to recognise what they need to. If they want to, they will; if they don’t want to, it’s up to them. I can’t really…there’s not a lot I can say.
CC: Are you excited about the opportunity to play against Australia for India A?
AN: I am [excited]. If I get a chance, I’m hoping to do well.
CC: Any specific plans for the Aussies?
AN: No plans. I’m not a plan guy; I’m not a guy who can tell you what I’m going to do. [I’m] Pretty unpredictable that way.
CC: Talk us through your stance. Has it always been like that since childhood?
AN: It was worse; it’s just gotten better (laughs). What you’re seeing is a better version. I can’t show it [the earlier version] to you, but I know it was terrible. If you know someone who’s played with me in Under-14 [cricket], they’ll tell you it’s terrible. I’ve gotten better.
CC: Have you always been an all-rounder?
AN: No, I’ve always been on and off. I started off as a bowler, then I went on to be a batsman, then I stopped bowling completely. Later on, my school (Sharadashram Vidyamandir) coach, Naresh Churi, told me I should start bowling because he saw me bowling in the nets once. That’s when I started bowling again.
CC: Any favourite all-rounder or cricketer?
AN: There’ve always been different people. Obviously Sachin [Tendulkar] is an idol I’ve always looked up to. I’ve always been in awe of Brian Lara. I’ve never had one person [I’ve looked up to]. But if there has to be one person, it has to be Sachin.
CC: Thanks a lot for your time, Abhishek! All the best!
AN: Cheers, bro!
Nayar was to be made captain of Mumbai for the Irani Trophy tie later that evening.