Aakash Chopra © AFP
Aakash Chopra © AFP

Aakash Chopra was born September 19, 1977. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a gritty batsman, an outstanding close-in fielder, a domestic cricket champion, and an amazing cricket writer.

It was one of those winter mornings when you feel obligatory to set your alarm at five in the morning, turn on the television, and tune in to the television channel that telecasts Test cricket live from the picturesque grounds of Australia. It was no different that day: Australia batted first and had not lost a wicket; and all was well with the world.

Then it happened. Ashish Nehra bowled one short; Justin Langer pulled hard; the ball did not lob meekly in the air as they so often do: instead, it came at the forward short-leg at lightning speed. The fielder semi-ducked, but he did not take his eyes off the ball. He grabbed the catch.

As a cricket fan I have been brought up on stories of Eknath Solkar; if it was courage that we were looking for, perhaps Sid Barnes or Brian Close; but to believe it we needed to see someone perform an act like that live. That blinding flash of brilliance was the moment when Aakash Chopra became a hero. It was a pity that Nehra had overstepped.

It was not the first time that Chopra had pulled off something that brilliant; and it would certainly not be the last. He kept low, he did not flinch, his reflexes were amazing, and he had excellent hands. He was the bat-pad fielder India had craved for; and the search still continues.

Craig McMillan had found out of Chopra’s brilliance the hard way…

… as had Abdul Razzaq.

With the bat, too, he is as courageous and patient as he is as a close-in fielder. Seldom has Chopra been a victim to a lapse in concentration. He is not one of those men who will a tear a bowler apart: he wears the poor bowlers down in the old-fashioned way, waits till they get tired, and then feasts on the loose balls they dish out at the end of the day. Till then, his unfaltering technique and unwavering determination keep him going.

Not many Indian cricketers model themselves on Michael Atherton. Chopra, however, idolised the England opener from a young age and had travelled to Mohali to meet Lancastrian when he was on an Indian tour. He recalls how Atherton’s advice had gone on to change his approach towards the sport.

“Aakash, don’t forget why we play this game. People like you and I, who take a lot of pride and spend a lot of time getting the technique right, we get too caught up and stuck up and stop enjoying the game. The idea of playing the game is to enjoy it.” The deluge in domestic cricket started after that.

Chopra’s curbed strokeplay has had more to do with intent than ability. Having played alongside the likes of Virender Sehwag for both Delhi and India, he has almost always been confined to a supporting role, which meant that his natural instincts had to be curbed. After the conversation with Atherton, however, he relaxed a lot more and the big hundreds kept coming.

Had Chopra been born 10 or 15 years back he would have played way, way more than the 10 Tests he did. In the dark days when India had to bring Anshuman Gaekwad out of retirement, when they had to promote unwilling non-specialists like VVS Laxman, all-rounders like Ravi Shastri or Manoj Prabhakar or wicket-keepers like Nayan Mongia to fill up the opener’s slot, Chopra might have provided with the solidity India required, especially overseas.

Chopra has scored 437 Test runs at 23.00 and has held 15 catches; in 162 First-Class matches, mostly for Delhi, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh, his tally reads 10,839 runs at a formidable 45.35 with 29 hundreds and 186 catches.

At the highest level, however, Chopra’s main achievement lies in the fact that he had added 639 runs in 11 overseas opening stands at 58.09 with Sehwag: of Indians with over ten opening stands abroad only Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik average more, and 3 of their 10 partnerships have come in Bangladesh.

Early days

Born in Agra, Aakash moved to Delhi with his family at a young age. He was passionate about the sport from a very early age. His first bat, a Vats Hot Shot worth Rs 450/-, was unfortunately snatched by a mugger during a bus ride. That did not deter him from continuing with the sport and making it to the Under-16s.

He made his debut for the Delhi Under-16s against their Haryana counterparts. He scored 56 and 66 on debut; he picked up 3 for 32 in the next match against Punjab Under-16s at Patiala and improved on that against Himachal Pradesh Under-19s with 4 for 29 (and scored 44 with the bat).

During this part of his career Chopra was looked upon as a batting all-rounder of sorts who, along with being a dogged opener, could also roll his arm over, alternating between medium-pace and off-breaks, making the occasional breakthrough.

With time he graduated to the Under-19 side and almost immediately had a run of 96 and 43 (against Punjab Under-19s) and 44 and 80 not out (against Jammu and Kashmir Under-19s) in 4 consecutive innings, both in Delhi, in the Cooch Behar Trophy.

The first big innings came next season against Punjab Under-19s at home: against an attack that boasted of Harbhajan Singh and Harvinder Singh (they also had Yuvraj Singh and Reetinder Sodhi in their side) Chopra put on 248 for the opening stand with Neeraj Chawla. He eventually scored a massive 236 in an exemplary display of dedication and concentration.

The team, also consisting of Sehwag, Rajat Bhatia, Mithun Manhas, and Amit Bhandari, would turn out to be the nucleus of the future Delhi Ranji Trophy team.

Chopra was an obvious choice for the CK Nayudu Trophy that followed. He responded almost immediately, scoring 124 not out against Ajit Agarkar’s West Zone Under-19s at Pune. He was selected for India Under-19s, and after a decent performance against Sri Lanka Under-19s he was eventually drafted into the Delhi Ranji Trophy side.

Always outstanding at bat-pad, Aakash Chopra catches Simon Katich off Anil Kumble in the MCG Test of 2003-04 © Getty Images
Always outstanding at bat-pad, Aakash Chopra catches Simon Katich off Anil Kumble in the MCG Test of 2003-04 © Getty Images

The next level

It was a dream debut. Opening batting at Delhi, Chopra cover-drove the first ball he faced from Sanjeev Mishra for four and never looked back; he top-scored with an emphatic 150 before Services plunged to an innings-defeat. In the next match against Punjab, he slammed 100 not out on a turning wicket at Patiala against Harbhajan, Aashish Kapoor, and Bharati Vij.

One would think that the law of averages might catch up, but Chopra marched on: despite a 24 in the next match against Jammu and Kashmir at Delhi he was selected for the Duleep Trophy match against East Zone at Secunderabad. Batting first-down he scored 63 and 69, and added 65 more in the next match against Bengal.

There was a slight slump in form, but he came back strongly in 2000-01, drowning Himachal Pradesh with an uncharacteristically fast-paced 222 at Delhi and followed it up with 133 in the next match against Jammu and Kashmir at Jammu. Two matches later, he scored 110 and 125 not out against South Zone at Vijayawada.

He finished the season with 915 runs at 70.38 with 4 hundreds. With Navjot Sidhu out of the scenario, Laxman refusing to open, and neither of Sadagoppan Ramesh and SS Das making it big at the highest level, Chopra had a real chance to make it to the Test side.

India still preferred to stick to non-specialist openers like Sehwag, Deep Dasgupta, and Sanjay Bangar than to try out the specialists. Chopra, now a member of India A, slammed 145 against BCCSL Academy XI spearheaded by Lasith Malinga at the R Premadasa Stadium, Colombo. He also picked up 2 for 7. Soon afterwards, he scored 174 against Guyana at Bourda.

Just when it seemed that Chopra would make it to the next level, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament on his right knee while playing football before the Ranji Trophy semifinal. In the process he also missed the Challenger Trophy. However, some extensive physical training under the supervision of Andrew Leipus meant that he was back in business soon.

When the New Zealanders toured India later that season, Chopra grabbed the opportunity with both hands: selected to play for Board President’s XI against the tourists at Visakhapatnam, he scored 103 not out, and in the next match against the same opposition he managed another 66 at Rajkot for India A. That innings earned him a Test cap at Motera.

Test debut

From his first outing, it was evident that Chopra was one of those batsmen who put a serious price tag on his wicket. He added 35 with Sehwag for the opening stand (Sehwag scored 29 of those) and then found the perfect partner in Rahul Dravid. Chopra added 72 with Dravid before hitting one back to Daniel Vettori: he had scored a 116-ball 42 with 4 fours.

He lost Sehwag early in the second innings too, but once again he helped Dravid put on 77 for the second wicket before holing out to Scott Styris off Vettori. He had scored 31 in 72 balls with 2 boundaries. New Zealand, however, managed to save the Test.

New Zealand virtually saved the series with 630 for 6 at Mohali. India, firm favourites going into the series, now had to battle to save it. Chopra reached his first Test fifty in 119 balls with 6 fours and eventually fell for a 148-ball 60. He had helped Sehwag add 164 for the first wicket.

India collapsed despite Sehwag and Laxman’s hundreds and had to follow-on being 206 runs behind. Daryl Tuffey hit India hard with his first spell, removing Sehwag, Dravid, and Tendulkar with only 18 runs on the board. India still had to bat out three-and-a-half hours when Laxman joined Chopra.

The pair displayed supreme determination and grit as they saw off Tuffey’s first spell and then smothered the spin of Vettori and Paul Wiseman for hours. When Chopra eventually fell for a 160-ball 52 with 8 boundaries with a shade over half-an-hour left the Test had been saved. The twin fifties got Chopra a slot for the Australia tour.

Shining Down Under

The 2003-04 sojourn is possibly India’s greatest tour of Australia. The tourists did not have to contend with Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne, but Australia at home were always a formidable opposition to deal with. Australia still had the likes of Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee, Andrew Bichel, and Stuart MacGill.

India had several big partnerships on that tour, which were crucial for the big scores they managed to build. Laxman, Dravid, Tendulkar, Sehwag, and Ganguly all managed to get big hundreds; Chopra did not score a fifty, but his role was as crucial as anyone else’s.

He played the unglamorous role in a line-up of big names; he took the shine off the ball so that the big guns could come and play freely. Along with Sehwag, he formed an opening partnership that helped lay the foundation for India on more occasions than one. Once he saw off the new ball, he was not hesitant to play his strokes either.

Suitably warmed up with a 55 not out against Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Chopra played a crucial innings in the first Test at The Gabba. After Australia collapsed from 268 for 2 to 323, Sehwag and Chopra added 61 in no time before the former fell for 45. Gillespie picked up Dravid and Tendulkar in the space of 4 balls and suddenly India were 62 for 3.

Ganguly walked out; though he was the more settled of the two, Chopra was still reluctant to play his strokes, and was only too happy to keep out Gillespie, Bichel, and Nathan Bracken. They added 65 runs, the follow-on was saved, and Chopra’s 145-ball vigil of 36 ended as he edged one off Gillespie to Matthew Hayden.

He missed out in the second innings, caught by Langer off Bracken for 4. It was his sixth innings, and the first time in his Test career that he had scored anything below 30. The Test petered out to a draw.

After Australia scored 556 at Adelaide in the second Test, Sehwag and Chopra got India off to a brilliant start once again, adding 66 for the opening stand before Chopra hit one back to Bichel off his own bowling for a 44-ball 27. During India’s historic run-chase of 230 in the fourth innings, Chopra once again saw the new ball, scoring a 54-ball 20 and adding 48 with Sehwag.

The openers added 141 at MCG before Chopra fell for a 138-ball 48. However, India collapsed inexplicably from 278 for 1 to 366, before Australia acquired a 192-run lead. The Indian openers failed in the second essay (Chopra got 4 and Sehwag 11) and Australia romped home by 9 wickets.

At the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) the pair was it again: they added 123 before Sehwag got out for 72, and Chopra followed immediately afterwards for a 139-ball 48. With the opening stand back to its prime, India amassed 705 for 7 and almost managed to win the Test and the series.

Chopra finished the series with 186 runs at 23.25; the number may not sound interesting, but the crucial factor was that he had faced 539 balls in those 8 innings at a shade over 67 balls per dismissal. The opening stand amassed 459 in 8 outings at 57.38 — a performance India had definitely lacked overseas.

In the process, Sehwag and Chopra became the most prolific opening partnership for India in an away series, and still continue to remain so. They went past Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan’s 453 on the England tour of 1979. They also hold the highest series average for any Indian opening pair that had 8 stands in an away series.

David Frith was impressed: “With great mental strength he cocooned himself exactly as Geoff Boycott or Sunil Gavaskar might have done.” He added: “It is preposterous to suggest that the Sehwag-Chopra partnership rates (as yet) anywhere near the likes of Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Greenidge and Haynes, Simpson and Lawry, and other pairings. But taken on recent evidence, their potential is quite apparent.”

Aakash Chopra drives past Michael Hussey on the 2003-04 tour © Getty Images
Aakash Chopra drives past Michael Hussey on the 2003-04 tour © Getty Images

Dropped in Pakistan

India had never won a Test — let alone a series — in Pakistan, and they were determined to change that. They received a jolt when Ganguly was declared unfit for the first 2 Tests and was replaced by Yuvraj: the injury would go on to hurt Chopra more than anyone else.

India took the field under Dravid, and Chopra and Sehwag kept out Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami on a Multan pitch, scoring at 4 an over. Chopra eventually fell for a 121-ball 42 with 5 fours: the pair had added 160 in 39.4 overs and the foundation was laid.

Sehwag scored 309 and Dravid declared with Tendulkar on 194, but more importantly, Yuvraj went on to score a brilliant 66-ball 59 with 8 fours. India won the Test by an innings.

Chopra failed in the second Test at Lahore, scoring 4 and 5; Yuvraj, on the other hand, top-scored in the first innings with a dazzling 129-ball 112 (nobody else got to fifty) against a rampant Umar Gul on debut. Pakistan levelled the series with an easy 9-wicket victory.

Ganguly came back for the third Test at Rawalpindi. Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, and Laxman were certainties, and Yuvraj could not be dropped after his spectacular performances. The axe fell on poor Chopra and Parthiv Patel was made to open. India won by an innings.

A baffled Chopra later wrote: “The job that I had been entrusted with in Australia — seeing off the new ball and making sure the middle order wasn’t exposed to it, and runs be damned — suddenly became sur proof that I couldn’t score. The people who had told me not to worry about the runs, just do the job I had been roped in for, disappeared into the fissures that abound in that constantly changing entity called the Great Indian Cricketing Opinion.”

Disappointment against Australia

India were once again caught in the Chopra-Yuvraj dilemma when Australia toured India. Just before the first Test at Bangalore, however, Tendulkar was declared unfit, and both men played. Chopra scored 0 and 5 and Australia won by plenty. He was dropped at Chennai and Yuvraj opened in the Test.

In the third Test at Nagpur, he got another opportunity when Ganguly declared himself unfit at the last moment. Chopra failed again, scoring 9 and 1, which meant that his last 6 innings had amounted to 24 runs. He was replaced for the final Test at Mumbai by his Delhi teammate Gautam Gambhir, and has not played a Test ever since.

Return to domestic cricket

That season (2004-05) was not a great one for Chopra, and neither was the subsequent one. In 2006-07, however, he regained his form: he scored 188 in the first innings for North Zone against Sri Lanka A at Kolkata, and when they had to chase down 87, Chopra led the way with a 67-ball 51 not out with 9 boundaries.

Two matches later, Chopra scored 150 and 68 not out against Uttar Pradesh at home; suddenly he was back in form. He ended the series with 650 runs at 50.00. Selected to play for MCC against Sri Lanka A at Arundel in 2007, Chopra scored 106 where nobody else made a fifty.

Then the floodgates opened. In his next match for South Africa A at Delhi, Chopra scored 239 not out, adding an unbroken 410 with Manoj Tiwary. The bowling attack comprised of Charl Langeveldt and Rory Kleinveldt. India A won by an innings and plenty.

There was no stopping Chopra after that: batting at 3 (below Gambhir and Sehwag and above Shikhar Dhawan — all India openers) he scored 215 against Himachal Pradesh at Dharamsala. In the Ranji Trophy final that year at Mumbai, he set the tone in the first innings by scoring 106 and lifting Delhi from 36 for 4 to 290; he also scored 33 in the second innings and Delhi clinched the title for the first time in 16 years.

Later in the season he scored 205 not out against East Zone at Rajkot. He finished the season with a phenomenal 1,339 runs at 60.86. That was, however, not all: the Vijay Hazare Trophy saw him in a different avatar. Chopra slammed an 89-ball 101 not out against Jammu and Kashmir, a 140-ball 130 not out against Punjab, and a 93-ball 101 not out against Services, all at home. His performances in limited-overs cricket earned him an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract with Kolkata Knight Riders.

There was a distinct change in his approach towards batting as well. The ubiquitous grafter had finally given way to a prolific strokeplayer; he was now batting with a new flair and was always on the lookout for runs. As a result his strike rate improved, and he now became a force to reckon with even in the shorter versions.

During this phase Chopra was batting as well anyone else in the country. Despite his superlative performances, however, he did not earn a recall to the national side. He was shortlisted among the 24 probable names for the Australia tour but was eventually left out of the squad despite Gambhir’s injury: an out-of-form Sehwag was included in the squad, almost as a wild-card entry.

He still managed to take it in his stride: “If I play for India again, it [the decision to leave him out] will be forgotten as an unfortunate incident which just delayed my comeback. And if I don’t play for India again, it will be forgotten as if it never happened. For players like me there aren’t too many comebacks.”

Chopra refused to give up and began the season with 182 in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy against Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited at Delhi. He was named the captain of Delhi that season; he celebrated the occasion with a 121-ball 76 against Punjab at home.

The obligatory big innings came against Rajasthan in Jaipur: after the hosts scored 295 the Delhi captain outscored Dhawan heavily in a 280-run opening partnership and then added 136 more with Virat Kohli. He eventually fell for a hard-hitting 324-ball 210 with 20 fours and a six.

He finished the season with 789 runs at 49.31 with 2 hundreds. However, KKR decided to send back Chopra and Sanjay Bangar — both capable of handling fast bowling in difficult conditions — from the IPL that took place in South Africa. Kolkata came last in that year’s IPL.

Stint with Rajasthan

After a career with Delhi that lasted for over a decade, Chopra moved to Rajasthan — a team that had never won the Ranji Trophy and were languishing in the Plate League — in 2010-11. It was an inexperienced side without a lot of taste of success, and Chopra, along with the captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar, were expected to play key roles.

Rajasthan gave Hyderabad a jolt in their opening match at Jaipur. The 18-year old Deepak Chahar picked up 8 for 10 to rout Hyderabad for 21 (nobody crossed 6). Chopra made 65 and Kanitkar scored 193 and Rajasthan won by an innings. He got 107 against Jharkhand at Udaipur soon afterwards.

He reached his epoch in the next match at Nasik: the Maharashtra bowlers kept on denting at the Rajasthan line-up. Robin Bist (80) was the only other batsman who scored a fifty. Chopra scored an unbeaten 301 in 582 balls with 36 fours and 3 sixes and he was still unbeaten on the third morning when Kanitkar finally declared.

The 812-minute marathon remained Chopra’s highest score. It also beat Rusi Surti’s 246 not out by a mile and still remains the highest score by any Rajasthan batsman. Maharashtra could not recover from the innings and surrendered meekly.

Rajasthan’s dream run continued as they went past Mumbai in the quarterfinal: Raj Singh Dungarpur, the man who had been on the receiving side on many a defeat against Bombay in his heydays, had passed away the year before; nobody would probably have been happier at the result.

The semi-final was against Tamil Nadu at Jaipur. The tourists had a formidable team and the hosts needed to score big. Chopra top-scored with 139, Kanitkar and Ashok Menaria also scored hundreds as Rajasthan won in a canter.

The fairytale culminated in a well-deserved win over Baroda at Vadodara. Rajasthan became the first side from the Plate Group to lift the Ranji Trophy. It was also their first title. Chopra had scored 734 runs at 73.40 in the tournament with 3 hundreds, finishing only behind Subramaniam Badrinath and Kanitkar. He also scored the only triple-hundred of the tournament.

Rajasthan were promoted to the Elite Group as a result. The matches got tougher, but Chopra continued to deliver: he scored 135 not out against Uttar Pradesh after Rajasthan followed-on at Jaipur. His 142 played a crucial role in obtaining that all-important first-innings lead against Hyderabad at Uppal.

Against all odds Rajasthan made it to the final yet again. At Chennai, the Rajasthan innings revolved round Vineet Saxena’s epic 257. Chopra too played his part, scoring 94 and helping add 236 for the first wicket. Rajasthan got 621; Tamil Nadu never recovered from the early blows and lost the final.

After failing to win the trophy since its inception, Rajasthan had managed to clinch the title in consecutive seasons. Chopra scored 615 runs at 43.92 and came second only to Bist and Saxena (who were also the top two run-scorers in the tournament) in the Rajasthan batting chart.

The final move

After two fairytale seasons with Rajasthan, Chopra decided to move to Himachal Pradesh in the Plate League. The season, however, saw a significant slump in Chopra’s form: in 8 matches he scored 295 runs at 24.75 with 4 fifties. 

Beyond the boundary

Even when he was a player in contention for the Indian side, Chopra had emerged as a very successful cricket columnist. He has also acted as a guest expert during IPL matches.

Chopra ranks as the finest cricket author among all Indian Test cricketers by a significant distance. His two season diaries — Beyond the Blues: A First-Class Season Like No Other (arguably the best book penned by an Indian Test cricketer) and Out of the Blue: Rajasthan’s Road to the Ranji Trophy are among the best cricket books by an Indian. The books not only contain deep insights into the murky labyrinth of Indian cricket, but it also serves as a source of inspiration for aspiring cricketers.

The man

Chopra’s tale is not about a flamboyant genius. It is the saga of the grafter who never had the run he deserved at the highest level. It is not about instant success: it is about the difficult journey. It is not about glitz and glamour: it is about the dedication and discipline of a man despite the injustice being dished out to him.

They do not make many like him anymore. When we take up the bat or the ball at a very young age we do it for fun; the ambition, the ruthlessness, the money — they all make us forget the reason why we had taken to the greatest sport of all. The joy is lost from the game.

Success is an important parameter for anybody; of course it is about successful; but more importantly, it is about loving the sport and giving back to it irrespective of what you get out of it. It is about the innocent love and passion for the game. It is about the sheer joy of watching those men in whites and that orb of leather and that wand of willow on a lush green field. Of course it is about the team you represent; but more importantly it is about the role you play in that team.

There have been better cricketers. In these days when the sport gets defined more and more by money and instant action, however, few people have epitomised the playing cricket for sheer joy under the most atrocious of conditions for years better than Aakash Chopra.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)