Betting Big

Hari Zol brought up his sons as athletes. One of them, Vijay, has given up school and is ready for top-level Indian cricket
SPOTLIGHT
EARLY LEAD Vijay Zol, the captain of India’s U-19 team (Photo: PAVAN KHEGRE/EXPRESS ARCHIVES)
ELEGANT TWIST Vijay is not a born southpaw; his father turned him into one (Photo: IAN HITCHCOCK-ICC/GETTY IMAGES)

Rain has mellowed the harshness of summer in Jalna. It’s an overcast afternoon. The weather is usually around 45º celsius in this drought-hit region. On this day, it is below 25º. Jalna is suddenly looking habitable. We are at Sahyog Nagar on Ambad Road, an area dotted with private bungalows. Most of Jalna’s nouveau-riche live here. Soon, we hear the thud of cricket ball against bat. The sound seems to come from an ivory-coloured bungalow named Vijay. The bungalow belongs to Hari Zol. His son, Vijay Zol, India’s under-19 captain, an under-19 World Cup winner and who recently scored a double hundred on his Ranji debut, is knocking away on a concrete pitch in the middle of the bungalow’s manicured lawn.

The bowlers are not in whites. They seem more like friends than bowlers. But the practice doesn’t lack in intensity. The boys are in jeans or track pants, but all of them wear half-spike half-rubber studs. And they release the ball from a distance of 17 yards instead of the customary 22. Hari Zol, Vijay’s elder brother Vikram and coach Raju Kane sit on plastic chairs closely following Vijay’s practice.

Why a concrete wicket at home? “Viju does not get to face quality seamers in Jalna. I’ve made this cement pitch so that he gets batting practice from a shorter distance of 15 to 17 yards,” says Hari Zol, also Vijay’s mentor.

There’s something about the left-handed Vijay.

He has a natural feel of the ball. The crunching drives, meaty pulls and the occasional bunt produce a sonic ‘tok’ sound that echoes around the neighbourhood. Vijay is not a born southpaw; his father turned him into one. “David Gower was my idol. Not just him, all lefties look so elegant—Sourav Ganguly, Brian Lara, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina…,” says Hari Zol, who is a top criminal lawyer in Jalna. His analysis of cricket is as incisive as his famed legal acumen.

Vijay visits Jalna for breathers. He was there after leading India’s U-19 team to a 2-0 win over Sri Lanka U-19 in three-day games. He is there now, after his impressive Ranji debut against Tripura. His kit remains packed, as he rarely stays home long. He usually leaves in three or four days for some cricket engagement or an other. Vijay was in some form in Sri Lanka: 467 runs in five matches with two tons. In the Ranji Trophy, Vijay made a mature unbeaten double century against Tripura in Pune. In addition, he is the captain of India’s U-19 team.

As Vijay’s friends mill around at home and Hari Zol vets invitations for felicitations, Kane, who has been training Vijay since he was five, speaks about his ward’s move to captaincy. “Forget state or junior cricket, he never led a team even at the club level. [But] he had the latent qualities to be a leader. He’s analytical, amiable and courageous. So managing players came naturally to him.” Vijay himself didn’t find the switch to captaincy difficult. “I spoke to my teammates about who we are and why we are playing for India. I grasped everyone’s strengths and utilised them in real match scenarios. The point is, you are respected when you perform yourself,” says Vijay, who entertains his clutch of friends by showing them video grabs of his recent hundreds against Sri Lanka on his laptop. He reached one of those tons with a six.

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Senior Zol exposed both his sons, Vikram and Vijay, to various sports at an early age: cricket, karate, table tennis, athletics, swimming and horse riding. The last of these may seem an anomaly, but it runs in the family. Since his childhood, Vijay has been trained to push his body. And it showed in every sport he played. Be it swimming, boxing, table tennis or running, he would bring home the winner’s trophy. Their wall cabinet cannot lie—crowded as it is by an assortment of 40 odd trophies.

Every sport contributed to his development as a cricketer. “Karate gave strength to my arms, table tennis improved by hand-eye coordination and swimming kept me fit,” Vijay says. “Winning is all that matters to him,” says his brother Vikram, “It’s in his name, Vijay, which means ‘victory’. He would shut himself from everything if he lost a match and wouldn’t talk until he started winning again.” When a 14-year-old Vikram defeated a 9-year-old Vijay in an intra-district table tennis final once, Vikram graciously conceded the trophy as his brother broke down.

The senior Zol’s slight frame, dense beard and spectacles complete the brooding picture of a lawyer who chooses words carefully. The registration number of his Toyota Innova, 302, is a giveaway of his passion for law; Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code covers murder. Zol slips between cricket and law with ease. Cricket gives him a break from sifting through his stack of client files. And he loves talking cricket, speaking of ‘backlift’, ‘balanced stance’, ‘still head’, ‘trigger movement’, ‘back and across’, ‘bat swing’ and other such nuances of the game when he is not making notes for the next day’s hearing in court.

The Zol household is a mix of conviviality and regimentation. Vijay’s friends are often welcomed with home-cooked food such as jhunka bhakar and puran poli. The practices and values of Maharashtrian culture are evident. But discipline is non-negotiable. Hari Zol set the house rules many years ago. It’s ‘goodnight’ by 9.30 pm and ‘good morning’ at 5.30 am. Only home food is permitted.

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Vijay could possibly have played any sport, but chose cricket. He met Coach Kane at a huge barren Railway ground, the only playable area in the district—one that has a decent wicket, and that too, a matted one. “He had a solid defensive technique, and to add to that, he was aggressive,” says Kane, who, besides being Maharashtra’s junior selector, has been running Kane Cricket Academy at the Railway ground for over 25 years. “Balanced stance, head steady and minimal backlift, he would generate power from a strong forearm,” he says, “Just watch his short-arm jab, which is a quick whip at the point of contact.”

Most of the posters in Vijay’s bedroom are of lefties, with Brian Lara, Michael Hussey, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina his favourites. His own rise in junior cricket, though, has been Bradmanesque: Vijay scored 860 runs in eight U-16 matches for Maharashtra and 1,607 in nine U-19 games for the state. Even the story of how he got into the spotlight is strikingly similar to that of the great Australian. Donald Bradman was a scorer for the Bowral team, which was captained by his uncle George Whatman. Once, they happened to be a player short. Whatman pencilled Bradman in and he responded with scores of 34 not out and 29 not out. Something similar happened in a nondescript corner of Jalna. Deepak Mehtre, former U-17 captain of Maharashtra, recalls, “Viju would sit quietly and watch us play. He may have been around 12 then and we were all above 20. One day, we were a player short. We asked him, he agreed to open the innings and top scored with 40.” Oblivious of the Bradman story, Deepak says, “Viju will play for India one day”.

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Like many other batsmen starting out, Vijay suffered the ‘get out in the 30s and 40s syndrome’. “He started off in the middle-order,” says Kane, “we made him open as he played positively and dominated the attack. He would fritter away starts. But constant self-talk helped him get over the habit and he was back to scoring big again.” Vijay says, “I knew I had all the shots, so I limited myself to playing in the ‘V’, dropped the hook and started watching the ball more closely.”

Having unlocked that mental barrier, he hit a mammoth unbeaten 451 against Assam in the under-19 Cooch Behar trophy in December 2011.

While most in their ninth grade are not sure where life will take them, Vijay had found his calling in cricket. One day, he dropped a bombshell at home. “I will pursue cricket, no studies,” he told his folks. Hari Zol took a day to come to terms with the decision. Vijay’s mother, Chanda, took longer. “My mother is my everything,” says Vijay, “She chaperoned me to school every day, attended parents’ meets, arranged tuitions. My father has never been to my school. When I decided to quit studies, she was concerned about the risks involved. But slowly, she came around.”

Hari Zol backed Vijay’s decision. No more studies. He would have to give himself completely to the sport. Vijay dropped out of school after his class nine exam. “I have no regrets,” Hari Zol says unapologetically. “Conventional education offers you a mere degree, but the lessons of life can be learnt without one… My father was a wrestler, but I didn’t play any sport. At least I made sure that both my sons took up cricket. If not in cricket, I am sure Vijay will do well otherwise in life, be it in business, politics or whatever he chooses.”

Vijay seems in agreement with his father: “I may have stopped pursuing my studies, but I am still learning about another subject, which is no less [a pursuit]. Cricket is my qualification.”

Hari Zol denies being a tyrannical cricket father in the Yograj Singh mould. “I had faith in his ability, I have only told him about life, karma, philosophies, relating them with cricket, not much on the technicalities of the game. I have left that to Kane Sir. I haven’t watched him play matches yet, because I don’t want to put pressure on him. But I follow his progress. I ask him what shots he played, how he got out, etcetera. He speaks to me before he leaves for his matches.” Whatever destiny has to offer his son, he adds, he would accept.

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During IPL 2011, Vijay had his first brush with cricket’s A-listers. The starry-eyed youngster had a chance meeting with Virat Kohli, Virender Sehwag and AB De Villiers when he was part of the Royal Challengers Bangalore’s development squad. De Villiers gave him some friendly advice : “Don’t try to be like me or Virat, try not to be somebody else, you are good enough, so you have come this far. Your strength is your identity.”

Identity. The word has different connotations in India. Cricketers from the country’s backwaters have to toil doubly hard to get noticed. “The lack of facilities here is a motivation for me,” Vijay says. “We know that there will be limited opportunities for us and we will have to grab every chance that comes our way. We can’t afford excuses.”

Ashish Deshmukh, Vijay’s best friend and a medium pacer for Maharashtra, shares a tale. “Once we went to a Ganapati mela in Jalna where a few celebrities, like singers Sukhwinder Singh and Abhijit Sawant, were guests,” he recounts, “We had no passes. When we tried to gatecrash, the guard shooed us away, saying entries were restricted to VIPs. Viju vowed, ‘One day I will be invited here as a VIP’. In 2012, India won the U-19 World Cup. Viju, who was part of the team, was invited as the chief guest of that annual festival.”

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Cricket consumes Vijay, but he finds his own release when he’s not belting the ball. The thrill-seeker in him surfaces and pushes out the otherwise calm Vijay. Like some of his peers, he has a parallel life in the fast lane. He finds speed irresistible. His 600-cc Hyosung bike rumbles through Jalna’s dusty pothole-ridden bylanes. You wonder if the roads do justice to the bike’s power. Still, he has managed a personal best of 160 kmph. It’s natural that Vikram is reluctant to go pillion with him, although Vikram insists that he rides safely.

  At the other end of the spectrum, Vijay enjoys nature. He redeems himself at Devi Dehgaon, a family farmhouse located 70 km from Jalna. The journey there is liberating in itself. We witness the intercropping of Rabi and Kharif crops, shoots of sugarcane bowing to the wind, deer bouncing over green fields, and a wide assortment of fruit—chikoo, custard apple, corn and sweet lime—spread across 70 acres of farmland.

  Vijay and his friends visit the farmhouse regularly for an act of aquatic bonding. Down to their swim trunks, they pledge friendship at a huge well that is 50 feet wide and 80 feet deep. The dive has variations; the minimum splash is from a height of 30 feet.

Other than that, “I come here to relax and do farming, swimming, diving and horse riding,” says Vijay, parting his dishevelled hair. “I supervise crops, milk cows, play with my dogs and spent time with the elders of this village.” Being with nature gives him peace, he says.

  Jalna is famous for its seeds, being home to Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd, apart from steel making units and sweet lime farms. It seems ironic how often it makes the news with reports of droughts and farmer suicides. According to the Maharashtra law and order department, the district reported 435 farmer suicides in 2011. In Vijay, however, Jalna has something rather more uplifting to talk about.