What they said

‘We cried the day the team was announced’

Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist and author
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In conversation with Shabnam Singh, Sanath Jayasuriya, R Ashwin and Ajinkya Rahane
Open T20 World Cup conversations - I

The next edition of the T20 world cup gets underway in Sri Lanka on 18 September. Reigning champions India begin their campaign with a warm-up game against Sri Lanka on the 15th. Starting with this issue, Open will feature a series of conversations with the players, team managers, coaches and support staff and occasionally people removed from the action but with high stakes in it. People like Yuvraj Singh’s mother, SHABNAM SINGH.

For this, the inaugural series of the OPEN WORLD CUP CONVERSATIONS, BORIA MAJUMDAR caught up with RAVICHANDRAN ASHWIN, the new mainstay of India’s slow bowling; AJINKYA RAHANE, who was perhaps unlucky to have missed out; SANATH JAYASURIYA, who redefined top-order batting in the shorter formats of the game, and Shabnam Singh, who will be delighted and anxious at the same time as Yuvraj steps on the field for his first international match after his battle with cancer

‘We cried the day the team was announced’

Q Shabnamji, Yuvi was undergoing chemotherapy in the US in February 2012 and he is now playing the world cup. Has it sunk in?

Shabnam Singh: I was always confident Yuvi would make a comeback. Doctors in the US had told him he would be completely cured and could resume playing cricket. In fact, they had suggested he could start playing from April itself—within six weeks of the last chemo—so it is no surprise for me to see Yuvi back in the Indian team.

Q How did it feel when his name was announced as part of the world cup squad?

SS: It was one of the best days of our lives. We cried together and just tried to come to terms with the realisation that Yuvi could once again do what he loves most—playing for India. That’s the only thing he has done in his life, the only thing that inspires him. He wants to play for the country and we are grateful to God that he has once again been given an opportunity to do so.

Q Some won’t remember that Yuvi has won India three world cups. In each of these, his best performances have come against Australia. He played brilliantly in his first, the U19 world cup in 2000; then in the inaugural T20 world cup, his 70 against Australia won India the match; and at Ahmedabad last year, he played the best innings of his cup campaign in the quarter-final against Australia. This is his fourth world cup. Are you anxious?

SS: Good you say these things. It proves Yuvi has already left a mark on India’s cricket history and explains the love he has received over the past few months. He has always done well for India on the world stage and I can guarantee he will give his best. I think we should all celebrate his comeback and leave him alone. Let’s not put him under pressure by asking if he will perform to potential or not. Just let him be.

Q You lived his cancer with him. Did you ever cry when you saw him suffer?

SS: No, I didn’t. I knew the drugs would make him cry but also knew the pain is for his betterment. He had to live the pain to recover and regain a normal life and I had to be with him through the pain. It was important I do not cry and give him all the support I could, and that’s what I have done. But we both cried the day the world cup team was announced.

Q At one level, it doesn’t even matter how he plays… that he has returned to the game is already an inspiration to many, don’t you think?

SS: Yes, it is. It is proof that you can fight a disease and you can win the fight. It shows you shouldn’t ever give up hope, and I am proud Yuvi has done that and can now be an example to many ailing people. I wish them all the best and want to tell them that if Yuvi could, they can too.

‘Most matches will be 15 overs or 12… played on tired pitches’

Q Sanath, you know the conditions so well. Who are you backing this time?

Sanath Jayasuriya: Sri Lanka and India. Both these teams have a great chance of winning the competition. Sri Lanka have home advantage and know the conditions the best. They also have a well-rounded T20 team. Malinga will continue to be a factor and at the top of the order they have some quality players. India is also a very balanced side. They have played in Sri Lanka a month earlier and are accustomed to the conditions. Pakistan has an outside chance and is always a good T20 side. Teams like England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa might struggle in these conditions where the ball will turn, the pitches will be slow and most games will be rain affected. I might have picked the West Indies as having an outside chance but they aren’t consistent enough to have a real crack at the trophy.

Q Name the players you think will dominate the tournament. It was Yuvraj in 2007 and Afridi in 2009.

SJ: Kohli and Raina for India, Malinga for Sri Lanka, Ajmal for Pakistan. Kohli has emerged as the new star in the last one year and is in terrific form. Raina is always a very good player in the shorter format and with Dhoni they make a really good Indian middle order. If Yuvraj plays to potential, it is a lethal batting combination. Malinga on the other hand continues to be the best T20 bowler in the world. His ability to bowl at the death is a rare talent and the Sri Lankans will bank on Malinga both to pick up wickets and check the run flow. Then, Ajmal… he bowled beautifully for Pakistan recently against Australia. He is in great form and his confidence is at an all-time high. With the pitches suiting him, he might well be Pakistan’s trump card.

Q You have often emphasised conditions. Will you elaborate?

SJ: Look, most of the matches will be rain curtailed. I think a number of matches will be reduced to 15 overs or even 12 overs a side. In these circumstances, you need a team that will adapt well. The pitches that will be used are tired pitches; the Sri Lanka Premier League has just been played on them and this will be a huge factor. Also, there has been a lot of rain of late and the weather will play a big part in the competition. Playing in Sri Lanka is not easy and that is why I have named Sri Lanka and India the two favourites. Teams that assess the conditions best and cope with the rain-affected scenarios the best will have the best chance of doing well.

Q Do you think the crowds will get behind the tournament more because it comes straight after the Sri Lanka Premier League?

SJ: I think they will. A world cup is a totally different platform and is the ultimate prize in cricket. I am confident the crowds will back the tournament.

‘Playing for India doesn’t come easy’

Q You are really unlucky to not make it to Sri Lanka. Do you feel hard done by?

Ajinkya Rahane: Selection is not in my control. I just need to keep scoring runs. I don’t ever think about selection. If I keep working hard and keep scoring runs, I am convinced my opportunity will come. Playing for the country is the greatest honour and I would have loved to be there for the world cup, but I just need to keep doing what I do and I’m sure I will get my break.

Q All that is good to say, but isn’t it hard to come to terms with?

AR: If I say it is hard, I am not doing myself any good. Turning negative is no good. I just need to go back to the NCA, where I will be for some time now, and then get back to playing domestic cricket. The more I play, the more runs I score, the more match-ready I will be. There is a long cricket season ahead and I just need to keep doing the basics right and wait for my opportunity.

Q You were part of the team to Sri Lanka a month or so earlier. Do you think the Indians are ready for the conditions?

AR: Absolutely. We had a good tour of Sri Lanka and had a good look at the conditions. We have a really good T20 team and I am sure we have a great chance of doing well in the tournament. I can tell you that if you keep doing the basics right, you just need minimal fine-tuning to adapt to the changed conditions.

Q You trained with Yuvi at the NCA. Just talk me through what it was like training with him and seeing him make this comeback.

AR: Yes, I trained with him and used to talk to him a lot. It was amazing to see him work so hard and focus on making it back again. He used to tell me what he had been through, and then to see what he was doing was hugely inspirational. Seeing him train was extremely motivating… to think what he has been through, you feel anything is possible. He has become a great role model for sportspersons around the world and I really wish him all the best.

Q You were part of the team to Australia but you did not get an opportunity to play. You were there in the ODI and T20 squads for Sri Lanka, but now you aren’t. How hard is it to keep motivating yourself?

AR: It is not hard. Playing for India doesn’t come easy and to play for the country I am willing to go any distance. I am working on my game, to make sure I am ready when the time comes.  I have even spoken to Sachin paji and Rahul bhai, who have both asked me to keep it simple and work on my basics. I will play as many domestic matches as I can and watch my team do well in Sri Lanka. Results will surely happen.

Q That’s a fantastic attitude, I must say. You were initially branded a Test player. Then came the revelation of your performance in England in the T20 match last year. You followed up with a superb IPL. What changes did you bring to your game?

AR: Absolutely nothing. If your foundation is strong and your basics are in place, it is easy to mould yourself for different formats. I don’t find it difficult playing the Ranji Trophy or IPL. I am a professional cricketer and need to be ready for different challenges. If I can keep my basics right, I’m sure I will soon be fulfilling my dream of playing a Test for India.

‘No favourites… every team has now played a lot of T20’

Q You are the new mainstay of India’s spin bowling. Pressure with added responsibility?

R Ashwin: Pressure isn’t a bad thing, you know. I keep telling friends and family that pressure does good things to me. The extra responsibility and the extra pressure helps me perform better, gives me a kick and that extra edge. Whatever match I’ve played in—at school, in college or at the international level—I’ve always wanted to be the best player. I know it is not always possible, but that will never stop me from trying.

Q You won the Man of the Series award against New Zealand. It was an important series because we needed to start the season well after the poor away series in Australia at the start of the year. What have you learnt from the disastrous tour of Australia?

RA: I learnt a great deal on the Australia tour. Let’s say I was 60 per cent a finished cricketer before I went to Australia, I came back 80 per cent.

Q We had a good tour of Sri Lanka and many think we are the favourites. We won the inaugural T20 world cup in 2007 and the last world cup played in the Subcontinent in 2011. Do you think we have a good chance because we are used to the conditions?

RA: The inaugural T20 world cup was different. Many teams hadn’t played T20 then and were still trying to come to terms with the format. Now, every team has played a lot of T20, at the international level, the IPL, Big Bash, SLPL, BPL etc. People have now mastered the format. For me, there are no favourites; it’s all about performing on the day. Having said that, we are confident of doing well.

Q Sanath Jayasuriya tells me a number of matches might be rain curtailed. How will you adapt?

RA: T20 games are extremely difficult for a bowler, as is. If the matches are reduced, the challenge is even greater. But we can’t predict the weather or the severity of the challenge. We should just be ready for every challenge and do our best in every situation.

Q You will have Yuvraj in the side in Sri Lanka. Does that help the team in any way? His fight is a great example for everyone, isn’t it?

RA: Yes, indeed. Yuvi was my captain in my first Challenger Trophy. He hadn’t seen me and did not know me before the tournament. However, once we were introduced, the support I got from him was amazing. I had a very good tournament and he was behind me at all times. To see him train the way he has and to make it back in such a short time is fantastic. I just hope we have a really good world cup… if we do, it will be good for him too.

Q In the washed-out T20 game at Vizag, emotions ran high over Yuvi. Were you surprised?

RA: Without these passionate fans, cricket wouldn’t be the sport it is in India. The crowd support on our way to the ground in Vizag was unbelievable. They had lined up on both sides of the road. We are lucky to be at the receiving end of such adulation, but we must always remember our duty by our fans. I am deeply touched by the support we get; it’s the best thing for a cricketer.