One of India's brightest young talents looks back on what he regards as the key formative experience of his career, how he got his act together, and the West Indies tour.
How has the experience with the longer format been so far?
It's been a great learning experience for me. I didn't see any Test matches before this with the team. Coming in straight away from the one-dayers and the IPL, there was only a two-day gap, and I had only one practice session with the team, and straightaway into Test cricket. That makes a big difference, because the more you stay in the team - on the sidelines - and the more you see the senior players play and perform in different situations, you get a fair idea of Test cricket.
In a way it is good for me. Because this is not the end of the world for me. I am really happy that I got to learn this way rather than sitting out. I am getting to understand what kind of mindset you need to have in Test cricket.
Plenty of people are surprised that you haven't started too well in Test cricket.
When I came in as a youngster, initially when I started to play one-dayers I didn't think that I had to make such an image where people are always expecting me to score runs whenever I come out to bat. My only aim was to go out there, play every match and try to do the best I can. It is still the same. People's reactions change with time, because they expect a lot from you, and when you don't do well they get disappointed, and they'll say all sorts of things. And that is because they want you to do well. That is because they see that you can be a future batsman for India.
It is disappointing from a player's perspective as well, but it is part of everyone's career. It happens. This kind of phase happened to me in Dambulla last year, where in seven innings I didn't score many runs. I was still preparing very well, batting well in the nets, leaving balls outside the off stump really well, but in the match I would get out fishing outside off. It is frustrating when you prepare well and you don't score runs.
From that phase, I learnt not to be hard to be on myself. I know that runs are going to come if I keep working hard. You just can't score in every innings or every series. It's all about being focused, it's about doing the same things you do and not being too desperate to perform and putting yourself under pressure. If you are doing well over a period of time, even one (poor) innings makes you feel bad. This kind of phase is good for me.
Were you surprised with the problems you had with the short ball in the Test series? You haven't shown a weakness against it in one-day cricket.
If in one innings you get out to a short ball, people start thinking that you can't play it well. I don't think in the last year of international cricket I have been bounced out in any one-day match. If some bowler is bowling quick, over 90mph, then even the best batsmen can be troubled by a good spell. International cricket is all about being tested. It is about taking it in a positive way. The bowler is also a pedigreed one, and he can bowl a good short-pitched spell and get the better of you. (Fidel Edwards) was bowling really well. The odd ball you tend to misjudge. But you can see that happening to the best of batsmen as well. You don't get every short ball to hit; they leave a lot, while you might get a top edge and get a boundary. I am not worried about playing the short ball, because I know I have a very good mindset when I go out to bat.
Did the fact that you were playing Test cricket inhibit you against the short-ball?
You can say that. I wasn't sure of the exact mindset you should have when you go into a Test match. So I probably became too defensive when I played my first Test match. Short balls in one-day cricket, I have never thought of just defending. Once you start thinking about leaving and defending the short ball, that's when you get into trouble. If you are looking to play the short ball and looking to score off it, then you can leave it really well. Which I did in the other two (one-day) games, because my intent was to get runs off it, and I played the short ball really well.
You might get out to a short ball, but that doesn't mean you are weak against it. Every batsman in the world has been dismissed by one. It's all about going into the next game and if he pitches it short again, you try to hit it over the rope and just say to yourself: it was an error of judgement the last time.
You can judge when a batsman is not playing the short ball well: when someone's bowling short to you for a while and even the ball that is pitched up, you go back to it. But that did not happen to me in Jamaica. I was pretty much going forward and defending the balls pitched up to me. It was just a mental shift that I became too defensive in the first game.
Did you think you wasted good opportunities to score in the next two Tests?
I was really disappointed. The way I got out in a couple of innings - caught down the leg side, that really gets to you. But I don't want to be too hard on myself. It's just a matter of things going my way. I know I am batting well. Even in this innings (in Dominica) I got to 30 and was caught down the leg side. One innings can turn things around for you. I'm working really hard for that, but I don't want to be over-desperate.
Having played over 50 ODI games, and already been a World Cup winner, what kind of nerves did you go into your Test debut with?
I spoke to all the seniors in the team. You said that I played over 50 ODIs and won the World Cup, but my aim when I started playing was to play Test cricket. It didn't get bigger than that for me. This was the biggest moment for me. I was nervous, for sure, but I took the confidence of having done well in international cricket with me.
I probably started thinking too much about Test cricket, thinking it's a huge, huge change. Maybe I shouldn't have and should have been more relaxed. But that tends to happen when you are playing your first game, and especially when you go in five minutes before lunch and you edge the first ball you fish at.
I'm looking at the bigger picture. It's not like I wanted to play three Tests and sit at home and think, "Whatever happens happens from here." It's good in a way that I couldn't do well after having a good run for a year and a half. I can go back and work hard on whatever I need to and just come back stronger.
I know people who are happy that you failed here so that you will come back a better player - just like you did in your ODI career after suffering from that bad-boy image to start with. Do you agree with that perception?
As a young player, when you have been doing well consistently for a long period of time, complacency can creep in. I am not saying it has, but you don't even realise when it happens. Small things you start ignoring - like, "I can just miss this practice session today, it's optional." You might have been hitting balls in optional practice sessions for one and a half years before that, but suddenly you decide to give them a miss. I won't say it has happened to me. Because every one-day game that I have played for India, I am always motivated to do well. I bat at No. 3, and my job is to take the team through. That has helped me a long way in getting mature as well. It is right that this kind of thing happened, then you don't get complacent or casual. If I had done well in this series then I would have gone back, even if I wasn't selected for England series, I would have been sitting at home just being relaxed.
You have spoken a lot about the mistakes you made in the past. You are 22. How difficult is it for someone your age to handle the fame?
Lot of people just saw whatever I was doing wrong. No one really considered the fact that I had lost someone really important in my life. It was really difficult for me to concentrate on what was going on. I was only 17 or 18 then, and as a young kid you need your father to be guiding you and motivating you. But I lost him and it was a tragic moment for me and my family.
Rather than give me support, everyone started criticising me for what I was doing wrong rather than making me understand I could do the right thing. And I wasn't getting direct advice from people; I would read about it in the papers or hear on TV. That would disturb me more because I really needed some support. My family was at one side, trying to recover, and they couldn't understand what was going on with me. I was away playing Under-19 tours straightaway. Away from family. The other players obviously cannot spend all their time with you, consoling you, as they have their cricket to play.
It was a very difficult phase for me. It took a lot of time for me to realise, and once I did it was a complete turnaround. I realised that I was going the wrong way, and I needed to rectify whatever was written or said about me, especially because it was being said over a long period of time. At first I didn't accept (that I was doing wrong). Because I had my cricket to play and a personal tragedy to deal with. I did a lot of things I shouldn't have done. Just being totally careless off the field and not conducting myself well. Letting people say things about me.
You spoke about mistakes off the field. But did it ever affect your cricket, the way you trained?
No, not at all. Never at any point did I feel like missing a training session. I was very keen on improving as a cricketer and as an international player. I was very new and didn't know how to take singles in the first series I played. And Gary (Kirsten) and I discussed that initially and he told me how important it was to take singles in international cricket.
I was keen on improving little things that could help me, but as I said, off the field what I was doing wasn't right. If seniors are supporting you that means they want you to be comfortable in the team's atmosphere. As a youngster coming into the team and thinking that you are part of the group that's being nice to you, thinking that I could hang out with them and say anything to them at any point of time was wrong on my part. You need to know your limitations and you need to learn from them. Later on, when you become a regular part of the team, you naturally hang out with them and get to learn a lot. But initially it was wrong on my part for being casual in my relationships with them.
Did your family every pull you up and ask you to sort out your off-field issues?
To a certain extent, I didn't let all those things go to my family. It was a huge tragedy they were dealing with for a long period of time. I didn't want my mother to find out. My brother and my coach knew, so they tried to help me. They kept telling me that something has to be wrong somewhere. But I didn't accept it, my mind was so into what was going on. I didn't let my mom know about all that. I didn't want her to feel bad about one more thing. I had just played for India. At the end of the day, it was my decision to step up and say, "I am going wrong, I need to correct myself and go the right way."
What changes did you make?
I spent twice as much time on the field. I didn't feel like hanging out with friends or going for a party for one and a half years. And never on an evening did I feel like I have had enough of hard work and I need to party, I deserve one night with my friends. For one and a half years straight, I was just spending time working in the gym or in the field, practising. I would come back and lie down, thinking that I should get 10 hours of sleep, I should get proper sleep for my body. I taught myself to think that way - just love each and every minute on the field. And I started to enjoy my batting much more and felt very confident about myself. It was all about cutting out all the other distractions I had and just focusing on cricket full time. My only aim was to get back into the team.
Was there a rock-bottom moment during that phase, where you decided it was time for a change?
I was part of the one-day series against England in late 2008. After that I was left out of the team, and I really didn't understand why. Probably because of my conduct off the field. Then I realised how big an impact it had on the way people saw me. "He's arrogant, a brash kid, and just says anything that comes to his mind." There were selections for the New Zealand tour for one-dayers and I had done well in the first series I played. I was driving home and a reporter told me I was not in the squad. I was in total shock. I stopped the car, and I couldn't believe it. That was when I started thinking, "This is a major issue and I need to look into it."
And I was again not selected for West Indies (2009 ODIs). I had scored about five hundreds in seven games in domestic cricket in one-dayers. At the time I was disappointed, but now I'm really glad that these things happened to me. They never let me relax, never let me lose my focus. If I had been selected on those tours, and not played, I would have been in a different kind of mindset. Not being selected, doing well in domestic cricket - that made me do even better in domestic cricket and India A matches, and that helped me grow as a player, and unknowingly my mindset just changed as a batsman. I wasn't getting selected but I was improving on the sidelines. I didn't realise it at all, because my only aim was to score runs, and I kept improving as I scored. It was a good knock on the head for me, and helped me sort things out at that time.
Who were the people who helped you during that phase?
My brother, my family, my coach - all these people helped me a lot. Whatever I was doing, they motivated me.
It was a personal decision for me to stand and say that cricket is all I have in life, there's nothing I need to do other than cricket. If I want to achieve whatever I thought as a kid, I need to work hard and not let it go to waste. I didn't want people to say that who he was one of those players who had talent and could have played for India.
Was it difficult to get rid of the distractions that you talk about?
It is difficult as a youngster. It was a really strong decision on my part. I could easily still have hung out with my friends, partied and compromised on my training, not getting proper sleep and just being lazy in the practice sessions. It was a hard decision but it paid off in a much bigger and better way. You know, the joy of doing well as a batsman for your country is much more than that little joy of going for a party and enjoying music. It is a completely different high, and I get high by performances. That's what I enjoy now. Every now and then, now that you know what you are doing, it's okay to hang out with friends. Even now if I have to cut off all those things, I will, for six months straight.
Why do you think you couldn't bring your confidence from ODI cricket into your early Test matches?
I should have taken all that confidence into the first Test, and I should have gone in with the same approach, not thinking of this as a big switch and (going) over-defensive like I did, not being myself. I put myself under pressure by my own thinking, not by them bowling too well or the match scenario. As I said, I am a mindset player, so once I put even a little bit of doubt in my mind, whether I should play or leave that ball, I stop feeling comfortable.
I looked at Rahul bhai's (Dravid) innings and I looked at Laxman bhai as well. They have their own strengths. Rahul bhai has such a strong defence and it's bloody difficult to get him out. That's his strength. For me, the best form of defence would be attack. I like playing shots, I am a stroke-player. I probably mixed all those things in my mind (and thought:) these guys play a lot of balls to get whatever score they get, I probably should start doing that. Now I realise that in a Test match you can get 50 runs in 60 balls or 70 balls, or a hundred in 120 balls.
One full over in the evening in Jamaica, Edwards bowled bouncers. The next day you came back and he gave you the same treatment. Didn't you want to change your approach overnight?
In one-day cricket my only aim is to score. When I have that mindset, I can leave bouncers at any speed. I got mixed up; the thinking of being defensive pulled me back. I was still pretty confused about whether I should hook or leave when I went back. My positive intent wanted me to score, but that feeling of having to face 150 balls for my 30-40 runs was pulling me back. That was one mistake I made. Now as I said, I am feeling much more confident. Just like I play in domestic cricket, I play to my strengths, defend well and hit the boundary balls for four. That's my strength. In 100 runs I might have 15 or 16 fours, which is my strength. In Test cricket, probably I have to be slightly more patient and wait for the boundary balls and then put them away.
As a young player, when you are trying to get rid of the distractions in your life, how difficult is it to resist the temptations that are provided to you during the IPL?
I had a point to prove in the IPL. All these distractions and temptations you talk about… you cannot just sit in your room at the end of the match and focus on the next match. It's all about team bonding and enjoying as a team after you win. And being focused all the time. You don't have to get complacent. I wanted to prove a point there. I wanted to prove that I was a good Twenty20 player. That's what really motivated me in this IPL as well. I can play any format of the game. Once you have a set goal in your head, and you want to prove to yourself, I don't think anything can stop you.
You talk about expectations from yourself and the fans. Harbhajan Singh told us that in three years you will be Indian captain. How do you handle that sort of expectation?
Wherever I play and whatever format I play, I want people to say that he deserves his place. I feel much more confident when I have earned my place. That's what motivated me to do really well in the one-dayers, and probably because of that and how well I have done in the last one year, it has changed the thinking of my team-mates towards me - the way they expect performances from me now, and I expect from me too now. You want to establish yourself. You want to be spoken of as someone the opposition needs to get out rather than say that we'll just bowl good areas and get him out.
I really don't think about (captaincy) right now. If people think you are capable at that point of time, they let you know or you tend to get an idea. As a youngster if my team-mates are saying all these things about me, then I feel good. And I take that confidence into my cricket. But I don't think about that captaincy thing at all. Obviously it makes me much more responsible, that they think of me like that. I take that responsibility as a positive into my cricket - to take the team through whenever I go out to bat.
Do you observe Dhoni closely on the field, and try to, in a way, prepare yourself for potential captaincy?
Yeah, I enjoy captaincy and I keep learning on the field from whatever Mahi bhai does. He is a great captain, of course. Sometimes you don't understand his field placements, but it ends up being successful because he has put some thought behind that. I analyse the reason behind him doing that - if the game is going slow, what kind of field he sets, and what he does when we are attacking. He plays with the batsman's mind, and I learn a lot from what he does on the field. I enjoy captaincy. I captained Under-19, IPL and Ranji Trophy as well. I keep thinking of new ways of confusing the batsman, playing with his mind. I am a batsman myself. I know when an opposition captain is trying to play with my mind - like setting a field for a bouncer and getting his bowler to bowl full outside the off stump.
Have you always been a good speaker at press conferences?
I wasn't very good in academics, but I could have been if I could have studied well. I was a smart kid. I obviously didn't have the time, as I was doing Under-19 tours. All my first six Under-19 tours were abroad, so I was always fond of English. I used to love the subject, and I used to love interacting with the teachers and having discussions with them about what was happening in class. Probably I picked it up from there.
I like to talk to people when I go to different countries and learn from them, and build relationships with them. You tend to become more confident if you have a discussion with someone. It's all about starting to be more comfortable with talking to people.
The other day Dhoni was lauding your mimicry and Munaf Patel was telling us about your prowess with scissors while showing off his latest haircut.
When you start doing well and your team-mates start appreciating you, they start accepting you for whatever you do in the dressing room. As a youngster you are really careful and nervous doing stuff around seniors, but once they get comfortable with you, you know when they accept you as someone they look at as a regular in the team. I started feeling that way after the New Zealand series. I started to feel a part of the team, and that was majorly because I was playing No. 3. That made me feel a bigger part of the team. The fact that I am batting at No. 3 in that line-up, it means they trust me and believe in me to take the team through. And they see me as a responsible person, and that gave me a lot of confidence. I always thank Gary and Mahi bhai for giving me that chance at No. 3. It is a big risk, giving a youngster a chance there consistently, because you never know how it's going to pay off.
Did Dhoni say anything to you after the Test series?
He told me during the second Test: "You have one more match, just learn as much as you can from these matches and go home." He said, "The more you learn, the more improved a player you will come back as when you play Tests again." He told me not to get too disappointed or too low with yourself (and do things like) sit alone and not with everyone else. Go home with all the learning and feel good about the taste of Test cricket that you have gotten here. Some people score centuries on debut, some people don't.
Are you someone who plans long-term?
Never. I just take it one match at a time. When you go to play a big series, if you keep thinking, "These are the kind of bowlers I am going to face and I have these many innings to face those spells," that confuses your mind a lot more. Rather than going into every match with a fresh mind and going through with it and moving onto the next one. I don't set future goals for myself - not in life nor in cricket. I just live everything as it comes, and it probably helps me be more relaxed and in a better frame of mind to perform.
For someone with so much pride in his performances, do you have certain goals you want to achieve 10-15 years from now?
One thing I really want to achieve is that people should look at me as a responsible Indian batsman in the future. Or someone who always helped the team through and did well in difficult situations. As a youngster I used to watch all these matches and whenever India used to be in trouble, I used to imagine myself going in there and saving the day. And I feel good even if I think about it in the future. Like in a Test match there is a difficult situation, say 60 for 6, and we are chasing a total and I end up doing it with tailenders. I take a lot of motivation from Laxman bhai, the way he has taken the team from a lot of dire situations to victory.
That happens to me a lot in ODIs. I can remember one match in Port Elizabeth against South Africa. It was 142 for 6 when it started raining, and I was batting on 87. I believed we could win, and Bhajju pa (Harbhajan) came in to bat and I told him that we can win this match, we should just build a partnership. We needed eight and a half-odd runs per over, but I was feeling really confident that if I ended up winning this match for the team, I would have reached that next level. You get that good feeling. It is important to have that match-winning feeling at that time. Not like, it's 80 for 6 and I am the only batsman left, and let me get some runs as the team is not going to win anyway. My thinking is always to take the team through, even if there are only two wickets left.
I know that my attitude towards cricket is right at this point, as far as wanting to do really well is concerned. And I look at the bigger picture always. I don't feel any doubts about my commitment towards my game.
Why are your celebrations full of invective? A lot of people wonder why you can never be happy on the field.
I have learnt that when you achieve something, it's to be happy about. I don't have to be angry. One innings where I scored a century and I was really aggressive was against Australia at Vizag. That game was after that Dambulla patch. I knew I was going to be left out if I didn't score in another two-three games, and people would start criticising me for not being able to play on fast wickets. I was really pumped up and I ended up scoring a hundred. So I couldn't stop myself. After that, whenever I have scored a hundred, I have been happy.
But I discussed it with Gary as well. He told me, "On the field you don't have to change yourself. Because being aggressive is what helps you play your A game and helps you do your best." I do joke around with players in between. But whenever it's a tense situation I am at my best when I'm very aggressive. I don't want to change that. Even when I go out to bat, I love to be in the face of the bowler - that's what helps me be at my best. The bowler must feel that I am here to perform and not just survive. If he's giving something to you, you shouldn't be shy to give it back with the bat, and if it's too much, you should always believe in giving it back (verbally). There is no point getting bogged down by some people thinking they are superior to you and they can just say anything and walk away. Like you know how teams speak with Indian teams on the field. And all the youngsters in the Indian team now like to give it back, and the other team is in shock. And when they get it back, they don't know how to handle it. And that's been one reason for the success of the Indian team, just being in the face of the opposition and being more aggressive than the opposition.
Does your mother ever ask you to keep it cool in the middle?
Yeah, my mom tells me not to swear on the field. And obviously I get really embarrassed whenever she asks me. It's not a good word that comes out. I don't tell her anything; I just ask her to give me food at that point.
Speaking of confidence, when you bowl, your mannerisms are like a great bowler's - the way you react and get disappointed. Did you model your action on Chris Harris?
I didn't do anything about my bowling action. People think my action is so funny, and if I end up bowling a short ball, they will feel I am just having a walk in the park. But when I bowl I take it pretty seriously. In the IPL I always told them, "Give me the ball, I am not going to give more than eight runs an over." I have that feeling that I cannot let the batsmen hit me. I want to improve my bowling so that I can help in ODIs, and maybe in Test cricket too, when the bowlers are tired.
A lot of people say Virat Kohli got his discipline by playing under Anil Kumble.
People said a lot of things. Some people said I changed because of Ray Jennings, some said it was because of playing under Anil bhai, but I just told you what the real deal was. Having all these people around was a great help. One thing (Kumble and I) had in common was being aggressive on the field. That's why we linked up really well. And he didn't mind me being aggressive on the field. He really enjoyed my aggression. It was great fun playing under him. He's a legend of the game and it was obviously an honour playing under him.
Tell us about your inside-out shot.
Oh, it's a very natural shot. I used to love facing left-arm spinners, even in junior cricket. Just loved stepping out and hitting them over covers. It's instinctive. You improvise that against fast bowlers as you grow as a batsman. Initially it was mainly against the spinners. It has always been one of my favourite shots.
And your swat-flick shot.
Junior days, I used to play the flick very nicely. But this shot, I don't know where I developed it from, honestly. It just became my strength. I started playing it well, and started generating a lot of power with it, and started hitting sixes. The bottom hand just started coming into play. Probably because of T20. Before, I used to play the flick in very conventional fashion. Now it's become one of my powerful shots.
What's your favourite shot otherwise?
My cover-drive and on-drive to spinners against the turn.
You said you had to learn to take singles. How does one do that?
Initially I had the impression about international cricket that it was difficult to score boundaries. So I used to wait for the boundary ball and just be like, "Oh, I have to put that away and not concentrate on taking singles." After that, Gary and me had a long talk about it. (About how to) play around with the bowlers' minds as well. Just keep pushing it around, tapping it and running, getting into line and playing it to square leg.
There's one interesting thing that Sachin paaji (Tendulkar) told me in South Africa. It was a match against Pakistan, and I was trying to play everything that Umar Gul bowled towards third man. Not just keeping the bat there - I was trying to guide it with the line. But that wasn't working because he was bowling a middle-stump line and all the balls were going to point, and I wasn't getting any runs. So he told me that on fast pitches you can just keep your bat face and the bat tilted back towards the keeper and the ball will just run down off the face; you don't have to open it. That really helped me. It felt really good that he observed something and he wanted me to improve on that.
You come across as being someone who has known his game always.
See, the last one and a half years, I have played consistently at No. 3. So playing in the middle, around 30-35 overs every game, has made me understand my strengths and weaknesses. If you are playing down the order early in your career, you don't really get to understand your game in those 10-15 overs you get to play. Two, three years after that, once you start batting up the order, you learn more. I am lucky that way to start off at No. 3 right now. I learn a lot about my game.
Like that match against Bangladesh during the World Cup. If I had tried to play like Viru bhai (Sehwag), I would have got out for 30, because he was hitting only sixes. I was playing my game, taking singles, the odd boundary, and in the end I scored with a 130 strike rate still. It's all about understanding your game.
He's a legend of the game because of the way he's played his game. So why try and match his game? Just be confident in your ability and play the way you have been playing and be in your own frame of mind and try and score like that. Don't try and play some shots that they are playing. They have played over 200-300 matches.
It's very difficult to bat with Viru bhai. It's heartbreaking at times - you are struggling to get singles and he's scoring boundaries at will at the other end. But it's a great learning experience, and I have been fortunate.