"Hi, I am Swapnil Asnodkar from Goa."
"Oh, the land of beaches! Nice place."
It's the first day of the Rajasthan Royals camp ahead of the inaugural Indian Premier League season. Goa boy Asnodkar is introducing himself to captain Shane Warne during the induction. This is his first interaction with Warne at the camp. The Rajasthan Royals captain doesn't know in detail who Asnodkar is. He is an established name in domestic cricket but not in the international arena.
However, over the next few days, Warne wouldn't just be enamoured with the beaches of goa but also the name Swapnil Asnodkar.
The diminutive batsman would go on to carve his own identity and play a crucial role in scripting Rajasthan Royal's stunning championship victory.
Asnodkar was a consistent run-getter for Goa in domestic cricket. And the 2007-08 season was in a way a turning point for him. It brought along an IPL contract from RR after the stylish batsman amassed 640 runs at an average of 71.11 in the Ranji Trophy.
An unknown name playing among the legends made an instant impact in the five-day camp ahead of the IPL season opener. A 25 not out in a match simulation and 47 in the practice match would catch the attention of Warne and Director of Coaching of the franchise, Darren Berry.
"Warne had no idea about the domestic players, how they are," Asnodkar says. "We had one match simulation and then a practice match and that's where he also came to know how much matured and good we are to take on quality bowling attack. So, those five days in the camp brought him a little idea about what kind of role one can fit in."
That's where Warne and Berry started sorting out the individual roles. But it wouldn’t provide Asnodkar with a boarding pass into the team instantly.
It's Matchday 12 of the IPL. RR are going to take on KKR, in their fifth game, at home in Jaipur in an early 4 pm kick-off. It's routine as usual for the bench-warming Asnodkar. He has regular practice and then has to attend the team meeting ahead of the match. But there is a little twist in the tale. He is in for a surprise today.
"Swappy you are on," Warne announces, four hours prior to the match as the team news is read out.
It doesn't leave Asnodkar completely stunned, though.
"In the first four games, the same routine used to take place. So I was not expecting a call-up in the fifth but then at the same time, I had those hopes that I will get a game here or there to show my talent since I had done well in practice games," Asnodkar explains.
"Warne had told me after a couple of games, 'be prepared you never know which game you will get, but you will be on'. There were mixed emotions as Warne broke the news. I was happy, excited and nervous at the same time. But then since I had prepared well, I was a bit ready for it."
A slow day had suddenly picked up speed for the Goa boy. The first instinct was to call his father, who had played an important role in shaping his career.
"All my family members were keen to see me on the television. And obviously, when I came to know about the news, the first thing I did was call up my father to inform about my selection," Asnodkar recalls. "He's been my backbone all my cricketing life. He told me 'Don't think too much, enjoy the game the way you've been playing for your state. Just go out and bat. Give your best.'"
Those were certainly motivational words but still the next three hours were a constant fight to appease the nerves with the opponent also playing on his mind.
"To be very honest, I didn't do much (strategising) because I was trying to keep myself as calm as possible," Asnodkar recalls. "Playing at this level and facing world class bowlers is not an easy thing.
"We were playing against KKR and I knew that they had Ajit Agarkar, Ishant Sharma, Dinda, Umar Gul and Sourav (Ganguly) also bowled. As a batsman you keep visualising certain things like you are facing Agarkar, Gul, Ishant out in the middle but then the less you think about it the better it is for a player and the more you think about it, it gets further complicated.
The anxiety was rising so I listened to some Bollywood songs to avoid overthinking or underthinking and maintain that balance. I told myself 'you have to calm down, you have to control yourself'."
The moment of reckoning neared as Warne opted to bat after winning the toss. Asnodkar was going to walk out with Graeme Smith to open the batting.
All Goa waited in anticipation.
Warne's creative and instinctive captaincy played a humongous role in RR lifting the trophy in 2008. He, along with Berry, had prepared a systematic blueprint for the entire tournament. One of the key components was to assign roles to each and every individual of the squad. A sheet was handed to the players with their roles described. Beside Asnodkar's name, the following note was written: "Set up the innings with clever stroke play and use your strong wrists. Run like a rabbit between the wickets. Must be one of the shining lights in the field".
"My role was to 'set the tone and take them on'. It wasn't only going bang bang though, it was playing smart cricket, hitting one or two boundaries and then making sure that you don't waste too many balls and try to get singles."
Walking out to bat for the first time in front of packed stands would have been intimidating. But with Smith by his side, calmness ensued.
"I had played 7 years of first-class cricket and was fortunate enough to play in front of some sort of crowds so that actually helped," says Asnodkar. Obviously IPL was a big tournament, when I walked in I was still slightly nervous but then Graeme was good enough to handle me. He told me, 'don't worry, just try to focus on the call'. The stadium was full and there was a lot of noise, so he just told me the finer points on how to go about it. Just have an eye to eye contact while going for a quick single because at times the call might not be heard."
In a few minutes, the leftover nerves would disappear. The first ball Asnodkar receives is a short one from Ashoke Dinda, the Goa batsman goes for it straightaway and gloves the pull over the keeper for a four.
Boom! What a start.
"That shot settled the nerves for me," Asnodkar says. "It was instinctive. Because it is a T20 game and you can't afford to take too many balls also."
That shot was a microcosm of Asnodkar's batting throughout the tournament. Fearless and aggressive. For someone playing his first match, didn't that shot bring along the fear of getting out off the very first ball by going for that audacious shot?
"Actually not," Asnodkar asserts. "Since I was practicing also in a similar fashion. The role which was given to me was to take them on. So I was just trying to back myself. At times it didn't work at times it did.
“Obviously when it didn't work, people used to shout at me, 'why do you want to take chance from ball one? You have to take it easy, this that...' But I played for the team. I just stuck to whatever role that was given to me and tried my best to help my side. That's how the game works and in T20s, the percentage of risk is very high compared to ODI or four-day Tests, you can't have that second thought, you have to back your instincts. If you see a ball and feel you can hit it over mid off or covers, just go for it rather than getting into double mind. That's how the moment I saw the short ball, I went instinctively. I didn't even think that I might get a top edge or anything like that, I just went for the pull. From then on, I didn't look back, I was just trying to focus on the release of the ball and played my natural game."
Asnodkar had gained the early momentum and then unleashed a slew of cuts, pulls and heaves. He went hard at Agarkar, hitting him for 27 off 13 balls.
There is one shot of Agarkar that Asnodkar still visualises and remembers fondly. The pull over deep square leg for a six off the first ball he faced from the Mumbai pacer.
"I always had high respect for Ajit Agarkar, he was one of my favourites when he was playing for India. To face him and hit him for a six over square leg, that was one moment I cherish a lot. Even when I played against RCB, I had hit one six to Zaheer Khan over mid-wicket...Those kinds of moments you can treasure forever because they have been stalwarts of Indian cricket and playing against them and having some success has been cherishable."
The attack on Agarkar wasn't pre-planned.
"Nothing was planned," Asnodkar explains. "The first boundary went off and then my nerves were really settled. Then I was watching the ball as closely as possible and trying to back myself. Fortunately, Agarkar bowled a bit shorter. I got it on my strength and hit accordingly."
In fact, there was nothing that Asnodkar premeditated that day. He just played instinctively and to his strength.
"I used to be a good puller from the beginning. Our school matches and all used to be on matting wickets so the bounce is slightly more. So from the start, the pull and cut shots were natural to me. The moment I saw the short ball I used to just respond to it. So that actually helped me to instinctively go for the shots."
As Asnodkar was turning on the heat inside the Sawai Mansingh Stadium cauldron where temperatures touched the mid-40s, Warne sent out a message in the drinks break.
'Just keep going the way you have been playing. You are playing fantastic cricket. Make sure you guys bat as long as possible so that it makes it easier for the others to launch at the death.'
It kept Asnodkar motivated.
"I tried my best to not just stick around but also make sure if I get a loose ball I get runs off them and we tried to bat as long as possible."
The 50 came up off 29 balls and two overs later, the Asnodkar show finally ended (in the 12th over) when he miscued one to mid off, off Umar Gul on 60 (off 34 balls). He had announced his arrival in some style and left everyone surprised.
The Goa boy wasn't a naturally attacking player but he had stunned everyone watching his new avatar. It brought back memories of 'little Kalu' (Romesh Kaluwitharana) in the 1996 World Cup and a few comparisons as well. A diminutive batsman marauding against the bowlers, it was a similar sight we had seen in the past. The format and the team requirements demanded a role change. Asnodkar adapted to it beautifully in his first test.
"Actually pre IPL, I was a very steady player," Asnodkar explains. "The format actually changed my approach. Improvisation was one of the parts of my game I wanted to develop because if I played the way I did then things wouldn't have been smoother for me. And once I played the IPL even the players who played with me, the people who had seen me play FC in Goa, they all were shocked seeing me smash bowlers for big sixes and all. They were like we have never seen you hit a single six in first-class cricket, so how come you became such an attacking player?
"The entire dressing room was very happy. The way I batted, the way I took on the bowlers. No one expected me to be so aggressive. They had seen me a bit in those two practice games but then at this stage facing world class bowlers and dominating them was something unexpected for them. All were very much surprised!"
Before the start of the tournament, along with their roles, every player was given a nickname by Berry. Asnodkar's was "The Goa Cannon".
"Just go and blast it out!"
For Berry and Warne, the cannon had successfully launched a devastating missile and would continue doing so right through the tournament.
RR posted a formidable 196/7 on the board and won the match comfortably by 45 runs. Asnodkar was named Man of the Match.
Shane Warne had this canny knack of throwing in surprises. RR had utilised seven openers in the first four matches. Apart from Smith, the rest had failed but Warne still went ahead to give a chance to a relatively unknown name. Asnodkar went on to amass 311 runs from 9 matches at 34.55 and a strike rate of 133.47. Warne had played a small but key role in his success and launched him into the limelight.
"Warnie was a kind of captain who was uncertain, he used to back his instincts more rather than being just a traditional kind of captain. This was one of his tactics (opening with me against KKR) and it came off well.
"The best part about Warnie in that tournament was the atmosphere he had created. He himself being a legendary cricketer never showed any difference to us. He was very approachable and simple so we could just talk to him whenever we wanted. He was open to sharing his knowledge. Not just him, even Watson and Smith. Warnie had said in the first team meeting: The team which will gel well will be favourites to win the tournament. We actually gelled well. The atmosphere in the team was really fantastic and the whole credit goes to Warnie, the way he led from day one. All the superstars and the domestic players all were treated equally."
That debut day wouldn't end for Asnodkar, it all felt like a never-ending dream.
"I still remember, when I got my phone back, I was shocked to see the number of messages and missed calls. The first thing I did was call up my family.
“I spoke to almost all my relatives that night. Then obviously my friends called up. It was good that the people started getting glued to the TV. The best part was most of the Goans were supporting RR just because I was playing.
“I was tired but that happiness and excitement kept me going. I couldn't sleep. It was a fantastic and satisfying feeling that I made the most of the opportunity I got. It was a big stage and the entire world was watching, it was not just a few, there were a hell lot of people watching. And that is where I made my name. The next morning I went for breakfast and the entire hotel staff congratulated me one by one. They had seen the match last night. Not just goa, entire Rajasthan was also happy."
That debut match injected massive confidence going ahead.
"It played a huge role," Asnodkar says. "Because if I hadn’t done well, I don’t know what would have been the story. I don't know whether I would have got another chance and even in the second game if I had to get a chance, obviously that one failure would have played on my mind. Doing well in the first match actually helped me remain calm and relaxed and enjoy the game rather than get entangled in negative thoughts. That actually helped me in the entire edition."
Asnodkar coaches the Goa U-23 side currently and sometimes does walk down memory lane to relive those special moments.
"When I watch the replay of the debut match, I feel like the actual live innings was a replay only because I was hitting every alternate ball for a boundary," Asnodkar quips. "Sometimes it's fun to watch yourself on TV.
"It was a dream debut and after that performance, people started knowing me by my face and not just by my name. Whenever I went to eat food outside, or shopping, people started taking photographs and autographs. That actually transformed me into a known face in the cricketing fraternity.
It was a beautiful feeling.”
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