Sometimes a cruel twist of fate can provide a hidden opportunity.
Three years ago, Ruturaj Gaikwad was making his first senior team appearance for Maharashtra on his Ranji Trophy debut when he suffered just such a bad bit of luck.
Early in his innings against Jharkhand at the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi, a Varun Aaron rising delivery crashed into his glove. He felt the pain but continued batting and eventually got out for 15 in the first innings.
Later, scans revealed a fracture which would rule him out for six weeks. He missed most of the Ranji season and when his fitness returned, he had lost his place in the side because the No 3 and middle order, where he normally bats, were packed.
He wouldn't get a game in the T20s that followed because of the same reason. Then came the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Ruturaj had done well in the selection matches but the middle order was still blocked. There was only one spot open — the opening slot — and if he had to make it to the team, he had to open.
A confident Ruturaj didn’t hesitate and it would prove to be a seminal moment in his career.
On his List A debut, he went on to score 132 off 110 balls laced with 12 fours and seven sixes, against Himachal Pradesh at the DRIEMS Ground in Cuttack. 444 runs from seven innings at 63.42 made him Maharashtra's highest run-getter (third-highest overall) in the tournament and sprung him into the limelight. He became a permanent opener from then on and it was a turning point he was searching for in his career.
In the conveyor belt of India's young talents, Ruturaj Gaikwad is another name buzzing. On the recent West Indies A tour, the 22-year-old opener finished as the second-highest run-getter in the ODIs (207 runs at 51.75).
There is this Ruturaj Gaikwad, a 22-year-old opener from Maharashtra.
His scores for India-A in List A games since June 2019 - vs SL-A and WI-A are:
99 (89) - yesterday vs West Indies A
677 runs, ave 112.83, S/r 116.72
— Mohandas Menon (@mohanstatsman) July 22, 2019
In fact, he's been on a roll in the last two months in List A cricket scoring 677 runs at an average of 112.83 and strike rate of 116.72 (187 not out, 125 not out, 84, 74, 3, 85, 20, 99) There is an air of confidence about Ruturaj. In the way he bats. In the way he talks. The on-the-rise drives, slog sweeps to the fast bowlers, stand and deliver shots give a glimpse of his supreme conviction.
It's his adaptability, however, that is his biggest trait. It's something that helped him in the West Indies as well. "In the first match I got out early so accordingly I changed my gameplan,” Gaikwad told Firstpost. “I just tried to play my natural game on a sticky wicket and it didn't work in the first game. But I learned and in the second match, I played the new ball a bit cautiously and looked to hit only the loose balls and didn't think of converting more shots. The plan was to be at the crease till the 10-15 overs and the runs will flow automatically. I know that if I even play out dots in the first 10-15 overs, I can cover it up afterward."
Gaikwad scored 85 in the 2nd ODI and missed the century by one run in the fifth ODI. He finished with 207 runs from four innings at an average of 51.75. Sticky pitches, uneven bounce, wind blowing on one side, Ruturaj hadn't encountered these conditions before but here he was, learning, adapting, surviving and scoring.
Maharashtra coach Surendra Bhave recalls one such instance where Ruturaj's adaptability impressed him in a Ranji game against Assam in Pune in 2017. "It seamed around for the entire four days of the match, it was an unbelievably seaming pitch. And the century he made in the first innings...I had made my opinion there that Ruturaj was actually cut out for something far better than Ranji cricket or first-class cricket. The way he judged his shots...it was a wonderful century.
"Also, I've seen him play a few knocks on turners which are exceptional. People usually struggle to defend on turning tracks at times and Ruturaj seems like he is playing on a normal pitch. So he has this ability to make hard pitches easy to bat on."
The Caribbean trip was Ruturaj's first away tour of his career and a big learning curve too not just on the field but off it as well. "For the first 2-3 days I couldn't understand what was happening — when to sleep, eat, get up — because of the time difference, I wasn't getting any idea and the routine wasn't building. There was no one to talk to in India. But it was good in a way that I found time for myself. It was a very different experience and it was good to have this experience at such a young age."
To beat loneliness, Ruturaj would watch Netflix series, go out with teammates on the beach or often talk to himself. He just didn't want to sit idle. He credits his stint with Chennai Super Kings — who bought him for Rs 20 lakh base price in the last year's auction — for the spike in the form in the last two months.
"I got to learn in the IPL how to be mentally ready for the match. What should be your routine, how the players approach the game, how they practice, how they get mentally ready. I spoke a bit with Michael Hussey what he used to do and what I should do. I just focussed on the mental side."
Born in Pune, Maharashtra, Ruturaj took to cricket at the age of five. He would often play with his father at home and in the parks for fun. His parents enrolled him in the Dilip Vengsarkar academy in Thergaon suburb at the age of 10 sensing his love for the game. However, it was only after 15 that Ruturaj started pondering on taking up cricket as a serious career. The initial progress was slow in age-group cricket as big scores and centuries eluded him till 17.
The breakthrough came in the 2014-15 season where he scored 826 runs from 11 innings with three tons (including a double hundred) and one fifty at an average of 82.60 in the Cooch Behar Trophy. Another 800-run season followed with 875 runs at 97.22 with four centuries (including a double ton) and three half-centuries. The two prolific seasons catapulted him into the senior state team and from there to 'A' team. While Ruturaj has had a middling average in first-class cricket, it's his List A batting that has attracted eyeballs. He averages 57.08 from 39 matches with five tons and 14 fifties with a strike rate of 101.53.
His approach in 50-over cricket is uncomplicated, just like his personality. "If it's in my range I will attack, if not then defend," comes a simple reply. He describes himself as a 'planned aggressive' batsman because "I know when to attack and when to go on the defensive and I adjust myself accordingly." Apart from a sound mind, it's the array of shots in Ruturaj's armoury coupled with a sound technique that excites Bhave. "He's got a very accomplished technique, very simple to look at," Bhave explains.
"The shots that he plays are backed by a very good technique. It's a good virtue to have. In the current era you see players converting impossible shots with the help of real fast bat swing and the great bats they make these days. But what I see from Ruturaj is every shot he plays is a technically correct shot."
A variety of shots is something that he's developed right from a very young age. With a lack of power, finding the gaps was the next solution to make up for lack of aerial shots. "He had two shots for every ball at a very young age," Ruturaj's academy coach Mohan Jadhav, who has coached him from the age of 10, tells Firstpost.
"If you look at his batting, 'Ye gap me maarne wala player hai'. (This boy is someone he keeps finding gaps)." All this comes from his hunger to learn. Ruturaj maintains a diary in which he jots down every small point he has learned which is punctuated by inspirational backstories told to him, and follows it religiously.
"When we were not with him, at that time this boy used to learn some or the other new thing and come. When he is alone, he tackles things on his own and moves forward. He has learned a lot by himself. By watching his game you could understand, "aarey, ye shot to ye pehle nahi maarta tha ye! (He didn’t use to hit this shot earlier)" adds Jadhav.
One shot from that rich arsenal which has befuddled everyone is the outrageous stand-and-deliver slog-sweep against the fast bowlers. "I don't think there is any fast bowler in Pune who he hasn't hit a six, off that sweep," says Jadhav.
"We played the Vijay Hazare trophy very early in the season this year in Bengaluru and he played one like that against Vidarbha at the Alur ground," recalls Bhave. "It was an exceptional shot. It went miles. I remember talking to him after the match. I asked him, did you premeditate that shot? He said No! But if I see a ball in that area, I know I can hit it out of the park. It's a natural reaction. I think he only knows which is the right ball for him to play that shot. It's an unbelievable shot. You can't judge a player on one type of shot which he plays but because it is exceptional, I was trying to dig deep into it as a coach whether he does it premeditatedly or actually reacts. The complete thing is extempore, I don't think he premeditates that."
While there are some shots that come naturally to him, it is by a watch-and-learn process that Ruturaj keeps increasing the stroke-count in his arsenal. "Coach can teach you technique and help you out mentally, they can't teach you to develop strokes. You have to do it yourself. By watching international stars on TV and videos and practicing,” Ruturaj says.
The one aspect that Bhave stresses on apart from Ruturaj's batting and attitude is his fitness and fielding. He is quick to remind of Ruturaj's role in the relay catch of Manjeet Singh in the Syed Mushtaq Ali match against Railways at Indore earlier this year. The outrageous effort went viral on social media. People and even the commentators misjudged Ruturaj for Rahul Tripathi but Bhave fondly remembers that effort. "It was Ruturaj. I saw it live and it was unbelievable."
"He is an exceptionally good fielder,” the Maharashtra coach continues. “He is one of those fielders at cover and cover-point region who is deceptively quick because of his physique. He's got a very economical and fit kind of body. He is so quick to the ball, if he picks up the ball well, he more often than not is in a position to effect a run-out. It's going to stand him in good stead when he goes ahead in his career."
The last two months have been largely satisfying but the learning process continues. According to Jadhav, Ruturaj still needs to work on power and improve against raw pace. Apart from that, not much should be tinkered with, he asserts. With a cluster of talent flourishing in the form of Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, consistency will be the key in order to enter the fray.
Ruturaj knows it and has already figured out a source of motivation. “Virat Kohli enters every game with the same determination, hunger no matter how well he's performed in the last match. It has rubbed off on me and I have started going out with same motivation. I want to be consistent like him each and every match."
Sometimes there is no greater motivator than to overcome misfortune. The bad luck Ruturaj suffered that day back in Delhi may well prove to be the making of him.