In the fourth Test between India and Australia at the Gabba in Brisbane, Shardul Thakur, batting at No 8, scored 67 off 115, which included nine fours and two sixes, to help his team fight back from a precarious position. Along with Washington Sundar (62 off 144), he helped add a brilliant 123-run partnership for the seventh wicket which kept India alive in the game.
We were playing in the Madhav Mantri Trophy – a selection trial tournament for the Mumbai Under-23 side – at the MCA ground in Bandra Kurla Complex. Being the 12th man in my team, I was standing with drinks at the fine-leg boundary when I saw Shardul Thakur huffing and puffing as he walked towards me after finishing an over.
He was angry after just being hit for a six over his head and asked me to fetch a fresh shirt from his bag. Along with a number of swear words, he said this: “Bahar nikal ke mara na, ab dikhata hoon usko. Samajhta kya hai apne aapko? Tu ruk, main dikhata hoon usko (He stepped out of his crease and hit me, now I’ll show him. Who does he think he is? You wait, I’ll show him).”
The next two deliveries he bowled to that batsman were effort balls – bouncers that had loud grunts to go with them. And the one after that was fired into the block-hole to send the off-stump for a walk. Thakur had done exactly what he said he would.
Aggression, determination and competitiveness have always been the defining features of Thakur’s cricket. It is the kind of attitude that helped him survive the exhausting journeys he would make from Palghar (a small town about two hours away from Mumbai) in order to play quality cricket during his initial years. And it is this same attitude that saw him land a counterpunch on the Australians in the Brisbane Test.
When we spoke to Dinesh Lad, who has been Thakur’s coach since he was 14, he agreed. It was the heart he showed on the field that first caught his attention.
“I was the coach of Swami Vivekanand School (Kandivali) and we were playing against Tarapur Vidya Mandir (Boisar), whose team also included Thakur,” Lad, who is the father of Mumbai batsman Siddhesh Lad, told Scroll.in.
“Shardul already had good pace and a beautiful action back then, to go with his wonderful out-swingers. But what impressed me most was the shift he put in for his team in that match. He kept bowling from one end and troubled our batsmen throughout. It was impossible to not see there was something special about him.
“I soon got him to join our school and because his home was far away, I allowed him to stay at my house for over a year. I knew he was ready to put in the hard work and I couldn’t let that go to waste.”
Thakur has always been someone who leaves it all out there on the field. When that selection trial game got over, the one in which he cleaned-up the batsman after being hit for six, I took a ride home in Siddhesh’s car and through the entire journey, Thakur snored away sitting with me at the back. He had bowled a long spell that day to win us the match and had no energy left in him.
Despite having a small frame, Thakur always bowled with tremendous pace. He would invariably be the shortest member of his team’s bowling attack but that didn’t stop him from being the most frightening prospect for the opposition. What he lacked in stature, he made up for with raw aggression and natural talent. When he was 16, he recorded 123 kmph on the speed gun to win the ‘Gatorade Pacers’ 2008 edition, the judges of which were S Sreesanth, TA Shekhar and Uday Gupte, and was selected to train at the MRF Pace Foundation.
But for Thakur, it wasn’t all about fast bowling to begin with. For most, his ability with the bat is limited to the cameos he has played for the Indian team and in the IPL, and his splendid effort in the Brisbane Test is sure to earn him more admirers too, but for those in the know about Mumbai cricket, Thakur’s ability with the bat has always been well above average.
In fact, my earliest memory of him is a smashing century he got in an intercollege match against my team at the Matunga Gymkhana ground. I remember walking towards the dressing room before the start of the game and seeing this stout guy absolutely murder the cricket balls as he took knocks. He batted at No 3 in that match and scored a quickfire ton to kill the contest. He didn’t rely on slogs, they were all proper cricketing strokes. It was just that they were hit a little too hard for me and my moderately talented teammates.
In 2006, while playing in the Harris Shield (an Under-15 interschool tournament), Thakur set a Mumbai school record for both juniors and seniors by hitting six sixes in an over. He hit a total of 10 sixes and 20 fours in that innings to finish with 160 runs from 73 balls.
“He was always a hard-hitter and a proper all-rounder in his early years,” said Lad.
“His focus shifted more towards bowling once he got selected for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team. He knew the side needed a pacer and he could fill that gap. But till that time, through age-group cricket, he trained as an all-rounder. He was a fast-bowling all-rounder who took his batting very seriously. He’s played a number of valuable knocks for Mumbai in age-group cricket.”
Thakur isn’t someone whose skills will blow you away at first sight. He is more of an acquired taste. You look closer and you see the grit he has, which is often the differentiating factor in sport and in life.
He had to travel for hours on end to get to play competitive cricket but that didn’t stop him from going all in. He doesn’t have a typical fast bowler’s built but that didn’t stop him from reaching the top. He wasn’t in the team for his skills with the bat but that didn’t stop him from being India’s top-scorer in the first innings at the Gabba, a venue which has traditionally been rather unkind to visiting batsmen, against an attack that’s one of the best in the world.
The thing about Thakur is that he doesn’t give up. He’s always ready for a fight.
“He got picked by Kings XI Punjab in 2014 but got to play just one game for them in his first two IPL seasons,” said Lad. “During that phase, I remember him calling me one evening and telling me how sad he was because of the way things were going. But there was one thing he kept repeating: ‘Let me get an opportunity and I’ll show them’.”
In the intercollege match that saw Thakur bludgeon a hundred against my team, I had the good fortune of getting a six off his bowling. I hadn’t stepped out of the crease and hit it over his head or any such thing. It was just simple a top-edge that sailed over fine-leg. But it was enough for me to be given the two-bouncers-followed-by-a-yorker treatment. Thakur had taken up the challenge and as Australia realised at Brisbane, once he does that, he’s a hard man to stop.