Bharat Sundaresan: Your thoughts looking back on the Australia series.
We had thought all pitches would be turning tracks, apart from Bengaluru (venue of the second test). But where we played our matches, we didn’t have home advantage. At Pune (first test) nobody had an advantage, neither in Ranchi (third test), nor in Dharamsala (fourth test). Our cricket spoke for itself. At Dharamsala, the ball swung and it was tailor-made for Australia as they have bowlers who have grown up playing on wickets like that. We stood out, we were more aggressive than them and yes, the way we played throughout the home series has been aggressive. We didn’t think about the uncontrollables like if the wicket is turning or have players complaining at press meets. We just went about our business playing our brand of cricket throughout. Our young team prevailed and is more confident than before. We have won at home and abroad and all of us individually feel confident. As a team, when we play abroad, we have the confidence that we may not be the number one team obviously but we will be in positions where we can win series abroad. I am very confident that the next two years when we are travelling we will still keep this winning momentum.
Manas Mitul: Do you see yourself going abroad and playing with the same confidence in more hostile conditions?
I think we have proved that in the past two-three years, when we have won all the series in India and have done well abroad. I think the change started when we went to Australia in 2014—my first series. Though we lost the Test series 2-0, we had a chance of winning every game. So I think the time when it was thought that, ‘Okay India is going abroad and they are going to lose, and come back with 2-0, 3-0 losses’, is over. Now we have all our bases covered. We have fast bowlers who can bowl 145 kmph plus, and not just one of them but four-five. We have fast bowling all-rounders, spinners and spinning all-rounders and they can get runs—(Ravichandran) Ashwin, (Ravindra ) Jadeja are getting runs. We have batsman who have scored everywhere, in England, New Zealand. This team is very confident about winning. We are not worried about who we are playing or where we are playing, we want to be aggressive, we play a brand of cricket that is really aggressive.
Bharat Sundaresan: How do you react to people’s reaction to your tattoos?
When I was young this was my character. I wanted to be like this—carefree and careless. I didn’t care about what people talked or thought about me. They made sure to rub it in my face that this is why you are not doing well, but it has no relation to what I do on the field. So it took me a few years to tell myself that people are going to talk no matter what. Even if I do well, they are going to say okay some day he is going to fail, because he is interested more in other things. So I have realised that there is no point in trying to be nice or trying to please somebody. This is me and I have come to make peace with it—that whatever I do off the field will not affect me on the field. People think otherwise but I can’t go and change everybody’s thinking. Nobody ever said, if you sleep by 9 pm, next day you will make a 100 for sure. One of my best performances came when I was least bothered about what I was going to do the next day. The more cricket you play in your head, the less you perform on the field. So let cricket, the sport, be on the field. I don’t really have routines, or follow what my coaches tell me or how people want me to be: this stereotypical ‘sleep on time and set good examples’ person. I don’t really know what setting a good example is.
Bharat Sundaresan: You’ve scored 100s with different hairdos…
Exactly. So now the same coaches, the same people who used to tell me, ‘Wait and see your career will go down in a few years’, now look at my hair and tell me, ‘Oh you look nice, where did you get your haircut? Where did you get your tattoos done?’. And I am like, ‘Wow, what changed?’.
Devendra Pandey: What does aggression mean to you?
For me aggression means not to be shy and to do what your mind tells you. Sometimes, you tend to hold back, maybe because you have lost a few wickets or something. But when I bat I’m never shy of doing what my mind says. We are more expressive and not shy, but we still maintain our poise. We don’t take our eyes off the match or the situation, even if people come and try to break the rhythm. We might lose a session or even a Test match, but this is how we play the game and how we are going to play the game, no matter what people say about it and no matter how they are going to try and break it.
I’m not saying sledging is bad and you don’t want to make your opponents’ life easy, but we never make anything personal.
Srinath Rao: But is it easy for everybody who walks into the team to be in that frame of mind?
It is. Anybody who walks into the team feels very comfortable. Another thing is, whoever comes into the team has played with some of us in the IPL at some point. Over the two years, nobody’s walked into the team straight or just like that. They have spent time with most of us. Nobody gets bullied. I remember, I felt very comfortable straight away. I felt welcomed. Maybe, 10 years ago, with my tattoos and hairstyles and all, it would have been a different story. But here nobody interferes in each other’s space.
The only awkward thing was the speech one has to give. It’s a tradition and that’s the only thing I felt weird about. They know everything about you, but yet you have to stand on the table and introduce yourself like ‘I’m K L Rahul, right-hand batsman, age 24’ etc.
Shivani Naik: Do you replay the 199 knock—in the December Test against England in Chennai—in your mind?
I wasn’t nervous when I was on 199. But I was in a hurry to get that one run. So I thought I’d just tap and run. He (Adil Rashid) bowled… well, you don’t expect an international bowler to bowl that bad a ball. I didn’t know what to do with it. But because I was so anxious to tap and get that one run, I went with it, and I thought, ‘What did I do?’. It’s okay, I guess. I have, of course, thought about it many times later. Every time I cross 100. Now I sit back and think, sh*t, I have to start from zero and go to 199 to give myself that opportunity to get to 200. Play six hours. That’s a lot of work. Since then I realised that when I’m in the moment I’ll make the most of it and not worry about numbers and landmarks. I’ve learnt in cricketing terms, play one ball at a time. If I had to do it differently, maybe I’d have left the ball. It was simple and very wide. There was no proper shot I could have played with it. It (200) would have come on the next ball, or the one after that. It’s a Test match, I was in no hurry. I did get a chance to play Adil Rashid in T20 later. I did take him on. But even if I hit him for 50 runs after that, it won’t change the fact that he got me out on 199.
Devendra Pandey: Who in the team keeps the mood light, especially during tense moments?
There are different characters, because I play all three formats. In Test matches there’s Virat (Kohli) mostly. But when things are not going well, he’s the captain, he’s thinking about the game. Ishant (Sharma) is always there, he just has to say something and it’s funny. Everyone laughs. Mostly him and Virat. When Shikhar (Dhawan) was there, Shikhar was the goof. In the ODI team now, it’s Yuvi Paaji (Yuvraj Singh) and Suresh (Raina).
Manas Mitul: Did you guys have a laugh about the funny faces Ishant Sharma made against the Australian team during the India-Australia series in March?
Of course we did. We all tried it. We put a few Instagram stories too. He’s a great guy and he made that game so lively. After that you would have seen that Steve Smith never did anything, he would have gotten embarrassed after that.
Devendra Pandey: How does Anil Kumble handle the team atmosphere?
He keeps it very simple. He might come across as a hard taskmaster, but he’s not. He’s very relaxed. We discuss what we want to do as a team, and he’s brought in a lot of discipline. He lets us be. He doesn’t get into technique and say, ‘We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that’. He lets the boys make their own decisions. He’s obviously someone who has so much experience and he’s just retired. So he knows how the modern game goes. He knows that you can have a bad session on one or two days and we can always come back in a game. He’s frank. You can’t expect anything sugar-coated from him. And that’s how we like it. Whatever situation we are in in a Test match, I’m sure he’s been there a hundred times before.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: How do you handle attention of fans?
It doesn’t harm me or bother me so much. It’s a little frustrating when people don’t let you sit down. They want to come and take pictures. But after a while, if I don’t like it, I tell them that I don’t like it. I think, if you say it in a nice way, people do understand. Most of them do, but there will be one person who says, ‘Sir, please, please, please’. Then you have to tell him to ‘leave me alone’. You have to be a little harsh. That’s the only thing that is hard. You don’t want to yell at people or push them away. You know that they just want to see the cricketer. They get excited. You want to be nice to everybody, but that’s the hardest thing—where do you draw the line between being too nice and not letting somebody bother me.
I’m with my friends having a good time and I don’t want to be disturbed. If you say no to somebody, it obviously affects everybody. You go back and think ,‘Dude, I could have just got up and given him a picture, he would have been happy, it would have made his day’. But sometimes you have to put yourself first. That’s the only hard decision you have to make sometimes. Like I said, I say it very nicely and I have a very charming face, so they understand and leave me alone. So far I’ve not been bothered and I don’t feel bad. You feel bad when there are kids and they want pictures, but you’re getting late for the bus and you have to go. If you are late for the bus you are fined a big sum. Paying money, I wouldn’t do that. But saying no to a kid, it’s hard, but you still have to do it.
Manas Mitul: Do you think there was a cordial relationship between cricketers and the media a few decades ago, as opposed to the restrictions today?
I wish things could be like that. I wouldn’t have a problem. There’s nothing that I do wrong, in my head. There are people chasing things. But if I’m spotted somewhere with my friends, having a drink, it did come out on one occasion. People lost it. ‘I’m having a drink in my hand, and they go how could you do that?’ To me, I don’t feel the pressure to be very right, or being this perfect stereotypical cricketer. People write good things or bad things, you’re free to say what you want. Even if they say a bad thing, I will still not take it as criticism. I’ll say, ‘Okay maybe I can improve, maybe this is wrong’. But if it is too harsh, what can you do? People will still write. But yes, I wish we could still have that relationship like people used to have in the ’70s. Things are a lot different now. To expect something like that is a far-fetched thought.
I don’t feel the pressure of the media, of being spotted somewhere etc. It’s fine, if it comes out in the newspaper, it comes out in the newspaper. If people think it’s a bad thing, so be it. It’s a bad thing for them, it’s not a bad thing for me.
Devendra Pandey: Do cricketers read what is written about them?
I don’t. I try to stay away, honestly, from reading about myself on social media, in newspapers or magazines. If you read, then you end up seeing the bad things also and then you get frustrated. If anybody says something bad about you, then you end up getting frustrated. It’s very human. So I would rather not read about it or know about it.
Bharat Sundaresan: Is your generation of cricketers even used to giving autographs? Does anyone even ask for them anymore?
Not anymore. We get surprised when someone asks for an autograph. It’s mostly a selfie and done. It’s easy. It finishes so fast, a two-second thing.
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Bharat Sundaresan: There was an interview of yours where you mentioned that you want to be the best-looking man of Karnataka…
She (the interviewer) had asked me: ‘How do you feel about being on the list of most desirable men?’ I said that I don’t quite like the criteria that have been set for being the most desirable man—you are desirable only if you are successful. Only successful people are on that list. That doesn’t really make sense because there are so many more good-looking people. I don’t like that.
I also said, ‘I’m a sportsman, this is how we think’. I was sixth on that list. I don’t want to be number two or three anywhere. If someone is putting me on some list, I want to be number one. But it became a headline that I want to be number one. It is a good thing. I want to be number one in whatever I do.
Priyanka Sahoo: I had read a story once about how you would wake up in your sleep calling out to someone to take a single etc.
I’m a very boys person. I haven’t had many female friends. So I am always with boys playing PlayStation, where there will be four-five boys sleeping in the same room. They have told me that I suddenly wake up and say ‘No!’ I was under that kind of pressure.
Even now, I have seen cricketers sleeping on their chair and then suddenly waking up and thinking that they are about to take a catch. We play so much cricket, it is always on our minds.
Devendra Pandey: Cricket doesn’t need a six-pack, but you and Virat work hard on fitness. Where do you draw the line between being extremely muscular and cricket-fit?
Virat or me don’t go to the gym to get good beach bodies. The way we train, it just happens. We have a good body type probably. Fitness and food are a big factor. You are right, you don’t have to have big muscles to play cricket. None of us is bulky or anything. I don’t lift a lot of weights in the gym. I am more about being on the field doing activities, focusing on running and agility. We are not working out to look good.
Manas Mitul: Do you feel that sportsmen face backlash if they speak out on certain issues?
Exactly, there is an adverse effect of speaking out. Nothing good will ever come from just speaking. If there was something that I would want to change in the country and about the way people think, I will do it. By speaking, you might just hog the limelight for a bit but if you do things, then you show people that you are trying to make a change. You may or may not get appreciated, but that is fine.
It is an opening batsman kind of thing. We do the job, we don’t always want the appreciation or the limelight. There are problems obviously. There are things on my mind that I want to do and I want to help with. I will start with sports first in smaller towns. I know that, coming from a smaller town such as Mangaluru, facilities aren’t the best. A lot of boys have stopped picking cricket as a sport, everybody wants to play football. So I feel the need to do things for children and people from smaller cities that may rekindle their interest in cricket.