On the 8 September 2019, Akshay Wakhare sat down with his Vidarbha teammate, Faiz Fazal, at the breakfast table in the centre of the frenzied city of Bengaluru, calmly talking about the Duleep Trophy Final, which had turned the best friends into foes for a short span.
Suddenly, Akshay’s phone rang and to his surprise, it was Harbhajan Singh calling. Startled, the off-spinner picked up the phone frantically. And, in a trice, the Vidarbha bowler was grinning from ear to ear.
Just a day ago, Wakhare had torn India Green’s batting line-up to shreds, courtesy a marvellous spell of 5.5-1-13-5. Subsequently, a few people took note of his incredible performance and among those was one of India’s greatest off-spinners.
Recalling the incident, Akshay said,
“At first, I was surprised by the call but it was wonderful to know that Harbhajan bhaiya had noticed my performance and informed me of the same. I was extremely elated at the compliment and when a person of that stature congratulates you, you are obviously motivated to do even better. And, above everything else, I was jubilant with his gesture of congratulating me.”
The pair had shared the dressing room during the Vidarbha lad’s stint with the Mumbai Indians during the 2015 and 2016 Indian Premier League. Wakhare also added that there were numerous bits and pieces he picked up during his spell in the lucrative league, remarking that the good rapport he established with Harbhajan still remained strong.
On the back of that IPL tenure, the Vidarbha bowler enjoyed his most fruitful season in the Ranji Trophy, when he scalped 49 wickets in 2015-16.
Since then, the off-spinner has hardly looked back, in the process, forming a formidable spin duo alongside Aditya Sarwate. Speaking about the relationship he shares with the latter, he quipped,
“Aditya and I know each other’s game very well and are able to complement each other. We also have a good understanding and decide amongst each other on our plans for the batsmen. On some days, he keeps things tight and I get wickets while on other occasions, it is the other way around. However, one thing that remains constant is the enjoyment of bowling together.”
Over the course of Vidarbha’s twin title winning terms, Wakhare has amassed a total of 68 wickets and has subsequently, propelled himself as an extremely vital cog in the Ranji Trophy champions’ wheel.
However, akin to many of his teammates, he hasn’t been rewarded for those displays as much as some of the others to have produced similar numbers.
Thus, leading one to again question why the cream of the Vidarbha crop often gets overlooked. Yet, Akshay, although disappointed, feels that thinking too much on that front might have a detrimental effect on his performances.
“I try to keep myself as isolated from these things as possible. At the end of the day, I try to give my best and fulfil all the aspects that are in my hand. Though I sometimes feel upset, I have learnt through the course of my career, not to let those things worry me. Only then will I be able to produce substantial displays.”
On being quizzed about his success mantra, Wakhare provided a simple yet extremely effective answer.
He said, “You should enjoy your game to the fullest. After all, that is why we start playing cricket in the first place, isn’t it? The moment we stop enjoying the game, we start focussing on other frivolous details, thereby leading to situations where we fail to concentrate on basics.”
And, those qualities have shone through for the off-spinner in the past couple of seasons, where his brand of spin bowling, which has entailed prioritising efficiency over extravagance, has reaped rich rewards.
A tall spinner capable of extracting bounce, Akshay also stressed the importance of sticking to one’s strengths and playing on the batsmen’s patience, especially at a time when the aforementioned facet is at a premium, owing to T20 cricket.
Additionally, he talked about how he prepares for match-ups and plots the downfall of opposition batsmen, wherein he classified himself as a bowler who relied more on quick thinking on his feet.
And, although he hasn’t spent countless hours on planning and video analysis, he hasn’t completely thrown the latter modus operandi out of the window.
Reliving the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy final, he said,
“Before that game, the team talk was around how to get Cheteshwar Pujara out. So, we thought that we should not allow him to use his feet and that we should bowl a little flatter. Fortunately, that led to his dismissal and we were overjoyed with our successful execution.”
Thus, the attributes paint a portrait of a calculative, hardened and tough player, always destined to scale great peaks. Yet, Akshay might not have been a professional cricketer altogether, had selections not happened during one of his long and boring history classes.
On a trip down memory lane, he threw light on an amazing anecdote which encompassed the formative stages of his career,
“So, for me, I started cricket back in my school days when I hated my history lectures and wanted to get myself relieved of those. Thus, when a trial was arranged during those hours, I immediately rushed to the field and tried my hand at fast bowling. I got rejected the first time but I silently ventured into the group of students who waited to show their talent as spin bowlers. That’s how my journey started.”
And, though that might not be the picture-book start most cricket aspirants hope for, it certainly was as fascinating a beginning as any. Subsequently, things have started falling into place for Wakhare, albeit not always smoothly.
Despite having made his debut in 2006, he wasn’t a permanent fixture in the Vidarbha side until a few years ago. Yet, rather than getting disheartened, he positively took it all in his stride.
He credited that period of struggle, saying,
“I believe that my time in the Vidarbha side early on, when I was on the periphery helped me build as a cricketer. I learnt a lot from Pritam Gandhe bhai and those experiences are now paying me dividends as I have been able to implement those teachings.”
Moreover, he has had his place in white-ball cricket questioned, with his lack of batting prowess contributing majorly to such doubts. And, though he admitted that he might’ve been better off improving his less preferred suit, he reckoned that he had mastered the art of utilising the resources at his disposal, optimally.
Throughout his sticky patch, Wakhare showcased a certain level of doggedness, an ability to lay brick by brick and ultimately, build a house with the capacity to remain eternal, despite the fickle nature of sports.
However, more importantly, he has managed to influence a generation of cricketers across Vidarbha, highlighting that mountainous rides along one’s sojourn are just meant to mould you better as a cricketer and an individual.
And, fittingly, a young boy, who once despised even the sight of history books, has gone on to script an entire chapter of his own in Indian domestic cricket folklore.
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