Dhoni's counsel, Tahir's generosity and Dravid's coaching: The fledgeling career of Rahul Chahar
"My biggest weakness is accuracy, but I'm working towards bettering that aspect of my bowling, daily." When an 18-year-old, who has played alongside the likes of MS Dhoni and Steve Smith in his short career, gives you an honest assessment of his bowling, it becomes apparent that his head is in the right place.
Born in Bharatpur, Rajasthan's promising leg-spinner, Rahul Chahar, has seen many ups and not as many downs in all of his 18 years of life so far, but the sense of self-acceptance and the virtue of remaining grounded he imbibed while growing up are perceivable when you exchange words with him.
Growing up in a cricketing atmosphere
Six years before Rahul's First Class debut, his brother Deepak had already made a name for himself with a scintillating debut spell of 8 wickets while giving away 10 runs against Hyderabad. Naturally, the road ahead was laid before him, and he had to decide whether to trudge through it or make a dash.
"My brother, Deepak, used to play the sport before I took it up, so there were nets installed in front of my place. I was really young, some 7 years old, and just used to play the game for fun, like kids generally do. But gradually my interest in the game started to grow. Initially, I used to bowl fast, but then I picked up leg spin, my brother told me my leg spinners are better, and that's how it all started," Chahar said.
The curiosity in me and all those years I have spent playing the sport myself outside my home prompted me to quiz Chahar whether he was lucky enough to have a park in front of his place or he, too, had the 'luxury' of a cemented road like the most of us, to which he replied, "sort of a park, where we had installed nets".
I quickly switched my attention to a completely different world, education, and whether there was a clash between cricket and school. Turned out, he was lucky enough to drop out once his talent with the ball in hand became palpable.
"I stopped going to school once I took up cricket seriously. My family, especially my tau ji (father's elder brother) who is also my coach, father and brother, have made a lot of sacrifices." Further stressing on the fact that his tau ji played a huge role in his moulding into a good player, the leg-spinner credited him with "65% of his growth in the cricketing circles".
The remaining 35% of the merit goes to his brother, he added.
"He (Deepak) did play his part but our uncle was the one who pushed us both to give our best and better ourselves consistently. Moreover, he sensed that both of us were good at bowling, so he made sure we keep honing our skills with the ball."
Continuing to talk about the influential figures in his life, Rahul added, "When I was around 14 and was not playing for any team, then Dholpur district's Somendra Tiwari sir took me up and invested his trust in my abilities. I owe a lot of my rapid growth to him. If cricketers over the country are regularly offered such support, then no one's talent would go waste."
A whirlwind few months
Events unfolded expeditiously in Rahul's life. Within five months of making his First Class debut for Rajasthan, the then-17-year-old was lining up alongside MS Dhoni, Ajinkya Rahane and Steve Smith for Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL.
It's easy for a youngster to get bewitched and let the exposure get to his head in such situations. Rahul, though, was lucky enough to have two of the most prudent cricketing personalities, Dhoni and Rahane in the team.
"The most important thing I learned from Dhoni bhaiya and Rahane bhaiya is that we need to be good humans first. Dhoni bhaiya has a very grounded personality and he isn't one of those who think too much of themselves."
Playing his second IPL match, the then 17-year-old Chahar was stationed on the third man boundary when Brendon McCullum decided to scoop a Ben Stokes delivery over the wicketkeeper's head. After sprinting down a considerable distance alongside the rope, the leggie, airborne, got hold of the ball and threw it back into play before landing on both his feet behind the boundary.
Understandably, Rahul reiterated various other players' statements that all of it is instinctive. No matter how hard you try to train yourself for such situations, it's a completely different ball game in a high-octane atmosphere like that of an international or IPL match.
"Yes, we do practice but all such efforts player pull out in the field can never be replicated during the training. We do have sessions but how you react in the match is what matters. Sometimes the ball sails over the rope, sometimes it falls considerably short of the boundary, so it depends on the situation."
Chahar had another helping hand in Imran Tahir, one of the very best practising the art of leg spin, to guide him through the tricky situations he faced while representing Pune.
"And then there's Imran Tahir. Being a leg-spinner himself, he helped me whenever I asked for a favour, even came to my room to explain things."
But the South African's big-heartedness didn't see an end with the culmination of IPL. Before joining the U19 team on their trip to England, Chahar had texted Tahir on how to use his variations in overcast conditions, where the pitch doesn't offer as much help to the spinners. The 38-year-old, who has had various stints in County cricket himself, acknowledged his junior's request promptly.
"When I went to England recently, I left him a message asking how to go about things there. He called me up and gave me important tips on how to bowl in England. Even though the IPL is over, he never shies away from lending a helping hand."
Unsurprisingly, Tahir's tips did work as Chahar went on to bag 12 wickets in six innings, a test match and four one-dayers. He was also the joint highest wicket-taker in the five-match limited-over series despite missing out on one of the games.
Moreover, the youngster had the opportunity to play under the tutelage of Rahul Dravid for the U19 team. For a cricketer who is the archetype of a team-player, Dravid, according to Chahar, is tutoring the younger generation of Indian cricket to take a similar path.
"During our first U19 tour, Dravid sir had given an ultimatum that he won't judge anyone on individual merit but how much a player contributes to the team's cause. I learned that being a team player is much more important than individual brilliance."
"Wrist spinners are very hard to read and play against"
Being a leg-spinner - whose strength is having more than just "3-4 variations, unlike a normal leggie" - himself, Chahar seemed upbeat about the recent rise in the stock of wrist spinners and like most of his answers over the phone call, this one was presented with a rationale as well.
"Generally, left arm spinners and off-spinner are available everywhere, so batsmen have gotten used to them. Leg spinners and chinaman are rare, so if the wrist spinners pitch in the right area, they get very hard to read and play against."
The 18-year-old, for now, is investing all of his time for the preparation of the upcoming U19 World Cup in New Zealand, which is not more than four months away. Chahar believes an eye-catching tournament can aid his growth further and might earn him a permanent place in one of the IPL franchises.
"For now, I'm focused at the U19 World Cup next year and want to do well there, usse IPL me bhi chances badhengi."
With performances that, quite evidently, have shown a lot of promise and the level-headed youngster that Chahar comes out as, perhaps "spot bowling to improve on my accuracy" is all he needs before taking the next big step in his fledgeling career.