May 31, 2020
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Innocent Fields

He’s the new kid in town. But that’s an image Vijay Bharadwaj would shun. For, this new member of India’s Test side is a chip off the old block

Innocent Fields
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No lights, no camera. No babbling imposter of Sachin with his dil mange more soft drink either. But real life was mimicking the reel, well-nigh, at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on Monday, the fourth of October. Much like the terrified Shahrukh, Ranji champs Karnataka were nervous to stand up to a stocky youth answering to the name of Kumaran. At 6 for 49, the home side could not muster a semblance of a fight-back against Rest of India for the Irani Trophy.

As the team touched the nadir (all out at 91), a dark and lanky frame trudged disconsolately about in the dressing room. Less than 24 hours ago, his moment of fame had been eclipsed because India choked on the final burst against South Africa in the LG Cup finals at Nairobi. And Vijay Raghavendra Rao Bharadwaj actually censured himself for the defeat when he ought to have exulted on being chosen Man of the Series. His self-effacing "certainly not (being happy about his debut)" riposte took commentator Trevor Quirk by surprise. "Getting ten wickets is no big achievement. I must get wickets on batting pitches and score runs on bad tracks," amplified Vijay’s modest attributes, an asset which has become extremely rare among Indian cricketers.

India’s latest find, born on independence day in 1975, is the ideal specimen of a bashful, humble, namma huduga (our boy next door) of Basavanagudi in South Bangalore; one who hasn’t taken to the mtv culture of pub crawls and late night binges, but tunes in to Devaranama (hymns sung in praise of God) or Kannada film songs of yesteryears, one who does not step out without a detailed pooja at home. A type that struggles to keep joint families going; and is part of a people who keep in touch with childhood mates and identify them with their nicknames rather than the full name. Perhaps, this Brahmin-dominated precinct still retains its hoary culture as the role models here are educationists, Gandhians or musicians.

Vijay is yet to recover from the culture shock he went through during the four-nation LG championship in Nairobi. Plunging neck lines, men washing down bottles of beer, the prospect of having to make polite conversation with strangers at cocktails, that’s what Vijay is talking about with his Ranji team mates. Also laced in are details of how he had live on fresh vegetables in Los Angeles and how Indian families rushed in with vegetarian delicacies for him, Anil Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad during the LG championship.

Having spent his formative years in Basavanagudi, Vijay, like the thousands of youths here, has inherited a sense of modesty. Vijay, thus, was found chatting with friends on Surveyor Street, a lane where he still plays tennis-ball cricket, when he was named a member of the Indian team on Wednesday last week. And there’s no place better than a ten-table restaurant two lanes away to treat comrades with crisp masala dosas for making it into the Indian Test side against the touring Kiwis. The evening was spent on thanks-giving visits to many temples in Bangalore. The sandal paste mudre (tilak) is always prominently visible on Vijay’s forehead and temples. "It’s all by the grace of God. When it was announced that he was the Man of the Series in Nairobi, I went into the pooja room and thanked God. We are sure God will bless him to do well in the Test match," says his mother, Kumadini Raghavendra Rao.

The celebrations were much the same six months ago, when "Pinga" (as he’s known among team-mates because his running between the wickets is rather peculiar) did the star turn for Karnataka as a part-time bowler in the Ranji finals against Madhya Pradesh in Bangalore. Almost as a last resort, the host team’s think tank decided on a twin-spin attack as they were running out of time; Madhya Pradesh was playing for a draw and was on course to march away with the Ranji trophy by virtue of a 75-run first innings lead. "During the tea break, I said Vijay should bowl from one end, and Sunil (Joshi) from the other. But Vijay was keen that Dodda Ganesh should bowl because he had a good spell in the first innings. We convinced Vijay to bowl a couple of overs, and that’s when he got them out. We were home with five overs to go before stumps," says manager B. Raghunath. Vijay ran through the side to give Karnataka a dream win in the Ranji finals. His figures: 14.5-6-24-6. "Everyone thought I could get some quick wickets on the last day, though I differed with them. And that was because I was previously asked to bowl the last over before lunch or tea only as a change bowler. But after I got a wicket or two on the last day, I pushed myself to bowl better," says Vijay.

That was not all. This Canara Bank staffer who has taken over the mantle of "Mr Consistent" from Rahul Dravid in domestic cricket, finished the last Ranji season with a record 1,280 runs (from 10 matches) to become the highest run-getter in a season at an awesome average of 106.66 runs per innings. Apart from Vijay, Jacob Martin—1,037 in ’98-99, Raman Lamba—1,034 and Ajay Sharma—1,033 in ’96-97, W.V. Raman—1,018 in ’88-89, and Rusi Modi—1,008 in 1944-45 are the other players who have scored more than 1,000 runs in a season.

Much like Anil Kumble, Bharadwaj started off as a pace bowler in school. He even played for Karnataka’s under-16 side and for South Zone as an opening bowler. But when he was picked for the under-19 side, he made it as an off-spinner. M.C. Goutham, his classmate in Vijaya High School, Bangalore, now an engineer in Namtech, says: "He’s stoic and never reacts on happy occasions or even when he’s facing a problem on the field. As an opening batsman (in the ninth standard), he once struck five boundaries in the first over of the match because the opposing bowler, Mahesh (of National High School), had threatened to bowl bouncers at us. Mahesh was not given the ball after that, and at the end came and apologised to us." As a student, says Goutham, Vijay was studious and was felicitated when he secured 100 out of 100 in mathematics in class ten in Vijaya High School. A commerce graduate, Vijay’s eminence in maths is much like that of his siblings, brother Sanjay who has an MS in engineering, and sister Rohini, a masters degree holder in mathematics.

Vijay only covets runs, but is generous when it comes to handing out cricket gear to youngsters. Says A.V. Seshidhar, who lead the City Cricketers, a club which Vijay joined in ’91. "He fitted in nicely as a batsman as well as a pace bowler. At some point he took to off-spin. He joined another club in ’96, but has kept in touch with us. He drops by to gift away his cricketing gear to our youngsters." Former Ranji all-rounder J. Abhiram, who spotted Vijay and Dodda Ganesh during the under-19 selections, says: "He has improved vastly over the years. He has a high arm action, so along with the turn, he extracts extra bounce off the wicket."

But expectations about proving a successful Test cricketer are running high. "Now, he has come to stay as an all-rounder. Utility-wise, we could compare him with Saurav Ganguly or Mark Waugh," says Raghunath. That, says Rahul Dravid, is the hazard which upcoming cricketers encounter in India. "Vijay has started well in international cricket, but we must let him go through the process of development. In India, we have a tendency to praise somebody to the skies early on and then dump him as quickly. We must guard against doing this in Vijay’s case."

The cricketer in question, however, seems unmoved by unexpected stardom and the perils that come along with it. "I was not under pressure, so I played well (at Nairobi). My goal was to play Test cricket for India. Now that I have been selected, I will do my best and leave the rest to God." Amen.

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