“The first time I was interviewed was not as Rohit’s coach but as Shardul’s coach.”
Dinesh Lad, a cricket coach in Borivali, a western suburb of Mumbai, says with pride.
Lad is credited with creating a factory of First-Class cricketers. Standing atop the list are two of the four Mumbaikars who will feature in the 2023 ICC Men’s World Cup. This piece is about Shardul Thakur, who has been a trending topic for Indian cricket fans for almost three years.
Thakur, hailing from Palghar, a distant suburb closer to Gujarat than Mumbai, caught the attention of Lad due to his raw pace. He rose to fame when he smashed six sixes in an over during a school match and took a five-wicket haul in the same game in 2006. But it was Thakur’s batting that saw him grab headlines in Mumbai newspapers, as he joined the exclusive club of Sir Garfield Sobers and Ravi Shastri — albeit at the school-cricket level.
“He always had the nose for batting. Once he joined me, I suggested a tweak to his top-hand-dominated grip, and it worked. But be it bowling or batting, I never got too technical with him. It was always about keeping him in a mentally good space, even at home,” says Lad, whom Thakur refers to as “my second father”.
After starting his journey from a village more than 10 kilometres from Palghar — now a district headquarter — Thakur would travel almost three hours one way to play an odd school game for his alma mater, Tarapore Vidya Mandir (TVM).
His father, Narendra, a farmer who was a popular cricketer in and around Mahim-Kelve, their native village, used to accompany Thakur. In 2006, Thakur was part of the TVM squad which took on Swami Vivekanand International School (SVIS), coached by Lad, in a 45-over game.
“He picked up four wickets. But more than the wickets, I was convinced I had never seen a bowler bowling faster than him in Mumbai’s under-15 circuit,” recalls Lad.
The coach met him and his father and suggested he switch to SVIS, which had started becoming popular as Rohit Sharma’s school. Thakur Sr. flatly declined. “He would have to travel almost three hours one way from his home, and the SSC Board exam was just a year away, so the parents refused.”
Lad is relentless when it comes to honing a talent. He called the Thakurs “22 times in the next three months”. Then, one fine day, he consulted his wife and called the Thakurs again. “I want him to live in my home,” he told Thakur’s parents.
The Thakurs relented and Thakur moved from Palghar to Borivali, staying at Lad’s home for a year before relocating to another western suburb. This move disrupted his association with Bharat Chamare, who played a significant role in his early years in Palghar. Thakur then joined the prestigious Shivaji Park Gymkhana Academy, where Pravin Amre, a renowned coach known for transforming batters, guided his development.
“Mind you, he was selected in our academy as a bowler, so perhaps we were negligent in paying more attention to his batting. But one could sense that he could think like a batter, a rarity for a genuine fast bowler,” says Amre.
Thakur was fast-tracked into the Ranji Trophy set-up. Weeks after turning 21, he made his First-Class debut against Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s Rajasthan in 2012, coincidentally with Rohit as Mumbai’s stand-in captain.
Despite being quick, Thakur had a reputation for being ‘wayward’. Later in the season, with Ajit Agarkar lifting the 2012–13 Ranji Trophy title as captain and Sachin Tendulkar playing the knockouts, Shardul got an earful from the Mumbai seniors.
“Everyone told him his pace would be of little use if he didn’t get fitter and learn control,” says Lad.
The result: Thakur shed 13 kilos ahead of the next season and never looked back. To Thakur’s good fortune, Amre, who had guided Mumbai to three Ranji Trophy titles during his previous five-season stint starting in 2006, returned as the Mumbai head coach for 2014–15.
By then, Thakur was swinging the red ball both ways at 140+ kph.
“At the start of the season, I told him, ‘You will do what I tell you to’. He listened to me, and the results are for everyone to see,” says Amre.
Thakur was the joint-highest wicket-taker that season, claiming 48 wickets in 10 games. Aditya Tare, who became captain mid-season, nicknamed him “The Bull” due to his incredible endurance and never-give-up attitude. Thakur would willingly field in the scorching heat, making lunging saves to prevent boundaries or runs.
Despite his all-round contributions, he still carried the label of being ‘wayward’. particularly in limited-overs cricket. In an interview with this writer in 2018, Thakur stressed that the “lack of white-ball matches in local cricket” meant Mumbai bowlers struggled to cope with the white-ball at the inter-state or IPL (Indian Premier League) level.
Amre was at the forefront of solving this problem. Quietly, during that season, he passed on two white Kookaburra balls to him and told him to keep bowling with them wherever he went. When Thakur thanked the coach, Amre told him, “Call me after you earn 100 wickets in international cricket.”
The coach was all smiles when Thakur called him in 2022.
“He reminded me about the conversation and told me he had crossed the landmark. I just had to give him a nudge,” says Amre.
That’s why Lad is confident that Thakur will come out with flying colours in the World Cup.
“He is a self-made and combative cricketer and if you rub him the wrong way, he will quietly prove you wrong,” Lad says.
“Time and again, be it in Australia, South Africa, or India, and across various formats, Shardul has shown the world that he can be trusted as an all-rounder. I am sure he will justify the tag in the World Cup.”
Should Lad’s prediction come true, he will again give many more interviews about Thakur, not just Rohit.
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