Ever since speed guns were added to enhance the viewing experience, a pacer clocking 140 kph has been as rare in the Under-19 World Cup as India not making the final of it. During India’s semifinal versus Australia , Rajvardhan Hangargekar bowled faster than his previous quickest of 139.3, his fastest in the semifinal being 141.7 kph.
No wonder then that Hangargekar has been the talk of the tournament. The commentators and connoisseurs alike have marked him as ‘one for the future.’ Had it not been for timely help by the right people to back his ambition and hard work, Hangargekar may well have ended up as a tennis-ball cricket hero in the bylanes of Tuljapur, a town in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region better known for its religious significance.
When Hangargekar, then a 14-year-old who switched from off-spin to fast bowling, was selected in Maharashtra’s Under-16 squad for the Vijay Merchant Trophy in 2016-17 riding on his performances for Osmanabad, more than the coaches, it was the strength and conditioning coach of the team who found him impressive.
In 2016, Tejas Matapurkar, the trainer, was coping with “the demotion” of being asked to work with Maharashtra’s Under-16 squad after being with the U-23 squad a season earlier. Suddenly towards the end of the season, a boy who Matapurkar would often refer to as “Stallion” due to his work ethic, walked up to him and asked him for his off-season workout.
“One of the most striking early memories was I would call him “Stallion” and one day, he walked up to me and said “ kaay sir, mala ghodyawarun chidawta (why would you taunt me for a horse), so I told him to check the meaning of Stallion. The next morning, he showed me his phone, with Stallion being his wallpaper,” Matapurkar says.
ALSO READ - Ravi Kumar, the next left-arm pacer in the supply line
“His work ethic and raw speed was impressive, so I told him ideally he should be working on his fitness in Pune rather than staying in hometown. He was ready to come over but needed help, so I told him to come home and stay with me and Masuma (his wife, also a trainer),” Matapurkar recalls.
Cut to 2022, and even though Hangargekar has moved into a rented apartment nearby, he still spends almost most of his free time at the Matapurkars.
Let’s leave the tales of how Masuma jokingly refers to “Aarav as her son” and “Raj as my son” for another day. For the time being, let’s return to early 2017 when Hangargekar started training with Matapurkar.
Focus on running
Being a reputed trainer, Matapurkar realised Hangargekar required to improve his running technique to get his body ready for fast bowling. After all, the run-up is one of the most important aspects for a fast bowler.
ALSO READ - Bharat Arun on India’s pace revolution, the next Test captain, and importance of Ashwin
So the duo hopped on Matapurkar’s Bullet and rode to the athletics track to seasoned sprinting coach Sanjay Patankar. “I requested Patankar sir to take him under the wings so that he would learn the running techniques, which would help him remain injury-free in future and get that much-needed rhythm early on. For the next seven-eight months, he trained daily with Patankar,” Matapurkar says.
By early 2018, Hangarkekar had started looking like a fast bowler but didn’t really have anyone around to hone his skills. After all, despite the thrust on fitness for a modern-day cricketer, cricket still remains primarily a skill-based sport.
Enter Mohan Jadhav, who is now known to be one of Ruturaj Gaikwad’s coaches at the Dilip Vengsarkar Academy on the outskirts of Pune. Besides Ruturaj’s alma mater, Jadhav has also been in charge of the Veerangan Cricket Academy near the Lohegaon airport. Matapurkar and Hangargekar would often be training together when the former requested Jadhav to take a look at him.
ALSO READ - All-rounder Raj Angad Bawa making opportunities count
“In 2018, naturally he had pace but needed to be taught the skill of moving the ball, using the ball and most importantly, setting a batsman up and not just beating him with pace with every passing ball,” says Jadhav.
The first time Jadhav remembers they clocked Hangargekar in 2018 with a speed gun that Matapurkar imported through a friend who was coming down from USA, he was bowling at 127 kph. “In the next two years, he gained 10kph, which was actually remarkable,” adds Jadhav.
“And it’s not over yet. If he remains injury-free, which I am sure he will since he and Tejas have been working so hard towards it, he will soon be among the fastest Indian bowlers.”
But more than pace, Jadhav recalls a phase where Hangargekar learnt to use bouncer as his stock ball. “Every young fast bowler wants to pitch it short and make a point to the batter. But over a period of time, he has learnt to use it judiciously and bowl fuller instead. That’s also helped him beat the batsmen with his pace,” Jadhav adds.
Neither Jadhav nor Matapurkar are surprised to see their ward breaching the 140 kph barrier. After all, Matapurkar recalls Hangargekar has already bowled at “143 kph” while practising.
Over the last five years, as Hangargekar’s career has taken flight just like the planes on the adjoining runway - having already represented Maharashtra in the senior category. While he has emulated his mentor and has started riding his own Bullet now, the lure of Indian Premier League franchises chasing him ahead of the mega auction hasn’t deterred him from his main goal.
ALSO READ - Sourav Ganguly: Leading BCCI not as challenging as captaining India
“Both of us are clear that it’s nation first, so international cricket remains the ultimate goal. IPL may or may happen now and it will at some point of time happen and he will perform as well. But he is desperate to do well for India and he knows that the Under-19 World Cup is just a stepping stone.”
Jadhav adds that between the quarterfinal and the semifinal, it was Rajvardhan who reassured him that he was not shying away from his “ultimate aim due to the sudden limelight he has come into.”
Eye on the prize
Matapurkar has no doubts over Hangargekar continuing to keep getting better and strive to fulfil his objectives. He recalls an instance early on in 2017 when Hangargekar for three days could not lift weights properly at the small gym they would work together.
“When I asked him what was wrong, he said all through the nights he was playing PubG , so I told him to stop playing cricket and keep playing PubG instead. Since that day till now, he hasn’t downloaded a game on his mobile phone,” Matapurkar says.
“Once he has set his eyes on the big prize, nothing can stop him and he will take all these opportunities as a stepping stone en route harbouring the dream of playing for India.”