Washington: ‘I love situations that test me’

“In the last couple of years, I haven’t been setting any sort of goals. And that’s what is helping me to stay in the present. It helps me to stay calm,” says the young all-rounder Washington Sundar, who lit up the TNPL this season.

Washington Sundar of Albert Tuti Patriots in action against Ruby Trichy Warriors in a TNPL match in Dindigul. With 459 runs from nine matches (average: 76.5), he emerged the highest scorer in TNPL this season.   -  B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

If a boy of 17 — who has not been attending school or college for the last three years — seated comfortably in a plush couch with one leg up , says things like, “I don’t believe in setting goals” and “Life, for me, is just cricket”, he, especially in this part of the world, could be construed as a careless youngster who needs career advice, or an irresponsible teenager who needs to mend his ways. But Washington Sundar can say them, and it’s only appropriate that he does. For, at an age so young, he’s climbing quickly up the ladder of cricket, inching closer and closer to the game’s highest level.

At five, he started going for practice sessions with his dad, M. Sundar, who had made it to the Tamil Nadu Ranji Trophy team probables. At 12, Washington was playing in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association’s fifth division league, with and against men in their 20s and 30s. At 16, he was part of the Indian team that reached the final of the 2016 Under-19 World Cup. A year later, in the Indian Premier League for the first time, he was unfazed by the spotlight, as he played an important role in taking his team, Rising Pune Supergiant, to the final.

Washington is not taking small steps; he is making giant leaps. The road ahead, as he acknowledges, will be tougher, trickier and more testing. But for now, he’s in high gear. In this year’s Tamil Nadu Premier League — which Chepauk Super Gillies won — he made 459 runs in nine games for Albert Tuti Patriots. That’s 262 more runs than anyone else made this season. He had just two scalps fewer than the leading wicket-taker Sai Kishore (17 wickets).

Until the final, the Patriots were unbeaten and this phase of invincibility was mainly made possible by Washington, who got four Man of the Match awards in the tournament — the last of which he received after blowing Chepauk Super Gillies away in the first qualifier. First, with the ball, he strangulated the team with a spell of two for five. Then he buried it with a 15-ball half-century (the fastest of the league) to take his team to the final.

A day before the big match, clad in a loose, lime-green round-neck T-shirt and navy blue shorts, Washington, seated comfortably on a plush couch in the lobby of a four-star hotel in Chennai, where the Patriots were put up, spoke to Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: Your mentor at Albert Tuti Patriots, Monty Desai, said you wrote “professional” when you were asked to express your thoughts in one word about this season’s TNPL before it began. What did you mean by that?

I think you can relate to that word in many aspects. You want to play this game to enjoy. You want to play because it’s your passion. And, if you’re going to be professional about your passion, there are high chances of you being successful is what I understood. It’s necessary to be professional because when you do well, the game gives you a lot — money, fame, respect. So, it’s necessary to respect the game and the only way you can respect the game is to be professional.

Last season you had a good outing with the ball. But this season, you top the charts in batting and bowling. Did you expect yourself to do this well?

What I’ve been doing this season, it was there the last season and even before that. It was just a matter of time. It took a while for me to tune my mindset to this format. You need to approach every game in this format in the best possible mindset. I knew I had to play with freedom, play fearless cricket if I want to get the best out of myself in this format. And, that’s what I’ve been doing.

 

How much did playing in IPL help you?

Definitely a lot. Especially playing for Pune (Rising Pune Supergiant). We’ve got a lot of star players… lot of leaders to be specific. We’ve got Mahendra Singh Dhoni, we’ve got Steven Smith, we’ve got Faf (du Plessis), we’ve got (Ben) Stokes, who would lead England in the future, and (Imran) Tahir. Definitely, there’s a lot to learn from them on the field or off it. Yes, I expected to play, but what was going on my mind was, when this tournament gets over, I should be going with a lot of takeaways so that I can implement them in the games I’d play in the future. And, I learnt a lot and that’s what’s helping me so far in TNPL.

Were you awed for the first time to share the dressing room with players like Smith and Dhoni, who’s your favourite cricketer...

Not really. But I was definitely happy. I felt lucky to be in the side. I watched (Dhoni) closely right from the first day. I noticed what he does off the field, what he does at practice, what he does in the bus… because I just wanted to learn from him. Everyone knows he’s one remarkable person. He’s really different from anyone else. I got to spend a lot of time with him.

So, how was it to meet him in person after admiring him on TV?

There’s a lot of difference. On TV, you wouldn’t be able to learn a lot from him. But when you’re with him, you get to know what he thinks about every game, how he approaches different teams. You’ll also have a lot of chances to have a conversation with him. He’s very, very approachable. You can go to his room anytime and start a discussion or clear a doubt.

He likes playing video games. Did you get a chance to play with him?

No. Nobody brought their Playstations.

You’d credited him in helping your game with his inputs. What exactly did he tell you?

He’s given a lot of them. But I’m still working on them. But during the play, he’ll come and tell me to slow down the pace, hit a certain length… things like that. And, the things he told me were simple and doable. They didn’t take a lot of effort. He’s someone who keeps everything simple. He’s someone who talks to you the same way as he does to Steven Smith or (Stephen) Fleming.

Washington Sundar... “I’ve grown up wanting to bat like Brian Lara. Then slowly, Yuvraj Singh.”   -  S. R. Raghunathan

Can you share the experience of interacting with Rahul Dravid when you were with the U-19 squad?

He appreciated me a lot. He told me what I’m capable of. That’s when I started believing in myself. If a cricketer, who’s played Test cricket for such a long time, tells me I am capable of doing this, then, it means I’m definitely capable of doing this. He won’t go to any cricketer and say he’s capable of doing this. So, that’s when I started to work on certain things more than how I used to. So, I think he’s been very supportive. Even he’s more or less like Mahi bhai. So there were a lot of takeaways from the (Under-19) World Cup campaign.

Do you recall anything specific that he said that has impacted your bowling or batting?

He wanted me to take my bowling as seriously as I took my batting. He wanted me to bowl a lot. Be it in the nets or the matches. He always insists on that. And, that’s what I’ve been doing since the Under-19 World Cup.

Your father, M. Sundar, being a district-level cricketer, you must’ve been introduced to the game at an early age…

Yeah. I remember going for practice when I was in UKG or first standard.

You were five, then?

Yeah. Four or five years.

But what’s the first cricket match that you remember watching?

I… I don’t remember that. But yeah, I used to go for all his (father’s) matches. I used to wait for the lunch sessions so that I could go there and play. My dad used to throw me some balls and I used to hit them. I grew up watching him play. That’s where it all started. He was able to see that I had some interest in playing cricket.

And, when did you decide to play cricket professionally?

I thought I could do something good in this game probably when I was 11 or 12, when I got 596 runs in 11 league games in fifth division. I didn’t know much about cricket. I just used to practice, practice, practice and play Under-14 games. But that year, I played fifth division. And to do that at that age was good for me. Then I told myself that I must be working more from now on.

There’s another member in your family who plays cricket, right?

Yeah...

Your sister, MS Shailaja, plays for Tamil Nadu Women. Do you discuss cricket at home?

No. We don’t talk about cricket at all. Honestly, I wouldn’t wish for her to talk about cricket. I would want to talk about other things. Ninety percent of the time, when I am away from home, I’m on a cricket ground. Over there I talk about cricket, I see cricket. So, when I go home, I want to be talking about something else.

So, you make sure you leave cricket as you enter home…

Yeah, and, it’s not necessary that I must tell them (family) this. They understand. So, we talk about other things, we go out.

Do you, as a family, watch cricket at least?

Only if it’s a good game. Like a Champions Trophy final or something.

What about your mother?

I think her efforts are so much that it’s only because of that I’ve been able to achieve so much at an early age. It’s only because of my mom’s and dad’s efforts. How much ever I work hard, I don’t think I could’ve been successful at a level like the IPL. I don’t think things would’ve been possible without their efforts or prayers.

When you started playing, did you want to do batting and bowling?

When I started, I didn’t have the plan or intention of (choosing) batting or bowling. But whenever I go for a practice session, soon after I finish batting, I used to bowl something — leg spin, off spin, something. Or if I am not bowling, I do wicket-keeping. My dad made me do those things. He didn’t want me to chumma (idly) stand after I’m done batting.  

Washington Sundar took his bowling seriously following an advice from Rahul Dravid. “He wanted me to bowl a lot. Be it in the nets or the matches. And that’s what I’ve been doing since the Under-19 World Cup,” says Washington.   -  B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

In another interview, you’d said you visualised playing a match-winning innings (162) for NCA in the final of the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s  pre-season Dr (Capt) K Thimmappiah Memorial Tournament in 2014 before the start of the tournament. Can you explain?

Yeah, I remember. We were doing really well. It was NCA U-23 versus Haryana. They had Yuzvendra Chahal, Jayant Yadav and Joginder Sharma. I was doing well in that tournament. I’d already got 96 against Mumbai and 64 or something against Karnataka. Then we were about to play them (Haryana) at the Chinnaswamy Stadium the next day. So we were there for a football session. I was in the middle of the ground, and I was visualising how’d it be if I could get a big hundred. And the ground was just beautiful. The grass, the stadium… it was all beautiful. I was really happy to be playing. It was a big tournament. So, yeah, I was visualising that.

What did you exactly see?

I saw myself playing good shots out of my strengths. Lifting my bat after a hundred. Things like that.

Do you do this before every game?

No.

You don’t consciously do it?

No.

Okay, so has it happened after this particular game.

No… I don’t think so… I think it happened before the Under-19 World Cup final. But I got out early then. But it was such a big occasion against a good side like West Indies. I was told I might bat higher if we lose early wickets. We were two down in the second over. I usually batted at six or seven. I went No. 4 that day. It was an opportunity. The previous day I thought what if I get to play at No. 4 and get my team through whatever situation (it) would be in. I was put in that situation. But I couldn’t capitalise on it.

Are there dismissals that have played out the way you’d visualised? Have you visualised any dismissals at all?

No.

Do you model your bowling after someone?

Not till now.

What about batting?

No… I’ve grown up wanting to play like Brian Lara. Then, slowly, Yuvraj Singh.

You’re known for your accuracy in bowling. What do you do to achieve this accuracy?

Practice. The more you bowl, the better you get in a particular aspect. Only if you bowl a lot, you will improve your accuracy, you will be able to hit the areas that you want to hit.

Do you experiment, say, coming up with a new variation…

I’ve been experimenting, hopefully it comes off.

Do you prioritise batting over bowling or vice-versa?

Till now, I haven’t done that. And, I hope I won’t do that in the future as well. Bowling has always given me opportunities. It’s what gave me my IPL stint. I try to bat and bowl at an equal measure.

What are your strengths in bowling and batting?

I think in bowling, it’s accuracy, my height. Batting, it’s hitting in the ‘V’.

In both the areas, what do you think needs improvement?

Any cricketer will always have things that he needs to improve. But right now, I am not thinking about those things. I am batting well. I hope to continue to do well.

You seem calm and composed on the field. Does it come naturally to you? There are athletes who say they put a poker-face on when they’re competing.

I really feel calm. It’s hard to put that poker-face on because the moment you try to act, you will not have things under your control. Either you must be calm or you must be aggressive. Whatever’s inside, that’s what you must show outside. Otherwise, you won’t be able to do things the way you want on most occasions. I’ve managed to be calm and composed in whatever situation that I’ve been put in. I love situations that test me.

You’d said in an interview that you analyse batsmen by watching their videos. Do you do this before every game?

I did this a lot in IPL. I didn’t do this elsewhere. And, I had to do this in IPL because I would’ve seen a lot of David Warner’s batting on TV but I wouldn’t have noticed his weakness.

On an average, how much time do you spend doing it?

Forty-five minutes.

And, you plan specific deliveries for different batsmen?

Definitely. What I learnt was even the best of the batsmen can’t hit all the balls. Everyone has an area, where (if the ball is pitched there) they will have to play it out and go to the other end. I learnt this by watching these videos. So, my video analyst has helped me a lot. And, analysing these videos helped me in my batting and also made me a more mature bowler.

You’ve been a part of many teams. Who are your close friends in cricket?

Apar (Baba Aparajith) is quite close to me. His brother Inder (Baba Indrajith) too. I’ve got good friends in my club side — MRF. Kaushik Gandhi and I — we get along really well. Also, U. Susheel. I’ve known him for many years. These guys are quite elder to me. Kaushik Gandhi is 10 years elder, Susheel is 10 years elder. My friends are mostly 22-30. So, I enjoy the company of people who’re elder to me.

What do you guys do off the field?

We play games. Playstation or Monopoly. Or we chumma crack jokes or pull each other’s legs.

Do you have friends outside cricket?

I do have a couple of friends. Not many. Because for the last three years, I haven’t been to a school or college. Only this year I joined a BBA course.

You think it’s difficult to maintain friends outside the game if you’re a sportsperson?

Not really, but only if you’ve good friends. You can’t have just friends outside cricket, as you rarely get to talk to them.

You listen to A. R. Rahman, right? Which is your favourite song of his?

A lot of them. If I consolidate and tell, I don’t think that’ll be fair.

Otherwise, what do you do when you aren’t playing cricket?

If I am with friends, I am more or less occupied. Talking to them, playing with them. Or I watch movies. I love watching movies. I watch TV shows.

You go to a movie hall?

No no, I watch at home, in my laptop.

Do you hang out a lot in the city? Are there any favourite haunts?

Not really. But I love going to Chinese restaurants.

Do people recognise you when you go out these days? Have you ever felt like a celebrity?

Honestly, yes (laughs). Not a celebrity. But a popular face.

Do they come asking for autographs and selfies?

Yes.

And, are you comfortable with it?

Depends on the place. Sometimes it’s okay. But sometimes, like when you’re standing on the road, people approach you... but I can’t complain or crib. That’s how it is.

Do you believe in setting goals?

In the last couple of years, I haven’t been setting any sort of goals. And, that’s what is helping me to stay in the present. It helps me to stay calm. I think setting goals puts you under pressure, puts you under anxiety, gets you to overthink and you’ll forget this moment. I used to set goals and I changed myself not to be that way. That’s why I am able to do whatever I can at this moment in the best possible way. For me, it’s better not to have any goals.