Ayush Badoni: The man who lets his bat do the talking and tonking

When Ayush Badoni, 22, shuffled across and lapped Hardik Pandya to fine-leg boundary, his childhood coach Balraj Kumar laughed at his home in Punjab. He had just told his disbelieving daughter to watch out for such a shot. “He used to play that shot when he was 9 years old!” laughs Ballu sir, minutes after Ayush’s impressive IPL debut where he stunned Gujarat with an assured game-turning fifty.

Three shots stood out in the knock of the former U-19 world cup player, three shots that Ayush is likely to tap the Hotstar app in the night to re-watch. That Pandya lap, an imperious swipe over midwicket off a Rashid Khan googly, and a stunning blast over cow corner against the pace of Lockie Ferguson. A high-quality spinner, a pacer, and a medium pacer who was trying to strangle, were swatted away by the debutant.

The coach’s mind snaps into a series of images from the past and present. The emotional snapshot is of a night at Ayush’s home, when he was around 14. Despite three hundreds at the U-14 stage, the coach says, the boy wasn’t picked next year for the U-16 and was absolutely shattered. “Ab kya karoon sir main?” (What should I do now?) The boy would yelp from the floor where he was lying. For a few hours before that in late evening training, Ayush had taken out his anger and frustration by belting the ball real hard. Balraj hadn’t spoken a word then, and just kept throwing the ball. Now, near midnight, Ayush went, “Three 100s sir are nothing?” Balraj, the coach, raised his voice, “So, just hundreds is your life? You will just give up? From tomorrow, we shall practice for double hundreds.”

Ayush Badoni with his childhood coach Balraj Kumar.

Ayush, the coach recalls, sprang up at the bed to splutter out, “double hundreds? Okay sir.” As things would pan out, an injury to another player would get Ayush his chance at a game. “He got that in Rohtak against Haryana. Not a batting pitch, What did he do? Hit a double hundred! Now who could stop him?!”

He now snaps to the here and now to the moment Ayush got out. “His father called almost immediately and said, do you think he should have stayed not out?” I told him, “No no.. your son doesn’t play such cricket. Always team. What’s the use of not out? A four or six would be better!”

“Do you know he hit four sixes in an over for India U-19 in Asia cup in Dhaka in Bangladesh?” the coach queries. An interview from the past had Ayush talking about how in his mind he wanted to go for six sixes at one stage but one rolled away across the boundary as a four. “It might seem as if I am talking him up too much now but he has the capability to do it in the IPL and beyond. He can get 20-25 runs in an over also. Just wait and watch!”

Indian cricket is filled with characters like Ballu sir, those near-anonymous coaches who do all the hard work silently. Hardik Pandya has one in Baroda, Mayank Agarwal has one in Bangalore and they still turn to them for training and mentoring advice. “Our relationship I remember turned one day when his father called me home. Ayush’s middle-class home was just opposite the school and I had been already telling his father that his son has the spark to make it big in cricket. He would keep saying we are just a middle class family. His mother, a teacher, wanted Ayush to focus on studies. They weren’t sure how their young kid was going to break into the cricketing system. Even dreams have to be sensible, you see for many of us Indians!”

Mind of his own

But Balraj says he was sure about his hunch. “Usually kids that young tend to copy a Sachin or Dravid or some big player. But Ayush right from the start was an original. And had great timing.” When his father was still not convinced and also wondered how such a short practice time at school is going to translate to anything, Balraj built a pitch at the terrace. “Cement track only, I put up nets around the walls and every day after school, we would be at it for hours. Often I would sleep at their home, only. And I told the father to keep throwing the ball when I returned to Punjab.”

Balraj Kumar cuts a cake to celebrate Ayush Badoni’s IPL selection.

As Ayush got bigger and more serious, he would alternate his cricket coaching at the Sonnet cricket academy with the famed coach Tarik Sinha and still be in touch with Balraj.

“Ayush doesn’t speak or smile much! Even Tarik Sinha sir once told me, ‘Ballu, yeh apni marzi ka raja hai (he does what he wishes!)’. Even his aunts have asked me, ‘why doesn’t he speak to us more!’ Which is true and which is what I believe will take him a long way. He has that attitude. You can call it what you like; I see it as a special player’s focus and mindset. Not everyone has it; he does. He has worked closely with many big names from Rahul Dravid to Sinha sir, and he will take from them what he sees as suiting his game, but he isn’t a pleaser, if you know what I mean. Apni marzi ka maalik hai; he is sure of what he wants and will do that with a stubborn focus. Now that he has finally got the chance, he will definitely grab it. He will make it to the top.”

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