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South Africa v India

Ruturaj Gaikwad has earned his ‘next big thing’ tag

Gaikwad South Africa
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

After a series of setbacks last year, Ruturaj Gaikwad bounced into form with a breakthrough IPL season, and only seems to be getting better, garnering big runs at a frenzied pace. The time is right for him to make a proper transition to international cricket, writes Aadya Sharma.

In August last year, Ruturaj Gaikwad, uncapped in the IPL and isolating in Dubai with the Chennai Super Kings, posted a video of himself from inside his hotel room, doing clap push-ups with the Burj Khalifa in the background. “Sky is the limit,” read the caption, just like the many motivational labels that newbies seem to love to attach to their content on social media. Here was a bright talent, expected to be part of Chennai’s new era, looking forward to what was a dream opportunity. Two days later, it became known that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

As CSK captain MS Dhoni later revealed, it took longer than most people for Gaikwad to recover, but he pushed on, breaking into the XI right after he got better. “I simply had to wait,” he later said, explaining the unfamiliarity of not being around his teammates for 30 days straight. Isolation taught him a lot, but the biggest virtue would have been patience – when he got on to the field, it was evident that he was ready to grind through tough phases and strike back when the time was opportune.

Scores of 0 and 5 in his first two IPL innings weren’t a great projection for Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy’s second-highest run-getter in 2019/20 (419 runs, strike-rate: 146.50). Gaikwad, who averages 52.81 in List A cricket, admitted to being flushed by the after-effects of Covid and undercooked by the lack of preparation. Benched for a month, he returned to collect another duck. This wasn’t the Gaikwad that was rated so highly in Maharashtra’s cricketing circles.

Just like him, we simply had to wait.

In 19 IPL innings since, he’s hit seven fifties and an unbeaten hundred, topping the run-charts for the 2021 season. In five Syed Mushtaq Ali games last year, he averaged 51.80 with three fifties at a strike-rate of 149.71. He followed the first half of IPL 2021 with an India debut, featuring in the T20Is in Sri Lanka. Redemption, no doubt, has been sweet. But this is just the beginning.

As you see more of Gaikwad, you realise that, in a world that thrives on inventiveness, there’s nothing particularly striking about his batting style. It’s just so proper and smooth, built up around the foundations of a tight technique that still allows him to essay those silken drives and glances in a format as frenzied as this. And T20 isn’t even his best format – he’s been immensely successful in List A cricket, gifted with the ability to keep going, converting solid starts to big, impactful scores. In 64 games, he’s hit 11 centuries at a strike-rate of 99. Four of those tons came in a sic-day window this month.

With scores of 136, 154*, 121, 24 and 168,  in the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy, Gaikwad’s progress has become a steep upward graph, with the sky truly being the limit. Few young batters have consistently combined tenacity and technical solidity the way he has over the past year. At 24, the world is in front of him. He’s the ‘next big thing’, and has been for more than a few months now. Isn’t it time for the next logical step?

The ODI series in South Africa, scheduled next month after the Tests, could be an opportunity to help him make that transition. There will be doubts over his readiness, for the highveld is a different challenge altogether, but isn’t this the best time to test him out, backing him when he’s scoring runs the way he is? Dilip Vengsarkar, the former chairman of selectors, recently echoed the sentiment: “It’s not like Ruturaj is 18 or 19. He’s 24 now. There’s no point in picking him when he’ll be 28.” Even in the past, the Tendulkars, Rohits and Kohlis were all plucked when young, and backed when they were scoring big runs in domestic cricket. Gaikwad has already played T20Is, but it shouldn’t stop at a one-off series, and this golden form shouldn’t wither away as he waits for his next chance.

The Indian top order is packed, currently akin to rush hour traffic on a Mumbai road, and there’s no dearth of choices. Given the ongoing drama in Indian cricket though, it’s likely that at least one of the batting spots could open up, and the person deserving, at least on current form, of that big break is Gaikwad. You don’t see a batter hit four hundreds in six days often. He’s waited enough, the lad. The time is now.

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