Ruturaj Gaikwad, 23, has finished what he calls the "one of the most challenging times" in his career yet. His second IPL season with Chennai Super Kings should have only been about finally being able to break into the XI and make it count. Instead, it started with him testing positive for Covid-19 multiple times and spending large amounts of time in isolation.
Currently on a break from cricket after finishing the IPL with three back-to-back match-winning half-centuries, Gaikwad spoke about the time in isolation, the challenges of a bio-bubble life, and how chats with MS Dhoni and Mike Hussey helped him overcome negativity.
Tell us about the IPL season. It seems to have been really tough for you, on and off the field.
It was full of ups and downs. There were a lot of lessons. It was a tough start with me testing Covid positive. There were many days where I just couldn't do the things I wanted to, and I understood none of it was in my hands - I simply had to wait. It was a very tough time, but I'm thankful to the support I got both from the team and the management. And after that, even when I started playing and got two ducks in my first three games, they kept faith in me.
What was the experience of being in isolation like?
I had tested positive but I was asymptomatic. So I had to be in isolation for two weeks and then return two negatives [results] before I could rejoin the bubble. It was a time where I literally couldn't do anything. It played on my mind, because your team-mates are all training hard, trying to prepare in the best possible way with whatever time they have for a tournament as demanding as the IPL. So it was a tough time for me. I won't say it was easy.
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Did you develop a routine during your time in isolation?
It's easy to drift into negativity. It's a bit like being dropped and just sitting at home and doing nothing. You get that feeling sometimes. I just tried to distract myself. I watched a lot of TV shows and movies - literally all day sometimes. Then I kept talking to friends or family back home over video calls. My family was worried about how I'd handle it all by myself. It got really tough when I tested positive even after completing the two-week isolation, despite following all the routines I was given. It was very frustrating. I kept testing positive for another week, so all in all, I lost about four weeks of preparation time.
What did you tell yourself then?
I just had to keep reminding myself that someday or the other I would test negative and get back to the ground. I also had the faith and belief that this wasn't going to be my last chance to play in the IPL. I knew I had the ability and potential, so if not this year, I knew I would make a comeback some other time, maybe next year. This helped me channel things in a positive way.
What did you speak about to your coach, Stephen Fleming, and MS Dhoni during this time?
They just wanted me to focus completely on my health and body, take care about how I was feeling in the mind and not allow myself to get too worked up. They kept asking me to speak to whoever I wanted at any time of the day or night. They didn't want me to drown in negativity. MS told me: cricket-wise, you're good; it's just a matter of time. Those words helped me stay positive.
"If I am in a situation where I need six off two balls, I can time the ball and get the runs, as compared to someone else who will rely on big hits, so I'm not too fussed about power-hitting"
It must have been such a relief to test negative after four weeks.
Oh, it was amazing! I think we'd played Mumbai Indians and the entire team had just returned to the hotel when I [could finally meet] them. That's when I realised, however much you talk to someone online or on video calls, it isn't the same as seeing them in person. I hadn't seen my team-mates for 30 days and suddenly they're all patting you on the back, they're around you. It was great.
Our management ensured we were all in a very good space. Our team room was a lively space, where the entire team connected with each other. I got to know them all personally, whether it was DJ Bravo, Shane Watson, Faf or Dhoni. I never felt there was a senior-junior gap. Maybe if we weren't in a bubble, things would have been different with a lot of photo shoots, sponsor events, commercial events, etc. But because we were all in one space, it helped to get to know everyone in and out, get to know their interests, likes and dislikes. It was really nice.
Finally, you're going out to debut for CSK. Walking in to bat at No. 5 in a chase of 217. And then, first ball, you're out. What is going through your mind?
It took me four weeks to recover. I literally had two training sessions. Even though I was asymptomatic, I felt I got a bit tired easily. It takes a toll on your stamina. You have to take a lot of deep breaths, keep breathing. So for me, coming into the match and playing with that kind of intensity suddenly was a bit difficult. Maybe it wouldn't have been had I had two weeks of preparation time.
Did you regret that shot - running down the pitch first ball and being stumped?
Coming into that situation, I knew I wasn't prepared and it was for reasons beyond my control. I had never batted at No. 5 in my career. Maybe in a few club games I may have batted at four. And if I was in this situation in a local game, I would instinctively take the bowler on. So I just trusted my instinct. I was pretty sure if I had a way, I could have easily scored ten runs off ten balls for myself. After all it was my debut. Nobody wants to get out for a duck. But I thought about what the team needed. We had lost three wickets, it was a big chase, the asking rate was high and I decided to go after the spinner. It just didn't come off.
Then in your next game you batted with Faf du Plessis in another big chase, 176 against the Delhi Capitals. You came out in the middle order again, and this time you were run out.
Yes, again I went out to bat in the middle. MS Dhoni told me to take my time, back my game and then once I got stuck in, I can go after the bowling. I had made 5, and then I was in this mix-up with Faf. I knew in that situation, he was more important to the team's cause. It was important that he be there in the middle.
I wasn't prepared for these two games, to be honest.
And then you opened the innings, in your third game, against the Mumbai Indians, and Trent Boult gets you first ball.
I was really disappointed with this duck. Two ducks in three games. Disappointed because I was opening, something I'm used to. After that game, Dhoni had a long chat with me. He said, "We know the situation you've gone through and how you've just come out of it. Just enjoy the remainder of the season without worrying about pressure or expectation. You will be playing all three remaining matches. Just enjoy your time in the middle and don't think of what has happened." Knowing I would still get my chances after three low scores lifted me up massively. He also spoke about how sometimes results won't go your way despite best preparation and that as long as I was honest to the game and prepared in the best way I could be, nothing else should bother me.
Was there any one person you really connected with at CSK, someone you could talk a lot to about your game?
I really enjoyed spending time with Mike Hussey and talking to him. After that game against Mumbai, he told me many world-class batsmen have struggled against quality swing bowling in the past. And I was facing [Boult] for the first time. I forged a close bond with Hussey, because our games are quite similar. We rely on timing, taking quick singles. He spoke a lot about batting, the level of preparedness you should have, how you try and assess bowling, conditions, and so many other things.
And finally the runs just flew off your bat and you finished with three half-centuries in a row.
It was more of a relief for me - it told me that I am good enough to be at this level and take on the best players in the world. I knew within that it was just a matter of time and it was nice to see it all come together finally.
It has been nearly a month since you returned from the IPL, what have you been up to?
I've taken time off to be with family. I'm just giving myself some time to recover from what was a difficult time. It's not like I'm complacent or anything, it's not like I want to enjoy myself because I've scored three fifties in a row. It's more about what I went through.
What are you looking forward to doing with regard to your cricket before the next IPL?
I want to work on my fitness - that's something I couldn't put much work into for the last three months. So it's fitness and strength training. As far as my batting goes, I think timing is my strength, and if I am in a situation where I need six off two balls, I can time the ball and get the runs, as compared to someone else who will rely on big hits. So I'm not too fussed about power-hitting. Yes it's important but I'm happy with where my game is at. I would like to work more on timing the ball to perfection, working on my strengths once I start training again.