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Keeper of promise kept waiting

Karnataka's young wicket-keeper-batsman, Thilak Naidu, is waiting in the wings for a national call.

A PAIR of trousers can tell a hard tale. It does for Karnataka wicket-keeper-batsman, Thilak Naidu.

A decade ago, the 24-year-old had just one pair of trousers to play cricket. And for four years, his mother was busy patching it up while Thilak chased his moment of glory.

``It was tough then. But that period helped me become mentally tough,'' he says.

Now trousers are never in short supply and a smile rests easy. He was one among the three players who had a stint at the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy in Adelaide as part of the Border-Gavaskar Scholarship awarded to promising National Cricket Academy (NCA) trainees. The other two players were L. Balaji of Tamil Nadu and Gautam Gambhir of Delhi.

Cricketing revolutions are the staple fare Down Under with Australia setting fresh benchmarks. And a small upheaval has left an imprint on Thilak too. He talks with a passion never attributed to him when it comes to matters pertaining to fitness. Here was a batsman often dubbed "sluggish" between the wickets, the kind who wades into run outs now talking about lean body mass and feeling light on his feet. "I have lost seven kilos after my stint with the NCA and at the Commonwealth Academy in Australia. I feel that I have better movements behind the stumps as well as between the wickets,'' he says. His time in Adelaide, the Land of Don Bradman, was well spent. "I learnt a lot from Rodney Marsh and Wayne Phillips. I feel positively different about the value of fitness now,'' he says.

Thilak had his bag of woes as a child pursuing cricketing dreams. Money was never easy in a family of seven, including two brothers and two sisters, but his family's sporting bent helped. Thilak's family was into baseball and he was also a centre-field for the State. "However, the sport has no takers here and cricket proved to be a good option," he recalls.

Any regrets on the road not taken? "Not really, thanks to cricket I have everything that I want. I got a job with the State Bank of Mysore and bagging the Border-Gavaskar Scholarship is a recognition of my status as a promising youngster.''

The President's XI, winners of the KSCA Coca-Cola under-13 inter-zonal tournament. Standing (from left): Abrar Hazi, K.P. Rohan, S. Rohit (captain), R. Arun Kumar (coach), S. Suraj, Amrith S. Narayan, Suhail, and Aditya Rao. Sitting (from left): Akhil Vishwanath, Kaunain Abbas, Sandesh Satish, Nikhil, Arjun Hoysala, M.D. Amith, and Shashindra.

The choice to be a cricketer seems easy for a nation replete with players who want to emulate Parthiv Patel's hop, skip, and jump into the Indian team long before a shaving kit is of some use. However, for Thilak, his choice evoked some resistance. "My late uncle, Rammurthy Naidu, felt that with so many players pursuing cricket, my options might be limited, while my father, C. Suryaprakash, who was a former hockey player, asked me to focus on hockey. However, when I opted for cricket, they encouraged me and, in fact, it was my uncle who asked me to focus on being a wicket-keeper, saying that there is always a need for a wicket-keeper," he recounts.

The first big step towards Ranji recognition began with his four centuries for National High School, Basavanagudi. "I used to practise with the Bangalore Cricketers and then go to school and on most days I was late for the first hour. But the hard work paid and I made my debut for the State under-16 in 1993 against Hyderabad away. I didn't do too well in my under-16 years but while playing for the State under-19, I scored back-to-back hundreds - 156 n.o. against Kerala and 105 against Andhra," Thilak recaps his early days.

A stint with the Board President's XI (Under 19) against the visiting South Africans at Patiala in 1996 stoked his ambition to play for the country one day. "I had six victims in that match and since I was batting lower down the order, I could only manage a 12 not out." Thilak was part of the India under-19 team that played against the South African under-19 team in 1996.

``I made my India under-19 debut in the third test at Kanpur and was out first ball to M. Ntini.'' But, with a grin, Thilak stretches that personal snippet: "In the second innings, I was unbeaten on 40 odd and then I kept wickets in the under-19 one-day series too. My team mates then - Reetinder Singh Sodhi, Wasim Jaffer, Hemang Badani, S.S. Das, Murali Karthik, Harvinder Singh, and Dinesh Mongia - have all played for the country.''

``Hopefully, I will also get my turn soon.'' That, in a way, reflects Thilak's never-say-die attitude.

Thilak raced past his formative years playing for India under-19 in its Sri Lankan tour and he also went to England as part of Kailash Gattani's Star Cricket Club. Yet, State honours eluded him. Avinash Vaidya and Somashekar Shiruguppi were the first choice keepers and Thilak toyed with the idea of playing in the Chennai league. "I did think about opting for the Chennai League seriously. I had done well in the Shafi Darashah under-22 tournament and yet, I was not getting a break in the State team. But I got my chance in 1998."

Thilak made his Ranji debut against Goa at Panjim. But there was a twist - Thilak was selected as a middle order batsman - and he did justice to his role with centuries against Haryana and Punjab in the knock-out stage. Karnataka eventually won the Ranji Trophy that season, defeating Madhya Pradesh in the final and Thilak had cemented his place as a middle order batsman, while his keeping gloves gathered dust.

He, however, snatched his gloves back after Somashekar Shiruguppi was dropped in the 1999-2000 season. And while Thilak wavered between the expansive drive and the sheepish run-out, talk about his "attitude" did the rounds. He was known to make not-so-polite enquiries against rival batsmen and his sledging did get his rivals' goat. A fuming Robin Singh pointing his bat at Thilak while returning to the pavilion last year was a case in point.

Thilak counters that criticism: "Look, out there we are trying to win and if chatting up the batsman can irritate him and cause his downfall, why not get on his nerves? If he is strong he will cope. People do sledge even when we go out to bat, how come no one mentions that? It's funny, people say you got to be aggressive and when you remain aggressive, they stick an `attitude-problem' label on you!" Thilak fumes.

Looking for opportunities. — Photos: K. Bhagya Prakash

Sachin's footsteps remain a constant echo in India's cricketing culture. And Thilak loves to follow his hero's approach. His shots do have the Sachin stamp but being a clone is never easy and ambitious shots have often pinned Thilak down. "Yes, I watch Sachin closely and I have tried to emulate his shots. But now I am a lot more selective. I have worked on my cuts and paddle sweeps and in Australia, I also improved my front foot play. Besides Sachin, I love Adam Gilchrist because he is a team man and there is so much joy in his approach to cricket," says Thilak.

Four seasons, four Ranji centuries, and with more than 60 victims behind the stumps, Thilak is awaiting his turn for a national call. NCA bowling coach Balwinder Singh Sandhu believes that Thilak has a chance in India's one-day squad. "He has the talent. Just that he should not get carried away. He remains in contention for a berth in the World Cup squad," Sandhu says, while Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) Talent Resource Development Officer, Dilip Vengsarkar, adds: "I won't say he is great, but he is definitely good.''

If Thilak saw a glimmer of hope that the on-going Champions Trophy controversy could swing his fortunes, he was in for disappointment. For some strange reason, the selectors left him out of their equations when a list of 25 probables was hurriedly drawn to counter moves by the top cricketers to stay away from the Colombo event. Thilak is understandably downhearted that he is not in the short-list for the Champions Trophy. But he is determined to wait. "I have improved as a keeper and as a batsman over the years, and I don't want to be found wanting when I do get a break at the highest level. So I guess this wait is worth it and I wish to thank the KSCA and my Bank colleagues for all their encouragement,'' he says.

In the past, Karnataka gave Indian cricket its best wicket-keeper ever, Kirmani, and it also gifted the nation with perhaps the most talented among the lot - Sadanand Vishwanath. And while Kirmani became a legend, Sadanand sadly lost his footing on the wayside of fame. If Thilak can read the right clues from history, the State and the nation will be proud.


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