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Chopra: Ready for an open challenge

Ashish Magotra in Visakhapatnam | September 29, 2003

Hype can sometimes be misplaced. At others it can help to put a young man's career on the fast track. But the pressure generated by hype can often prove too much to handle. Many talented players come and go, but the few who survive are special indeed.

Called a steadying influence in the dressing room by some and a front-runner for the opener's slot in the Indian Test team by others, Akash Chopra at first sight is not what you would expect. The youngster from Delhi is a jovial man who laughs heartily, loves music, and is passionate about movies.

But talk to him about cricket and you see him put on his game face.

"Cricket is your teacher," says Chopra. "It teaches you a lot. Most importantly, you realise that being a cricketer is not just about playing cricket. If you play at a certain level, for example I play for Delhi, which has a population of over a crore, you inherit certain responsibilities."

Chopra started young. By the age of nine, he had already played for a club. Under the guidance of coach Tara Sinha, he quickly progressed through the under-15, u-17 and u-19 ranks to the India 'A' side. Good performances on the India 'A' tour got him noticed. Now, he is seen as an India prospect.

"My coach had a good eye and he decided what a kid should be," remembers Chopra. "His word was final. There was no argument. He has taught me since childhood. I was moulded in a certain way. He drilled it into my head that the only way to play good cricket is to have a solid technique to fall back on."

As an opener, much is expected of Chopra. People praise the fact that while he is batting, the wicket seems to hold no devils. But as soon as he gets out you start to notice the inconsistencies in the pitch. So what kind of mindset does he bring to the middle?

"When I first go in to bat, I just look to hang in," explains Chopra. "In a Test match at least, you have to give the first 30 minutes to the bowler. During that period the knowledge of your off stump is very important."

Many a player from the younger generation is influenced by the surfeit of limited overs cricket, the brand that advocates scoring runs in any manner, as long as they keep coming. But Chopra is from a different school.

"Technique is indeed very important," he says, "but ultimately it comes down to scoring runs. But if you are technically good, your chances of succeeding improve greatly."

Most sportsmen have a turning point, when they cross that unseen barrier of self-doubt and graduate to the big league. Chopra too reached a point where his entire career was in the balance. That happened a couple of seasons ago.

"I was not playing too well for Delhi," he recalls, "and had got very few runs. A selector came to me and said, 'Akash, you have four innings [two Ranji Trophy games] to prove yourself.' I failed in the first game and the pressure was completely on me. I knew I had to succeed or I could say goodbye to cricket. The second match was against Bengal and Sourav Ganguly was playing too. And on a bad pitch, I scored 95 out of the team's total of around 200. I was last man out."

While fast bowlers are known to hunt in pairs, the same holds true for openers. It is very important for a team to get a good start and an opening pair that can provide that with regularity has been a rarity for India ever since the great Sunil Gavaskar retired from the game. Indian teams that have toured abroad in recent years have without doubt been weakened by the lack of regular openers.

In such a situation, the Delhi duo of Gautam Gambhir and Chopra may be just what the doctor ordered. The left-handed Gambhir, who played for India in the Dhaka tri-nation series in April, is the more aggressive of the two while Chopra is the anchor of the partnership.

"Gambhir and I complement each other," says Chopra. "Our styles suit each other well and we run very well between the wickets. But in recent years, my scoring rate has picked up too. It's not like Gambhir scores at a very fast pace and I just keep my part of the deal and don't get out. In fact over the last year, we have scored at almost the same pace."

But before we even start thinking or dreaming about success abroad, we must turn our attention to the bane of Indian cricket -- the short ball.

"I am equally at ease playing all the shots," says Chopra. "Yes, even the short ball. True, I have not played on pitches as fast as in Australia, but I have played in Sri Lanka and West Indies on the India 'A' tour and I faced no problem against the short ball."

He idolises former England opener Michael Atherton and, of course, Sachin Tendulkar. The reasons: "Atherton is the best opener I have seen. He played the ball so late. If there is one thing I could take from his batting, it would be the ability to play the ball late.

"Sachin is in a different league altogether. He is so well balanced when he plays his shots. He is, like, perfect."

Television, he agrees, has played its part in educating him about the needs of international cricket. "I have an idea what the pressure is like. You know all the players, their variations, their tricks, and when you play them you feel like you know them. Like now, playing against New Zealand, I am prepared for them. It is not an alien thing to play against anyone."

Cricket has become a very demanding game physically. But strenuous as the sport has become on the body, mentally it is even more so. Sledging, or gamesmanship as some call it, is used to distract; to intimidate. At times, things go out of hand. The bowler could charge at you, use foul language, or give you the cold, old-time stare.

But none of this fazes Chopra. "I have never been intimidated by the bowler," he says. "If he is trying to get my attention I just ignore him, I don't even look him in the eye. I don't get angry while batting. No way. Not while batting."

Chopra sees Test cricket as the ultimate high. The challenge, he says, is exciting. And one day very soon he hopes to represent India and do well.

"Pressure gets the best out of you," he says, "if you have sincerely worked hard. Then in the moment you need it most, your hard work will never desert you."

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