The Makings and Ambitions of Chintan Gaja – Gujarat’s talismanic new ball specialist

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In the last five years or so, there have been only a few cricketers on India’s domestic circuit who have had better records than Gujarat’s beloved Chintan Gaja. It is no surprise that the fan-favourite has continued his staggering form across formats this season as well.

Chintan Gaja thinks back to times when his father, a LIC agent now and a district-level cricketer then, took him to the practice grounds. On that day, Gaja junior politely asked his father, who already had a taste of playing all the local tournaments in Ahmedabad, if he could allow him to wear pads and gloves to have a net session. He was an eight-year-young who, similar to millions of kids in India, dreamt of making cricket his profession. Gaja senior did not intend to upset his son and told him to go ahead.

“That day my father, his captain, and the coach were watching me during the training session. After observing my batting stance and shots for a while, the coach and the captain asked my father with sheer delight, ‘Is he playing for the first time with all this stuff?’ Chintan reminisced in an exclusive interview with SportsCafe.

His father, who was also stunned for a few minutes after watching his son play, replied, “Yes, as per my memory, he is playing for the first time.”

The casual conversation turned serious in seconds as the skipper and coach, considering Gaja junior’s skillset at the age, urged his father to send him to some camp for training. However, his father was determined in his stance, and let them know, “I will do that only once he will be 13 or 14 (years old).” Though the reply was nothing new for Gaja junior, considering he had already heard the same from his dad when he had asked the same question during his vacation.

However, the kid soon reaped the rewards as Gaja senior kept his promise. When his son passed the seventh grade, he took him to a professional coaching camp.

“There was no going back for me from there onwards,” Gaja recalled. “Within six months of my training, I was selected for Gujarat’s Under-13 squad. And from then onwards I played in every age-group cricket before making my debut at the senior level in 2014 (against Jharkhand in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy).”

On his most memorable day, 21-year-old Chintan made his mark immediately, returning figures of 4-0-18-2 while rattling Jharkhand skipper Ishank Jaggi with the fourth ball of his career. Since then, he has continued marching forward by making an impact one game after another, becoming one of Gujarat’s most successful bowlers of all time across formats.

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But bowling was never Chintan’s sole primary focus. He always wanted to be an all-rounder. Chintan used to open the innings during his school days and had also notched a triple-hundred in a single day. Even at the senior level, he once opened the innings for Gujarat against Maharashtra in the 2018/19 Ranji Trophy.

“That Pune pitch was a pure seaming track, and both teams had four fast bowlers each,” Gaja remembered. Yet, he survived, hitting 10 fours in a well-made knock of 53, and took eight wickets in the match (five in the first innings, three in the second) to help his side register an innings and 130 runs victory.

“I definitely see myself as an all-rounder. The gradual shift only happened because I was bowling so well,” Chintan explained. “I was often promoted up the order in First-Class cricket earlier. Sometimes they used me as a night watchman, but as a batsman, who can carry the innings. So they had confidence in me that ‘he will play well.’”

Last week in Agartala, Chintan showed his composure with the bat during Gujarat’s Ranji Trophy opener against Tripura. Coming in at no. 8 in the first innings, he made 68 off 117 balls, striking eight fours and one six. Across all four days, only Priyank Panchal scored more than him in the match, which eventually ended in a draw and Tripura earned three points by virtue of their first-innings lead.

The showcase of skill was one in a series of many as Chintan has been in stupendous form since the beginning of the ongoing domestic season. Alongside Jaydev Unadkat and Shams Mulani, the 28-year-old played a pivotal role for West Zone, picking 11 wickets in five innings to help them win the Duleep Trophy. Then, he shone with the new ball in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy as well, scalping nine wickets in five matches, and carried on the momentum to the Vijay Hazare Trophy where he plucked 15 scalps in seven games.

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Chintan has a fantasy of playing under MS Dhoni for once in the IPL. “It will be a lifetime moment for me, as Chennai Super Kings is my favourite franchise,” the right-arm quick revealed. He likes Mumbai Indians as well, but will be more than happy if Gujarat Titans, his own state’s side in the cash-rich league, acquire him sometime in the future. “That is my dream. I’m just looking forward to it,” he remarked.

While growing up, Chintan used to follow two of Australia’s most prolific fast bowlers – Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee – to improve his own bowling.

“I was very fascinated with McGrath’s discipline and how consistently he bowled with the same line and length. It hit me, and I told myself, you should be someone like Glenn McGrath,” he recalled.

“I was thrilled by Brett Lee’s aggression. The way he ran in and just bowled bouncers, and his consistent targetting of the batters’ ribcages was so exciting to watch.”

Since the under-19s, Chintan always got support from Jasprit Bumrah, whom he described as a ‘good friend’.

“We were room partners in the Under-19s. Whenever he's in Ahmedabad, we just have a chat and talk about cricket. I often do ask him how can I work on this and that, and he lets me know what needs to be done,” he highlights how India’s supreme fast bowler has always got his back. 

From the very beginning, Chintan has been excellent with the new ball and can swing the ball both ways. However, he feels the time has come to increase his speed to become a searing threat to the opposition.

“I am currently working on it (pace). If I can be around 135 or 140 kph, that would be a good speed to swing the ball. Hopefully, things will get better,” an optimistic Chintan signed off on the matter.

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Above and beyond all else, Chintan admires Parthiv Patel, under whom Gujarat won the Ranji Trophy for the first time in the 2016/17 season. It was Chintan’s debut First-Class campaign as well, which made him feel even better about the achievement.

“He (Parthiv) knows each of the players inside out,” Chintan reckoned while labelling him the ‘father figure of Gujarat Cricket’. “He used to tell us, ‘this ball, he will bowl like this, next ball, he will bowl like this.’ We blindly trusted him. If he told us we have to bowl outside the off stump line, we would bowl that only and end up being successful.

“He was a very successful captain for Gujarat and has also helped me personally in developing my bowling. He used to give me long spells if I was not bowling well. He used to scold me and tell me, ‘you are better than this. You have to show character and help the team win.’”

Gujarat are currently playing Jammu and Kashmir in the second round of the ongoing Ranji Trophy season at Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad. Talking about their home ground and the facilities, Chintan commented, “We literally have got the biggest stadium in the world where we can go in any day and practice. We have so many different types of wickets ready, which is a very useful thing. Also, there are heaps of infrastructure being developed for the betterment of the players, so it can easily be said that Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) helps us like anything.”

To conclude, Chintan suggested that it would be better for their opponents if they don’t take them lightly in the coming day. “There are a bunch of good guys who have just come in [Gujarat senior squad] from the Under-23s. The batting lineup is set up nicely. This team will definitely bring some trophies in the next three or four years,” Chintan said with his chin up while signing off.

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