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Twenty20 cricket is all about pace. In a sport where every moment can be gamechanging, you need to stay one step ahead of the opposition at all times. No surprise, then, that the shortest form of cricket has left a Formula One driver excited.
Sahara Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg had his first brush with cricket last year, when he came to India to watch an IPL match in Bengaluru; he went back home with a fondness for the sport. The German race car driver is back here to watch the Royal Challengers Bangalore, the team owned by his F1 boss, Vijay Mallya.
Hulkenberg, who fell in love with fast cars at the age of seven, joined the Indian based F1 team in 2011 as a test and reserve driver. Since then, he’s made several trips to India; he hopes to explore the cricket-mad country on this visit.
As RCB prepare to take on the Pune Warriors India at the Chinnaswamy, Hulkenberg spoke to iplt20.com about the new sport in his life and gave an insight into motor racing.
So is this just your second time at a cricket match?
I was here exactly the same time last year to watch an RCB match. In Germany, cricket is quite unknown. It’s all about football, F1 and those sports back home. [Last year] was an introduction to cricket for me. There were around 30,000 people in the stadium cheering for their team, there was loud music and I was really impressed with the atmosphere there.
In cricket, and most other sports, there is a lot of crowd involvement which pumps energy into the game. An F1 driver is practically on his own in his car. Do you think F1 misses out on that aspect of sports?
It’s two different pairs of shoes. In cricket, football, tennis or as an athlete, you see everything around you, the crowd, the atmosphere and everything. You hear the noise, see some reactions. For us, we get into the car and put our helmet on. The engine is very noisy and it is a bit different. But every now and then we also get a little bit of a look at the grandstand, especially when the race is finished, and see whether it is full or empty. So, yes, it is very different in that regard.
What are the main skills required to be a successful race car driver?
The most important thing is to have talent and natural speed. If you don’t have these things in your system, you cannot get this far. Formula One also depends a lot on how good your car and your team is. It’s much more material driven unlike cricket or tennis where it comes down to the player himself. Even we are athletes but our performance depends on other factors [too].
How physically challenging is car racing as a sport?
You lose a lot of body fluids depending on the temperature. People sitting on their couch think it’s just a bit of car driving but it’s not like that; it takes a lot more than that. It’s quite physical, especially battling with other cars in the race. It’s all about having the capacity to more than just drive the car – to think about your strategy, your tyres, etc. We need a certain amount of fitness, especially in the neck area.
What is your training regime like?
You definitely need some training. But I think the beauty for us is that like a tennis player or a swimmer, we don’t have to train every day, or play our sport every day to be prepared for it. We can combine quite a lot of things. I’m a runner; I love running in the forest. Another huge hobby of mine is tennis. I combine it with some biking, weight sessions in the gym, some rowing and much more. Swimming too is good exercise.
How do all these exercises help you in your sport?
It’s just about the fitness. If you have very good fitness levels, you build a higher capacity to look at a lot of the other stuff. If you’re just fit enough to drive the car, you won’t be able to concentrate on the other things required to win. So fitness is very important overall.
Who’s your favourite sportsperson outside of F1?
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
You’ve been to India quite a few times now. How has the experience been?
After joining Sahara Force India I’ve been here around six or seven times. Each time I come here there’s a lot going on – meeting the media, fan interaction, etc. We don’t get to see so much of the cities and the countryside and that’s a bit of shame. But the people here are very friendly and welcoming so it’s always nice to stay.
What do you think of the Indian F1 track – the Buddh International Circuit?
I haven’t driven there myself yet in the F1 car because I wasn’t the race driver last year. But just by taking a look at the circuit, it looks quite challenging. The facilities are amazing, big grand stands. Listening to the other drivers who raced there last year, it seems to be a really cool track.
How old were you when you started racing?
I discovered racing when I was seven years old. It was through some friends of dad whose sons did carting as a hobby. One Sunday we decided to go to a racing event and I was impressed with it. I told my dad I wanted to try that as well. Luckily he’s a big motorsport fan and supported me right from the beginning.
Pankaj Singh has been a consistent performer for his state team, Rajasthan, and his IPL franchise, Rajasthan Royals, for the last few seasons. A local hero, he was instrumental in Rajasthan winning the coveted Ranji Trophy for the first time and was third on the leading wicket-takers’ list in the 2011-12 season. The tall paceman played a crucial role in the Royals’ victory over Royal Challengers Bangalore in their away match. His early blows, including the key wicket of Chris Gayle, helped his team secure the win.
Speaking to iplt20.com on the eve of their match against Deccan Chargers, Pankaj spoke about fast-bowling in the shortest format of the game and how domestic cricket experience benefits a player in the IPL.
Rajasthan, your state team, were unlikely domestic champs. Rajasthan Royals aren’t IPL favourites either. How similar is the experience?
I was part of Rajasthan Royals in the very first season when we won the IPL [in 2008]. Then again for the last two years I have been part of the team. I bond well with the team. We are looking forward [to winning] and I am trying to give my best. [...] I just try doing [the right things and take it] match by match; then I can achieve what I want.
Whenever a team wins for the first time, or is on its way to winning, there aren’t big names in it. It is when they perform that the same names become big [names]. The same is true for Rajasthan – earlier they weren’t winning but now they are progressing and now that they have won, some names like Ashok Menaria, Deepak Chahar and mine are recognised. They have proved themselves in the [longer formats] of the game and now they have to make a name for themselves in the T20 format and help the team too. Now we are known as a team to be reckoned with. RR have been winning consistently so far, especially away matches. How much credit would you give to the planning that has gone in?
We have been working hard since before the IPL started. We have had two or three camps. The whole team is working together and everyone knows what their role is whenever they play. You are always preparing according to that. You may not always get the result you want but if you are preparing well, then you will get results seven to six times out of ten. People know their roles [in the team] and are practicing accordingly; that could also be a reason why we are getting results.
Your fellow pacemen who have also performed superbly.
I don’t have to say too much about Amit Singh or Siddharth Trivedi because they have performed well not only this year but for the last few seasons. They have been bowling consistently so it is not a new thing. We know that when the time comes, they are going to deliver [...]
Does domestic cricket experience help when it comes to knowing the local conditions and tracks a little better?
Definitely. You have a bit of an advantage because you have played for the entire season, the whole year, somewhere or the other and you are going to play there again; the only difference is in the format. How quickly you adapt to the T20 format is what matters. As far as the wicket and the conditions are concerned, you have a good idea about that.
How challenging is it for a fast bowler to adapt to the T20 format?
It is challenging because the role is different here. Here you don’t have time to [continuously] bowl in one area and let the batsman commit a mistake because they are looking to score runs. The wickets aid the batsmen a bit more too. You do know that your role in [longer] matches is different form your role here and you have to adopt the role that the team wants. Sometimes you have to go for wickets and sometimes you have to look to contain the batsman. The batsmen also bat a bit more freely [in T20] than they do in one-day or [longer] matches because they have to score runs. It is a little tough and you have to work to do better. We don’t play too many Twenty20 matches; we only play the IPL and a couple of more games. When you play a few more matches [in T20] then you get a better idea of what is happening so it takes a bit of time to adapt. How do you prepare for this change of format? Do you work on bowling variations?
We play practice matches and we have certain roles like bowling with the new ball and then in death or middle overs. We practice in the nets accordingly. How do you prepare mentally for a tournament like this?
We are informed in advance about the team and our role. Then we sit and watch videos [of the opposition] and then look at our strengths as well and then discuss the plan with the coach and captain.
So what was the plan while bowling against RCB in the Powerplay?
I was told prior to the game what my role was in the match so I knew I had to bowl during the Powerplay. We had a plan for [Chris] Gayle and [Mayank] Agarwal because we knew what kind of players they are. We had to get Gayle out [early], either me or Johan Botha. We knew that to strengthen our position we had to get Gayle’s wicket and increase our chances of winning. If we couldn’t get him out then we would have tried to contain him and kept him away from the strike. [...] The wicket was good and our bowling was also good. We spoke to Rahul [Dravid] bhai and worked on getting him out.
Is your primary aim to get wickets or restrict the opposition from scoring?
As bowlers we want to get batsmen out because that’s the best way to put pressure on a team. At the same time, when conditions don’t suit you and the batsman is in form, you try to contain him and hope that he makes a mistake.
Which is your favourite delivery?
My stock ball is the outswinger so I try to bowl it in the right areas. What are the variations that you have been working on?
My line and length has been good since the beginning so I concentrate on that [...] And then I work on the slower deliveries, the leg-cutter, the off-cutter and slow bouncers. You have to use them according to the conditions. When you are bowling in the death you would use a slower ball instead of a [good] length ball. What has your journey in cricket been like so far?
I have been performing well for a few years now. I am hoping to get rewards for that, let’s see when that happens. I was in the Indian team in 2007-08 and did well at that time too. I have been doing well since then. [...] I will do well in the IPL too. Everyone watches your performance on this platform. It is a big platform and if you do well here too it is definitely counted [...]. I will do my best and then leave it to destiny.