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The Rediff Special
'I should have stayed more focused'
December 22, 2004
Mumbai coach Chandrakant Pandit is in the nets giving his 'boys' a fair run at the Wankhede stadium. Senior members of Mumbai's Ranji Trophy team indulge in banter while the youngsters run for the ball when it is hit long by the coach and then stand on the sidelines in the hope of being called up to play for Mumbai. They are weaned into the side on the strength of camaraderie.
The Mumbai team is a happy bunch, riding high on recent success and chasing a hat-trick of Ranji Trophy titles. Amidst the bonhomie, a few players move closer towards the end of a dream.
Sairaj Bahutule, Wasim Jaffer, Vinod Kambli, Ajit Agarkar, Nilesh Kulkarni and Ramesh Powar have all donned India colours, but have not been able to cement a permanent place in the side. Whether it is lack of opportunity or missed chances, these Mumbai stalwarts have been pushed into obscurity.
Amol Muzumdar, who has amassed 41 fifties and 16 centuries, at an average of 50.4, in the Ranji Trophy, has been less fortunate than all of them.
Sitting just outside the ground in the dressing room, hunched on a plastic chair, Muzumdar seems a little lost trying to answer a question that has haunted him ever since he made his debut.
Why has the India cap, which has been given to lesser talented players than him, eluded him?
"It is disappointing," he says. "It is not been easy after scoring runs for a long time, not to play for India. Because I think if you are good enough for Mumbai, you are good enough for India.
"At the same time I am also a little satisfied, for I have achieved a few things for Mumbai. But I still hope I can make a breakthrough into the Indian side."
The chances may be dwindling like the fast-darkening winter sky above, but the 30 year old still has a few reasons to be proud of.
Muzumdar is a batsman in the classical mould. His technique and temperament belong to a different era; one in which the correctness of technique mattered more than the runs. The right-hander went past the 5,000-run mark in the Ranji Trophy in the first match of the 2004 season against Railways with a fine knock of 62. He became the fourth Mumbai player after Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad and Vinod Kambli to reach the landmark.
Every triumph, however tiny it may be, is savoured, and Mazumdar has enjoyed every minute.
"The most satisfying thing though is that I have played in a winning side. Mumbai has won the Ranji Trophy six times in the 12 years that I have been a part of it.
"It's not easy winning the Ranji Trophy year after year. I was lucky to have a positive bunch of players like Abey (Kuruvilla), Paras (Mhambrey) and Sairaj (Bahutule) around in the team."
Muzumdar is a product of the tough Mumbai cricket set-up, scoring runs at will for his school, Shardashram Vidya Mandir (English medium), and starring for the Mumbai under-16 and India under-19 teams. He also led Mumbai to an under-19 national title.
"In the junior days it was great to be under the guidance of (Ramakant) Achrekar Sir. I think the bunch of players that came out of his coaching impact were a few years ahead of the rest. They were matured and had a tremendous match temperament.
"My father played a big role in my career. I have learnt a lot from Sanjay Manjrekar during the last two, three years he played with Mumbai. He really opened up then."
Muzumdar burst onto the national scene with a 260 against Haryana in 1993 -- an international first-class record for a debutant -- during the Ranji Trophy pre-quarter-final and was hailed as the next best thing to happen to Indian cricket after Sachin Tendulkar. In his first five seasons he had 2,800 runs against his name at an average over 73.
"When I came in the Mumbai side I was very na´ve about things around me.
"In 1995, I played for India 'A' and was very close to the India cap. But expectations take their toll and now I know that I should have stayed more focused.
"You only need to make that initial breakthrough (in the Indian side). I believe you are bound to settle down once you are in the top bracket, unless you are dumb. You will improve when you are in the company of players like Sachin and Rahul (Dravid). But you also need tremendous amount of luck."
Indeed, Lady luck wasn't smiling. Mumbai seemed to be at their lowest ebb in 2000 and 2001, not making it even to the Ranji Trophy semi-final. The top order consistently let the team down. In the 2001-02 season, Muzumdar failed to register a single score above 50 for Mumbai.
"They were the worst years. I think I had a key role to play in that (for the team not doing well) because a number four batsman can switch the game on or off.
"But those years taught me a lot. To come out of the phase, showed that I had lot of character. When you don't perform you tend to think a lot, you get tons of advice. But, eventually, you think what is best for you.
"The stint in the English leagues also helped me a lot. It helped me to work on the mental side of my game."
The past season saw his re-emergence on the national stage, scoring big runs all over the country, in typically stubborn fashion.
For the past few years, Mumbai players have not found favour at the national selection table.
"It is really sad that this kind of talent is being ignored," Muzumdar sighs, looking at his teammates still out on the field with the coach.
They haven't got the best deal from the crowds either. Though Muzumdar says that Mumbai cricket and cricketers are followed, the lack of interest in the Ranji Trophy has meant performances in the country's premier cricket competition have gone almost unnoticed.
"The administrators have to fill up the stands. Market the game, give invitations to schools, do anything, just fill up the gaps. Thankfully, I have reached that stage where I am not motivated or demotivated by the number of people coming in but international cricket has saturated cricket audience in the country," he feels.
In the last four years, India players have been picked from the under-19 teams while domestic competitions and 'A' side performances have become redundant.
But Mazumdar is unfazed. Reminded that for cricketers in Australia life begins at 30, he shoots back: "Their mentality is different.
"But I don't think age should be a factor. I can do the same things that a 19 year old can. I am realistic about aiming for an India cap. I wouldn't just fire shots in the air."
With 367 runs at an average of 61.16 from five matches, including a hundred against Gujarat, Muzumdar still hopes to make it to the India side, even if it is at 30.