The Mumbai dressing room is a sacred place and I was lucky to have witnessed its character evolve over 16 years. © The Hindu

'After averaging over 50 in the first four first-class seasons, when the selectors did not name me in any of the Challenger Trophy teams for 1998, there were tears in my eyes.' © The Hindu

“Prepare to bat at No. 4,” Ravi Shastri, my first Mumbai captain, sent across the message a week before my first-class debut. It was February 1994 and we were playing the Ranji Trophy quarter-final against Haryana in Faridabad. I was thrilled as well as nervous to be rubbing shoulders with the icons of Mumbai cricket, but such was the level of comfort in the dressing room that it did not take long to feel at ease.

My journey had started in 1981 as a seven-year-old. The alarm would ring at 6 am. My father would drag me out for a jog till the habit became ingrained, and paved my path as a cricketer. Since my first-class debut two decades have passed, and the journey has been filled with pleasure speckled with bits of regret: The joy of being the highest-capped Ranji Trophy cricketer intertwined with the disappointment of not being picked for India despite scoring runs by the bucketful at the domestic level.

Right from the start, I was solely focused to play for India. In 1995, when I represented India A against England A, I got an India cap. I carried it everywhere. It motivated me to put in extra hours of effort. After averaging over 50 in the first four first-class seasons, when the selectors did not name me in any of the Challenger Trophy teams for 1998, there were tears in my eyes – I was not among the top 40 cricketers of the country! Maybe that is when I lost perspective for a while and got into the mood of proving everyone wrong with the bat. It was in 2000-01 that reality finally struck. In Mumbai cricket there is an unwritten code that if you lose your chance to play for India then you have to make way for youngsters in the Ranji Trophy side. There were talks of tinkering with the middle-order and of trying out new faces. The events affected me and I lost my motivation.

Though younger than Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, I was a little older than the players who followed, and by 2000 Indian cricket had moved forward. Caught in this generational shift, I packed my bags, put them under the bed and cut myself off from Mumbai’s cricketing circles. While there was genuine happiness for my friends who went on to play for India, I got into a shell. It might sound a bit pompous, but I never shared my personal cricketing feelings with anyone because growing up, we were taught that our career was our responsibility.

Yes, I was depressed for not being able to make the shift to the international level, but fundamentally it has been a thoroughly enjoyable journey. After all, in a country obsessed with the sport, very few are fortunate to be making a living out of it. That apart, my simple upbringing and experience of having travelled extensively gave me the confidence that I would make something out of life. Just when I was starting to think ahead of my cricket career, my father played a pivotal role in giving it a fillip. He expected me to honour my commitment with a club in England, who had signed me up a few months earlier, and only then quit. It proved to be a turning point.

As a child I used to hit a hanging ball – tied to a tree in our courtyard in Mumbai – at least 500 times a day. However, after representing Mumbai the habit had receded. When I landed in England and opened my luggage, I realised that my father had slipped that hanging ball into my kit bag. Immediately I hung it in my apartment’s backyard and the connection between the bat and ball gave me a deep sense of belonging. For the next four months, it became a daily routine and I felt rejuvenated.

From that point onwards, my motivation shifted from the elusive India cap to going back to the basics of enjoying the game and giving my best every time I stepped on to the ground. My marriage played an important role too as it broadened my perspective. My wife helped me retain my balance, sacrificed a lot and made me realise that the only truth was about what mattered to my family. From 2003 onwards, I started scoring runs in the Ranji Trophy again, and somehow the dreams of playing for India bloomed once more. However, now I was more aware of the circumstances; the middle-order was too formidable to be dislodged and I made my peace with it.

The Mumbai dressing room is a sacred place and I was lucky to have witnessed its character evolve over 16 years. We enjoyed one another’s company and success, and sowed the seeds of dominance for years. Such was the camaraderie that winning championships together became a part of our daily life. From the seniors I had imbibed the core cricketing ethics very early in my career. In 2009, after eight Ranji titles and 187 games (first-class and List A), it was time for me to pass the code of Mumbai’s success – that anything less than a Ranji Trophy win is a failure – to the next generation and move on. My cup with Mumbai was full and it came at a small cost of blood and sweat, but I am indebted to it for that became my identity.

After a brief stint with Assam, I have moved to Andhra Pradesh as a mentor. Today I am in the twilight of my career, but the love for batting has not diminished. It is an addiction and my body feels out of sync if I do not practice for a few days. I realise that it is the small battles that happen between the bat and ball over 22 yards that I enjoy the most. Every innings brings with it a breath of fresh air, anxiety, curiosity and uncertainty. The rumble it creates in the stomach is what keeps me going. The day it stops, I would know that my time under the sun is up. Till then, I will go out for those early morning jogs.

 

This article was published in the 2014 edition of the Wisden India Almanack. You can buy it here.