'I just want to enjoy cricket'
Not many had heard of Abhijit Kale before November 2003, far fewer have heard of him since. On November 20, 2003, though, he was front-page material, when Kiran More and Pranab Roy, two former cricketers turned national selectors, accused Kale of offering Rs 10 lakhs (approximately US$21,900 ) for a place in the Indian side. A BCCI enquiry was instituted and Kale tendered a letter of apology to the BCCI in which he admitted that he tried to "influence the selectors" while insisting that he had never tried to bribe them. In June 2004 he was banned from the game, allowed to return only the following January.
Since his return to first-class cricket, Kale has slipped into further oblivion. He's changed his team and gone right across the country, leaving Maharashtra for Tripura, in the part of India that lies east of Bangladesh. He has struggled for runs. He's a changed person too - "sadder, without as much humour, but more sensible" - and is trying his best to "start enjoying the game once again". One of India's most promising junior cricketers and one of the most consistent first-class batsmen is trying to figure out where it all went wrong.
"It all happened in too much of a hurry," he told Cricinfo, "and initially I didn't have time to stop and think. Suddenly I realised that I've been banned for a whole season of four-day games. I was broken."
Being banned for most of the 2004-05 season had a traumatic effect. "I was mentally gone - I put on weight, I didn't have the motivation to practice, I was totally blank. I used to go to work at Bharat Petroleum but it made things worse. I was so obsessed with the game that taking it away from me had a drastic effect."
There's not an ounce of anger in Kale's voice; instead it's sober and indicates the process of introspection. It helps because the conversation turns into a discussion where he refers to his "big mistake" and "serving punishment". He mentions "destiny" and admits he can't blame anyone but himself and "circumstances". He isn't too comfortable recounting the details but is remarkably candid while analysing the possible motive.
"When I look back now I have a clearer understanding. All my life I have been desperate about being selected in teams. Starting from Under-16, I always felt I was not rewarded for scoring big. I remember making 153 for India U-19 early on, yet I was never picked for Mumbai. For three seasons I was in the Mumbai reserves. I scored heavily in all the local matches, yet there was no recognition. At one point my only aim was to play one Ranji match.
"All this made me excessively focussed towards cricket. Every time I didn't get picked I would go back and work harder, think more, be more desperate to make it. It used to eat into me almost. Looking back I regret that obsession - I shouldn't have taken all this so seriously, I should have enjoyed my cricket more."
Kale doesn't want to make excuses; yet he wishes there was some help at hand. "Maybe a team psychologist could have helped, someone to tell me not to take cricket so seriously, someone who could help me deal with disappointments. Anyway I have served my punishment and look forward to 2-3 years of cricket ahead of me. My only wish now is to enjoy my cricket, something which I never did enough of."
And perhaps get among the runs again. Since his return to first-class cricket he's managed just two 35-plus scores in 17 first-class innings. "I made a mistake by leaving Maharashtra - they dropped me and I took an impulsive decision to shift states," he says of his move to Tripura before last season. "It was a communication gap - they didn't exactly tell me the reasons. Also, there were too many things going on in my head then - I hadn't yet recovered from that incident. I am trying to move back to Maharashtra; I can't think of playing for any other state now."
The Tripura experiment was a complete disaster. "It's the first time in 14 seasons that I've failed in first-class cricket and I just want to put it behind me. Somehow nothing clicked."
Several years later, Abhijit Kale will be the answer to a quiz question. It won't be about a teenage prodigy who dominated bowlers in the Bombay leagues, neither will it involve a ruthlessly consistent domestic cricketer. Kale knows that he will always be associated with that incident. Importantly he's accepted that and is now trying to move on.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo