'You don't hold anything against anyone in a team sport'
Ajit Agarkar has returned as the 39th Mumbai Ranji Trophy captain after abandoning the team on the morning of a game against Orissa last season. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo on his plans to get them back to winning ways.
What does leading Mumbai mean to you after being around for 16 seasons?
Big honour. An absolute honour. You just have to look at the names who have led Mumbai earlier and you know what it is like. And a great challenge too - to follow in their footsteps.
Has it been difficult to motivate yourself to come back and slog it out on the domestic circuit after being an India regular for almost a decade?
It's not easy, honestly. Motivation is not at all a problem. As long as you love running in with the ball in your hand, you enjoy. It's a bit difficult to return to where it started from after not being around for almost 10 years. It's not easy to go through the paces all over again. But if you really enjoy playing the game, all other things take a backseat. You just tend to forget everything else, enjoy yourself and try and help your team as much as you can.
Last year, you were in the news for all the wrong reasons. Have all the problems been sorted out with the coach Sulakshan Kulkarni?
Life moves on. You don't hold anything against anyone in a team sport. Anyway I led [in] the one-dayers and the Twenty20s last year, so that's not an issue at all now.
So would you say that both of you have moved on like two mature individuals?
The team comes first. That's what we in Mumbai cricket are taught as a kid first up. And that's why it's such a wonderful sport. To have 11 or 15 individuals coming together and aiming towards the better of the team makes it special. So what suits the team best is what suits you as a member of it and that's what we have done.
Due to the Champions League Twenty20, you haven't been able to spend a lot of time with youngsters in the team. Have you managed to do one-on-ones with all of them?
Not really. We've just practised (together) for the last four days. Since I was away playing the CLT20 and I was appointed sometime mid-October, I haven't had sufficient time to do one-on-ones. But I know everyone else well and the last four days were focussed on preparing for the game [against Railways]. I think I am still settling into the new role. Perhaps it will take a game for me to really settle in. You tend to discuss with others while practising and so far everyone has responded very well.
Players like Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, just like last season, are likely to be in and out of the side for most of this one. How do you plan for such chopping and changing during the season from a captain's perspective?
I will find out now [laughs]. You do need enough depth in batting. And it's ideal to settle in to a consistent batting line-up as early as you can. But I think we as a team are used to players joining the Indian team mid-way through a season. And from their perspective, if you are asked to play a Ranji game rather than sitting in the dressing room when you're not playing a game for India, you are lucky in that sense. But I am still figuring it out. I haven't got much time to delve over it since I was appointed a little late. It'll take a game to settle down a little bit. We will have to settle the team down. You need some time for that and I am sure that will happen.
Add to that Wasim Jaffer's absence for the initial phase of the season due to personal reasons. How much will you miss him, not just at the top of the order, but as the leader of the batsmen?
You just have to see his numbers to know what Wasim means to the Mumbai team for the last 15 years. You would want Wasim to be around all the time. That's a massive hole to fill. But you've got to lead with what you have.
Luckily, we have Sachin [Tendulkar] available for the first game. And we couldn't have asked for anything better to start off the season with. The batting looks pretty solid. We've generally had decently settled teams. Zak [Zaheer Khan] and Sachin are available for just one game, so that will change a bit. But we just couldn't have asked for anything better than to have these two around at the start of the season.
What do you think is your biggest challenge as Mumbai captain?
Firstly, we have not won a trophy in two years, which I don't think happens too often for Mumbai cricket. So that is a big challenge. The pressures of leading are very different than leading any other domestic team because you are always expected to win the Ranji Trophy. Merely qualifying for the knockouts is never good enough. Another challenge would be to keep the balance of the team intact. Luckily in Mumbai, since there is so much of quality cricket being played all the time, there is no dearth of back-ups in case something goes wrong.
Of late, Mumbai have preferred to opt for gaining the first-innings lead and relax rather than going for an outright win. Will the additional point for a victory change the team's attitude?
It's not that we didn't want an outright victory. But when you have eight or nine games to go with very little gap in between, you are tempted to hold yourself back, especially the bowlers. Obviously it's an interesting rule change and the additional point for an outright win may make not just us but all the teams more aggressive. But it's very difficult to keep on pressing yourself as a team all the time for maximum points.
Would you then say that it would be better to revert to the '90s style when there used to be decent gap between the Ranji Trophy league and knockouts?
It's not the gap between the phases but the time between two games that needs to be looked at. When you're playing eight back-to-back games with three days between the games, including one day of travel, it just wears you down as a player. I don't know what can be done but if something can be done, it should be about the gap between two games.
The last four seasons, as you keep on saying, have been kind of 'stop and start' seasons for you due to health and fitness issues. What have you been working on during the build-up to ensure you last the whole season?
More than injuries, I had to pace myself a little bit. Playing six-seven league games and three knockout games - it's not easy being a bowler. Sometimes you have to hold back if you want to go the distance. Being the captain, it changes drastically now and I cannot afford to not look after my body. Not that I ever have done that, but now it becomes of utmost importance to be at my best always. And I haven't done anything specifically as much. Just been trying to keep myself as fit as I can.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo