Life begins at 31 for Virag Awate
Virag Awate is 31, the second-oldest player in Maharashtra's squad, and he had not played a representative game of any sort for his state - first-class, List A, or Twenty20 - until the Ranji Trophy match against Vidarbha in Nagpur. Four days later, he is only the second Indian, after Nari Contractor, to have scored two hundreds on first-class debut.
Life begins at 30, it is said. However, for most Maharashtra cricketers who haven't made debuts by 25, first-class cricket is as distant a dream as that of their state winning the Ranji Trophy. The last four Maharashtra captains were appointed in their early 20s, and the average age of their Ranji squad over the last eight seasons has been similar. The selectors had taken a chance in blooding youngsters since they thought the seniors were taking the team nowhere.
The Maharashtra squad this season is slightly different. With three players in the thirties, and two more in the late twenties, the average age is about 25. And three of the older players have justified their selection at various stages. While fast bowlers Domnic Joseph and Anupam Sanklecha have been quick and accurate, opening batsman Awate showed that patience and perseverance indeed pays off.
Awate, who comes from Pune, has been a regular for Maharashtra on the age-group circuit but despite scoring runs in local tournaments, he was ignored by the state selectors for the last decade. That situation, however, changed once Surendra Bhave, the former Maharashtra captain, was appointed chief selector last year.
"When the selection panel went through the records of our invitational league, we saw that Awate had been scoring consistently both in three-day and one-day tournaments," Bhave said. "He had scored 1000-plus runs in the run-up to the domestic season, so we decided to test him in our academy games [selection matches]."
Once Awate had the selectors' attention, and attended state trials, there was no looking back. "I knew that was my chance and I scored two centuries and a fifty. Then on, everyone, including myself, was convinced that I deserved to be a Maharashtra cricketer," Awate, who works as an accountant for a construction firm and has a six-year old daughter, told ESPNcricinfo. "And when the chance finally came two days ago, all I had to do was to repose the faith that had been put in me by everyone."
Awate's 126 on first-class debut - a patient performance that took 327 balls over nearly seven hours - was the only significant contribution for Maharashtra after they chose to bat and it helped them earn the first-innings lead. He was neither intimidated by the big stage nor was he carried away by his immediate success.
"Nothing much has changed, except for the fact that I have finally come good at the first-class level," Awate said. "Perhaps it's due to the maturity that comes with age. But I think I have just been doing everything that I have always been doing over the last ten years. The only difference during my preparations this year has been a detailed discussion with Bhave sir and Sugwekar sir [Shantanu Sugwekar, a former Maharashtra batsman] about how to approach first-class cricket once I was named in the squad."
Besides keeping himself going mentally, Awate had to stay in shape for the rigours of first-class cricket, and he credited his trainer Mihir Ternikar for his fitness. "All these years, he has been devising various programmes for me to remain fit for the big stage and our efforts have finally started reaping rewards."
Awate did not lose heart despite not being considered for so long either, while the selection policy in Maharashtra favoured younger players. "I had heard from some of my friends that apparently there was such a policy adopted, but I preferred to keep myself away from such discussions and such thought processes," Awate said. "I knew that I was trying hard to play for Maharashtra and help them win. And I am sure even the selectors have been thinking the same. So it was just a matter of time till they spotted me. And I had to remain patient till then."
Bhave said Awate's performance not only augurs well for the team, who suffered a humiliating defeat against Tamil Nadu in the previous round, but also for Maharashtra cricket. "I was extremely confident that Virag will come good. He has justified that age doesn't really matter at this level. It is performance that matters," Bhave said. "His selection and performance sends out a positive signal all over Maharashtra that everyone who is doing well is in contention."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo