'Abhi nahin toh kabhi nahin'
It has become a norm. Every season for the past five years Rajasthan fast bowler Pankaj Singh has finished among the top wicket-takers in the Ranji Trophy. He has helped Rajasthan to successive Ranji Trophy titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12, finishing as the top and third-highest wicket-taker respectively in those years. This year, his 39 wickets puts him only behind Himachal Pradesh's Rishi Dhawan in the wicket-takers' list.
Despite the consistency Pankaj has failed to feature in any India or A side for more than three and a half years. Every year he finishes the season with one question: what more I should do. On Wednesday, after stumps, he rushed to the box where national selector Roger Binny had been sitting, to try and find the answer. Pankaj failed to meet Binny, but in the following interview he lays bare the pain of a domestic performer who is desperate for some answers.
On Wednesday, immediately after the day's play, you walked into the box where Roger Binny, the national selector, was watching the match from. Why did you do that and, though Binny had already left, was it the first time you had done something like that?
It was the first time I had wanted to go and talk directly to a selector. I knew this was Rajasthan's last match of our Ranji season, and so I knew we would not be able to meet anywhere else. I wanted to know what are the things I should do (to get picked for the national squad), what is going wrong with me. That was because I wanted to get an answer as to what else I could do to get there because I want to be there (in the Indian team).
How tough is it to keep performing and yet not get to know what exactly the selectors are thinking?
Ultimately I want to play for the country, a dream, a goal virtually every domestic player aspires to at some point. Now steadily as my age is increasing, I have started to doubt whether I would be able to reach that dream. Also the criteria which are needed to make the India team, which I have been achieving in domestic cricket in the last four years, and still if the selection is not happening then I would obviously like to know what more I should do.
The other option is to keep silent and continue playing which I have been doing. But my intention was to understand exactly why I am being sidelined or if they have given up on me. Then if that is the case I do not need to fight within myself or with people/things, then I can just calm down and plan my future. And if the selectors say that we have seen enough of you and we are not going to select you then I don't need to put myself under pressure each time hoping my name would be included every time a selection meeting happens.
I know that every year I cannot perform the way I have in the last four years. I am going to turn 29 so the age is going to soon turn against me. I know I can still play for four to five more years. And if I am just left to play domestic cricket, then my goals would not be that strong. And without goals I would not be able to put in this kind of effort, hard work and perform.
But in 2010-11, when Rajasthan won their first Ranji Trophy I was 26. I had taken 53 wickets that first-class season. I had many expectations considering India were going to tour many places like West Indies and England. So many other fast bowlers were picked and replaced others who were injured or unfit. But I never was included. So now I have reached a stage where I have started to think: abhi nahin toh kabhi nahin (if not now then maybe never). If it is khatam (end) then maybe I could even leave playing cricket possibly in two years. So these were the questions I wanted to ask.
Was it a mix of fear and anger that drove you to take that call to meet the selector?
Possibly. The Indian selection system has predominantly never given chances to a bowler over 30. Since four years I have waited ab mera number aayega, ab mera number aayega. Nahin aa rahan hein (My chance would come. It has not come). So even if I speak to someone it might not come and the selector might even get angry, or someone might inform me the areas I am falling short of. At least this way I could improve or at least I would tell myself that I did my best and only then I left.
Were you optimistic about a call-up for the New Zealand tour?
Definitely. Not just this time, but last year when we were playing in Kolkata against Bengal in our Ranji season opener, I picked nine wickets. A national selector, who was present, walked upto me and said I had bowled really well. I was expecting a call-up for the home Test series against England but I did not get included. Till now I have no idea where I fell short. Even the selector appreciated my performance. Then in Mohali, against Punjab, the same selector said I was doing well. Even this season I started slow but started to get wickets steadily. At the start of this season I did not believe my name would be discussed. I knew I was not being counted in the top 10 fast bowlers in the country considering I had not been called for any A tour or Emerging Trophy series or even a national camp for fast bowlers.
But the selector might have just said that to encourage you?
I know that is not bad. But if a selector is encouraging me, I am doing well, and I am (still) nowhere. These are the people who are going to pick you in the team, make your career. Even this season, in Chennai against Tamil Nadu I took a five-for, all top-order wickets. Sandeep Patil (national selection panel chairman) while taking a walk said, "very well bowled. Good bowling." I did not say anything. As a player I can only perform and that I am doing from the last four years.
Say if a selector calls up and informs you that you are not part of our plans. What will you do?
I will play maximum of one or two years then. Simple. Why would I like to continue to play if I am not going to play for India. I am not going to play just for money. I have earned enough and invested in the right places. Every player has a reason to continue playing. A good player does not hang in just to earn money. The main thing is dedication towards the job. Say if I had been picked and not performed then I would be angry to prove myself and play for another four or five years.
Can you talk about the challenges a player like you goes through when not part from the Indian set-up?
The biggest challenge is you are unable to decide what you should. You doubt whether your state association is weaker and not promoting you. Then sometimes you doubt if selectors are backing a player(s) from a particular zone. No player wants to think such questions. When you are performing you do not want to raise such doubts in your head. But if the same questions keep repeating in my mind then I am bound to doubt the system.
So how do you motivate yourself?
It because of the meeting my dream, the zid (stubbornness). Having come from a small place, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, to this place where I am now, I do not want to give up.
What are the things you have worked on in the interim?
Many times I heard I was not quick, so I worked on my pace. But importantly started first by working on my fitness and strengthening to make sure I was bowling at lively pace. In the last two years even I felt I was bowling quick - consistently 135kph. Barring Umesh Yadav, show me one fast bowler in India who has bowled consistently over 140kph. I have tried to tick every checkbox a selector thinks with regard to a fast bowler.
There is a feeling that your age was a factor, as you could not be picked for an A team where opportunities need to be given to youth primarily. But is it not unfair on you considering you are almost the same age as some players who have been on A tours in recent years?
Yes. But right from when I was 26, I have never been considered or included. There are other players like Vinay Kumar and RP Singh, Dhawal Kulkarni who are around my age and still have played or been included in the squad. I am not nitpicking. Some of these guys have played more cricket than me, but my numbers show I am doing much better than many other fast bowlers.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo