The ups and downs of Munaf Patel's journey
Two days before IPL 2014 was to start in the UAE, Munaf Patel was shouting instructions to his Baroda teammates at Wankhede Stadium. Three years ago, he had been a crucial part of India's victorious World Cup campaign at the same venue.
While the focus of the cricket world had moved to the Gulf in April this year, Munaf was doing his best to help Baroda beat Uttar Pradesh in the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the inter-state Twenty20 championship.
When Munaf finally lifted the trophy for Baroda, he had proved a point. After all, weeks earlier, he had gone unsold in the IPL auction. "I was very happy. We were the T20 champions," Munaf says. "I was the only senior in the team for the super league. By then, all the others - Ambati [Rayudu], Irfan [Pathan], Yusuf [Pathan] - had left and joined their IPL teams. I was upset at having been ignored for the IPL. At the same time, I was desperate to lead from the front and help the team win the national championship."
Munaf has been part of India's previous two World Cup campaigns. But the fast bowler has not been on the selectors' radar for the last three years. IPL rejection in 2014 meant he was as good as gone. "It doesn't matter that I played half of Baroda's Ranji Trophy season, was part of the one-dayers and played all nine T20 matches. It is a fact nowadays that if you are not a part of IPL, it is as good as not playing cricket at all."
Munaf has been a part of two triumphant IPL campaigns - in 2008 with Rajasthan Royals and in 2013 with Mumbai Indians. But he was among a group of senior fast bowlers who were not touched by any IPL franchise during last year's auction. Munaf feels there should be different yardsticks for senior first-class players and inexperienced youngsters when it comes to the auction.
"There are some players who haven't been anywhere near first-class cricket but are IPL stars. And then there are players like Munaf Patel, RP Singh, Praveen Kumar, Pankaj Singh - all these guys have been playing international cricket or knocking on the doors of the Indian team for six-seven years. So they shouldn't be forced into oblivion just because they are not playing IPL.
"Too much of importance shouldn't be given to IPL when it comes to selection for Tests and ODIs. There should be some rules with regard to IPL auction - something like players who have played first-class cricket should be given priority in it. The IPL exclusion hurt. Not because of money, how much money would you want? You want it only up to a certain point. Beyond it, you play cricket only for pride."
Not many in Indian cricket realize the importance of money better than Munaf. His journey from Ikhar, a village in Gujarat's Bharuch district about an hour's drive from Vadodara, to the World Cup-winning team has been nothing short of the script of a Bollywood film. "It has been a hard journey, but thoroughly enjoyed it. To have come from a very small town and played cricket, played at the highest level was special. What made it all the more special is the fact that it invoked interest among the kids in my village."
By the time Munaf completed his higher-secondary schooling - there was no degree college in his village - he had started playing club cricket in Bharuch. His family didn't approve of it. Being the lone son in a family of five, Munaf decided to let go of the odd jobs he did during school holidays and instead give himself a couple of years as a cricketer.
"Nobody from my family could ever fathom that one can make a living as a cricketer. Still I started concentrating on cricket. Once I moved to Vadodara, I stopped working at the ceramic factory where a lot of us from the village used to be contract labourers and make wall and floor tiles."
Munaf had to leave Ikhar since it was "very limited in Bharuch" where he used to play district league. Vadodara was the next stop, where he reached the nets of Mehndi Sheikh, where Irfan and Yusuf Pathan were also honing their skills. But Sheikh sent Munaf to the academy of former India wicketkeeper Kiran More since "Sheikh didn't have a turf wicket, only matting". Munaf recalls he first wore spikes while training in Vadodara and found it "very difficult" to get used to bowling with them.
More was convinced that Munaf was the fastest bowler in India then. Once More was elevated to chief national selector, he sent Munaf to the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. Though he was a part of the Gujarat squad in 2002-2003, he didn't get an opportunity. "Mumbai had been looking out for a fast bowler then since Avishkar [Salvi] was injured and Ajit [Agarkar] was with the Indian team, so once Sachin [Tendulkar] asked, I was in Mumbai, where I learnt all my cricket lessons."
For a youngster from a village with a population of less than 10,000 to have shifted to Mumbai was a huge change in lifestyle. But Munaf says he picked only "cricketing lifestyle", which helped him stay close to his roots. Even though Munaf was playing as a professional cricketer for Mumbai, he was never given the feeling of being an outsider.
"Mumbai cricket in itself is so professional that I never had any additional pressure of being a professional cricketer. Everyone in the squad knew he was selected on merit and had to justify his selection. The whole work ethic in Mumbai cricket taught me a lot."
Once Mumbai coach Chandrakant Pandit and captain Sairaj Bahutule switched allegiance from Mumbai to Maharashtra in 2005, Munaf followed them. His exceptional season earned him his maiden India call-up. Once his Maharashtra ties ended on a sour note, Munaf moved to Baroda, the team that he had "always wanted to represent".
Vadodara's proximity to Ikhar has not only extracted the best of his cricket but has also helped Munaf to spend most of his time at home. In the previous Ranji season during Baroda's home games, Munaf used to drive down to Ikhar after every day's play. The journey, however, is far more relaxing nowadays in his SUV than the bus or train ride he used to take in his early days.
Ikhar hasn't changed much but Munaf has moved from his two-room house into a multi-storeyed bungalow. "My father always used to hope of buying the bungalow some day. I just fulfilled his wish."
With most of his wishes fulfilled, Munaf appears a content man. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he seems to have accepted that he may never wear the India jersey again. But that doesn't stop him from enjoying the game. He retorts in no time when asked if he is playing Ranji Trophy with an eye on the IPL.
"Some people who are paid to speak on TV should check their facts before speaking. There may be one or two such examples but it shouldn't be generalized. For someone like me, what do I know except for playing cricket? What will I do if I don't play cricket? I will play cricket as long as I am fit."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo