'This win will take us a long way'
Mohammad Kaif was the decisive factor in Uttar Pradesh's surge to - and eventual clinching of - their maiden Ranji Trophy Final title. Repaying the faith that his team and state had placed in him when he joined an in-the-doldrums UP side midway into the 2005-06 season, Kaif instilled a sense of belief. In a limited timeframe, Kaif built a winning unit with limited resources at his hand and produced vital knocks to set UP up for glory. In this exclusive interview to Cricinfo, he talks us through UP's road to victory.
You took over the captaincy at a time when Uttar Pradesh were struggling to stay alive in the group. What were your first observations of the team then?
Last year when I led Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji one-dayers in the four league games in Indore, we had won all four. So I knew we had guys who could perform well, but they needed some support - more so in the form of encouragement. Normally what happens in UP cricket is after one bad game a player gets dropped and a new guy would walk in feeling insecure. So one of the important tasks for me was, and remains so, is to give confidence to the players about their place in the team and not let them get worried about being dropped; to instead remain focused and play their natural game.
How did you gel with the senior players, some of whom have been around for at least a decade, as well as with the inexperienced youth?
I needed to create a family-like atmosphere. I respect the seniors for whatever they had done for the state, and still are doing, so there is mutual respect between us. I just wanted the guys to work as a team - there should be no disparity between a senior and junior. What I wanted from the seniors was that they put in the effort, even if they couldn't match that of a youngster, and nothing else.
Were there times when you were frustrated?
No, I've been lucky so far. All of them have been very supportive and tried their best. Fitness plays a big role in cricket and the youngsters of today are fit unlike the seniors who didn't have the same kind of fitness levels. So I had to make the seniors comfortable during our drills to make for a comfortable atmosphere.
Is it true that before you joined the side, this kind of teamwork wasn't famous and the team looked more scattered?
Probably, you are right. I had been in touch with a few players about the happenings in the side even when I was not playing. So my first goal was to gel the unit and help them work together be it on the field or during team meetings.
Being a leader by example might have helped?
I won't just instruct the guys, like 'you go and do the catches, or practice in the nets, or do your training'. I would make sure that I am there with them, so they could think that the captain was here and setting an example. That created a good atmosphere and that is the chief reason why UP performed so well in the last four matches.
|What I wanted from the seniors was that they put in the effort, even if they couldn't match that of a youngster, and nothing else|
Would you single out any victory prior to the final as special?
We had four points in four matches and were on the verge of being relegated. But from that low point to make it to the final and being in a good position to win the Ranji title is something really special to me. So it is not just one or two matches to talk about. There was pressure throughout our campaign and players had doubts in their mind. So when I took over I told them they would play the rest of the matches and they shouldn't at all worry about their place being given to someone else. Instead, I would encourage them by saying simply, 'Go out there and enjoy yourself, feel free and improve every day. Pick new things and even if you make mistakes on the way make sure don't repeat them the next time '. And we've some good talent and most of them have ambitions to do well.
Youngsters like Suresh Raina and Piyush Chawla carried the torch for UP admirably in your absence. These are signs of good times for UP's cricket in the future.
Yes, these two, along with Praveen Kumar, have bowled well, batted well and played with confidence. Someone like Piyush is keen to pick things up, try it out in the nets and then try it in the match; he has talent, plays his natural game and has a big heart. So that is the main thing: you don't need to worry about the opponent, whatever game you are playing, you just have to believe in your self and if you start doing that at a young age it will take you a long way. Same has been the case with most of our youngsters.
So you derive your strength and support from talking to your players?
Yes, I talk to them a lot. It was they who told me about their insecurities, which is not good, as ultimately the team is suffering. So, talking to the boys, getting some information and trying to improve as a group are things I've been working on.
How big is this Ranji crown for UP cricket?
It is a big boost. Probably they (UP's cricketers) will start believing from now that they can win these big matches. That belief has to be there because they all are good players and have done well. The joy of winning a match, and we have won our last four matches, is something new, so everyone started realising it was a different feeling. But we need to make it a habit. This Ranji Trophy win will take us a long way and will play a big part in the improvement of UP cricket. This is like a platform and from here I hope we continue to build further.
What are the changes your state body needs to enhance their support of the team?
There are plenty of areas that can be looked into, beginning with a physio, trainer, an analyst and also a team sponsor, the last being very important. Hopefully, we will get to see from this win some big changes from the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association, who I think will stand up and support youngsters with talent. We need to change the system where we can't go on with changing the squad for every match. We need to play as a unit, which was lacking in the past.
Personally, winning the Ranji Trophy is a landmark in your career. Did you notice any changes in yourself in the process?
I have grown mentally stronger. UP cricket lacks a lot of things, but as a captain I had to set an example as many youngsters look up to me as a senior player. At the same time I had to ensure unity in the team where I wanted the boys to help each other. I really worked hard to create such an environment. We had some fun in the process and enjoyed each other's success and backed each other. I really, really worked hard ... mentally, I am exhausted, but I learnt so much. I still have that memory of my first meeting with the boys when we had four points in four matches, and now reaching the final and winning it is something really special.
Nagraj Gollapudi is Assistant Editor of Cricinfo Magazine