December 22, 2011

'Scoring hundreds is the best feeling'

The Mumbai captain and Ranji record-holder looks back at his domestic career, playing maidan cricket, learning to score fast, the team's winning philosophy, and more

Wasim Jaffer is 100 matches old in the Ranji Trophy. To make the moment more memorable still, he overtook his former Mumbai team-mate and captain Amol Muzumdar (8237 runs) to become the leading run-maker in the history of the tournament. He has so far won seven Ranji Trophy titles, twice as captain. Mumbai have never lost a match under him. Jaffer looks back at his journey.

What does this record mean to you?
It did not happen overnight. It is a sum of the hard work of a good 15 years. It also shows the consistency over a long period of time. I'm proud that I have been able to achieve this record playing for Mumbai, a city I was born and brought up in. I had offers from other states but I did not want to leave Mumbai. I enjoyed being captain of Mumbai. When you play for some other state there is not a possibility that you will win the Ranji Trophy. I have played in seven Ranji finals. Some players go without even winning a single title. So I am lucky to have won seven times, twice as captain.

What keeps you going?
There is nothing much in my life apart from cricket. I do work for Indian Oil Corporation but even that job is cricket-oriented. There is nothing else I would like to do. From the time I stared playing Under-16s, the sole aim was to play for India, which I managed to achieve. I had my moments and then I got dropped. But whenever I returned to Mumbai, I have always thought of returning to the Indian dressing room by scoring as many runs as possible. That is what keeps me going. Scoring hundreds is the best feeling, and nothing gives me more pleasure.

In 1993, in a Giles Shield match, you played a bad shot in the first innings and your brother Kaleem slapped you. In the next innings you got a 400. Tell us about that.
It was a quarter-final match between my school, Anjuman Islam Urdu School, and Kendriya Vidyalaya. I had got 77 in the first innings when I got out to a bad shot trying to play to midwicket. Kaleem was frustrated that I threw my wicket away and slapped me. In those days there was only Giles Shield and Harris Shield. There were not many tournaments to play at school level. Though they had a chance to not make us bat again, our opponents put us in to bat again. I made sure I would not repeat the mistake and made 400.

In our house I was always taught to never throw my wicket away once I got a start. I remember once I had not been picked for the Mumbai U-16. I was crying, but my family told me that the only way I could come back was by scoring more runs, doing better than other players. In the next season of the Shatkar Trophy [qualifier for U-16], I got 206 not out, and came to the Mumbai U-16 side. That was what I was taught: aim for something higher always.

You came from very humble background.
My dad was a driver in BEST [Mumbai commuter bus service]. We were four brothers and I was the youngest. Kaleem, the second, was the most enthusiastic about cricket but he was 30 and could not play much. Our dad was the only breadwinner to begin with. Salim, the eldest, sold pickles to help out.

I was in Bandra Urdu High School till sixth standard. I remember playing for them against Shardashram English in a Harris Shield pre-quarter-final. This was 1988, and I remember Sachin Tendulkar played that game and he got 170, and that same season he went on to play Ranji Trophy. I moved to Anjuman, which had a better cricket structure. In the early years I only used the school kit, and dad used to somehow save a little money to help me with gloves and pads. Once I played for Mumbai U-16, I started getting sponsored bats and things got better.

You came up through maidan cricket. Did that toughen you up?
Sudhir Naik sir was the Mumbai selector when I was playing U-16. He got me to the National Cricket Club, where I learned all my cricket. Mumbai cricket is indebted to maidan cricket. The wickets are not really good but you face a good class of bowling. Your dressing room is a makeshift tent, the drinking water may not perfect, there is no comfort zone. So mentally you need to be prepared.

But that is how you learn all the tricks: the experienced players pass on the moves - when the conditions are tough, how you grind it out. You learn only there. If you play in a gymkhana, like the Parsee gymkhana, to give an example, things are readily available, but in maidan cricket the conditions are never perfect, and you still have to make do with it.

Has Mumbai maidan cricket stayed the same?
I don't think so. All the senior stalwarts have moved out. These were people who made maidan cricket so strong. That has gone missing. And I do not see U-16 and U-19 players in maidan cricket anymore. I used to play all the time. Once I finished the Cooch Behar or Vinoo Mankad tournaments, I would be playing in Purshottam or Talim Shields.

Who were your role models in your formative years?
Sachin [Tendulkar] has always been the role model. When I was shifting schools I remember going to see the Harris Shield finals, played at New Era Club ground at Azad Maidan, between Anjuman Islam Urdu and Shardasharam. Sachin got a hundred, Vinod Kambli got a double-ton. I followed his career from there. For me Sachin always remained special.

I also learned over the years from players at National. Former Mumbai Ranji players like Sunil More, Nilesh Kulkarni, Manish Patel, Atul Ranade, Sandeep Mahadkar were at National when the club won five Kanga League titles in a row in the mid-to-late 1990s. I was in and out of the team but I was [managing the scoreboard] most of the time. In those days you needed to know everything. You could not say, "I can't do this and that". I used to replace the numbers on the scoreboard, and sitting out there I enjoyed watching my team winning. When you are with a winning team, you learn a lot.

You were not a regular opener when you started playing for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy.
My second Ranji match was in Rajkot, against Saurashtra. Sanjay Manjrekar, our captain, had to leave after the first day, after being picked by the national selectors for the Titan Cup final. He was supposed to open, but to begin with we were fielding for the first two and a quarter days, though we had Salil Ankola, Paras Mhambrey and Abey Kuruvilla in our bowling attack. It was very frustrating. During one of the drinks breaks, late on the second evening, Sameer Dighe told me to chat a bit, show a little more aggro. I said, "All that is fine but will we get to bat at all?" Saurashtra were happy to take one point [for the first-innings lead] despite scoring 600-plus. I opened with Sulakshan Kulkarni [current Mumbai coach]. I got a triple-hundred, he got 239, and we got the lead and three points. My career kickstarted from there.

"I remember VVS Laxman saying: nowadays they [batsmen in domestic cricket] will score a hundred but they do not bat the whole 90 overs. According to him, they do not possess the art of batting from the start till the end of the day and carrying on the next day. I felt he made a very good point"

You have scored at a good clip. Has it always been like that?
In my first season I was very conservative. I never hit in the air. We were playing against Madhya Pradesh in the semi-final, I think. We were chasing 350-odd for victory. Rajesh Chauhan bowled 96 overs on a spinning pitch and there was no way you could dominate him I felt. But Manjrekar was upset that I was so defensive. He said that playing for Mumbai you always have to show intent. I understood what he meant and over the years I picked it up steadily, picked up new shots. The range of shots improved and the scoring rate has gone up.

Was Manjrekar one of the better captains you played under?
Probably. People said that he was very strong in his opinions but by then, my first season, he had mellowed. We had a lot of match-winners in the Mumbai team but everybody looked up to him. He was available the whole season and that made a big difference. Sanjay demanded respect, and as a youngster I felt his presence and that was really important. Going into any match, the thought of losing a game never occurred to us.

Good batsmen always point out that concentration is one requirement of batting that they place higher than others. You have played long innings throughout your career. How did you learn to focus?
I used to bat a lot in the nets, about four to five hours. If you have not batted that long, you will find it difficult in a match to bat for longer periods. I never read books. It was merely a physical activity for me. I was prepared to bat for long hours. Once I am set, a hundred is the only goal that will make me happy.

Which was your best Ranji innings?
Chandrakant Pandit mentions my hundred at the Jamia Milia Cricket ground, against Delhi in the 2003-04 season. It was his first season as Mumbai coach. We were chasing 185 to win and we needed a bonus point. I got 117 on a turner against a bowling attack that had Sarandeep Singh and Ashish Nehra.

The previous year I got 98 in the second innings in the final against Tamil Nadu. We were 60-70 runs behind in the first innings and we had to take a good lead to put ourselves in a good position for victory. I got out very late in the day but had a good partnership with Nishit Shetty, who got a century. We set them about 270 for victory and we won it.

Your opponents have always valued your wicket. Is that a compliment?
When you play for a state like Mumbai, the expectations are always high. You cannot drop your guard. It is a pressure you enjoy. Pressure is something you need to adapt to.

What is your favourite shot?
A good cover drive gives me a lot of pleasure if it comes right out of the middle of the bat, if the feet are in line and I am in a good spot to play the ball.

You must have faced some of the best domestic fast bowlers in your career. Any particular ones you enjoyed a contest with?
Laxmipathy Balaji. He has given me trouble all through my career. We played against each other in two Ranji finals. He had come to the 2002-03 final with a bagful of wickets. He was a bowler I wanted to do really well against but it was not easy. In the first innings he was accurate and I could not hit a boundary for about 12 overs. It was that difficult.

And batsmen?
Vikram Rathour, Hemang Badani, Parthiv Patel are a few of the batsmen who have enjoyed scoring against Mumbai. Shitanshu Kotak is another player, like the other three, who brings out the best against the best.

What are the most cherished moments of your Ranji career so far?
Winning in seven seasons were the most satisfying moments. When I won it got the first time as a captain, we had 32 points after the league stage, including five outright wins. We then got another win in the quarter-finals; then I got a triple in the semi-final, followed by the final victory, against Uttar Pradesh. The following year we went on to win against Karnataka in the final, easily the best I have played in. To work hard over 10 games and then win the Ranji Trophy is the ultimate.

After 30, the doubts and insecurities grow. How have you fought them?
Batsmen and spin bowlers mature late. You play for 10 to 12 years and then you can analyse well. It is a process. As long as you are open in your approach, it always helps. When you are young everything works for you. You have the energy, the stamina. But after 30 you need to find what works for you. You focus on your strengths only. Preparation is the key.

What is the biggest change in the game you have seen over your career?
The quality of spinners and their skills has dropped, and that is solely because of the influence of Twenty20 cricket. In contrast, fast bowling has become better in the age of speedometers, and the SG balls help quick bowlers a lot. The quality of batting has seen the maximum change, and the scoring rates have been peaking all the time.

Is there a compliment you treasure?
During the England tour earlier this year, Sourav Ganguly said on air: the three best opening batsmen that India have at the moment are: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Wasim Jaffer. It is a very high compliment for me coming from someone who played for India for so long and was the captain.

What will you tell the next generation about what batting for Mumbai means?
As a batsman, you need to bat the whole day. I remember VVS Laxman saying: nowadays they [batsmen in domestic cricket] will score a hundred but they do not bat the whole 90 overs. They will do whatever they need to do before the day finishes and then they will get out. According to him, they do not possess the art of batting from the start till the end of the day and carrying on the next day. I felt he made a very good point.

Has the value of the Mumbai cap dropped?
Nowadays it does come very easily. You score a couple of hundreds in a local tournament and your name will definitely feature in the selection meetings. I remember that before he played for Mumbai, Amol Muzumdar had scored four hundreds in a row in the U-19s, and even then he did not get a chance. He had to keep scoring before he could get into the Mumbai squad. Now it has become easy. The quality of batting has gone down as a consequence.

Today's youngsters have many options. Even in club cricket I have seen players move to different teams in case a player is made to sit out for two or three matches. We would sit outside for three years and we would still learn.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo