December 24, 2011

'This is not the time to give up cricket'

From the highs of leading a team to the Ranji title and another to promotion, Amol Muzumdar finds himself no longer being the leading scorer in Ranji and having to prove himself before he can play first-class cricket again. Not that he's complaining

Challenges. Amol Muzumdar uses the word a lot. He likes challenges. They motivate him, get his competitive juices flowing. He has been feeding off them all his career.

From dreaming of playing for India, to scoring runs despite the disappointment of not being selected; from leading Mumbai to their most unlikely Ranji Trophy title, in 2007, to leading Assam into the Elite League, he has been at his best when tested. His latest challenge, though, he didn't see coming. For the first time since 1992, Muzumdar is not playing Ranji Trophy cricket. Instead, the tournament's all-time leading run scorer is plying his trade on the maidans of Mumbai among school cricketers and weekend enthusiasts.

On this particular evening he is sitting by the tennis courts at the Khar Gymkhana, in a suburb of Mumbai, watching his five-year old daughter, Devina, hit a ball against the wall. He takes her bright pink Hannah Montana bag out from behind him and puts it on the table. She will need it when she goes swimming later. Meanwhile in Guwahati, Assam, the team he captained for two years after leaving Mumbai in 2009, was losing to Maharashtra. And in Rajkot, his former Mumbai team-mates were battling to a draw with Saurashtra.

How did he get here?

It began with an ending. Assam narrowly missed out on retaining their Elite status in 2010, being relegated on the last day of their last game. Muzumdar had led them into the Elite league the year before, the first time Assam had been promoted, and felt he had done his job. The time had come to return to Mumbai. He had missed the dressing room, the players, the buzz that came with chasing trophies. He still had the desire to succeed, the hunger to make runs.

He applied to play for his hometown team again, confident he would make it through the selection process. He was told there was now a mandatory one-year cooling-off period. "If I had played, this would have been my 19th year in first-class cricket," Muzumdar says. "I didn't know about this rule. But there is a rule and the rule has to be followed."

Four years after leading Mumbai to the Ranji title, Muzumdar was faced with proving himself all over again by playing club cricket. The runs he had made through his career didn't matter. Being a former Mumbai captain didn't matter. The many rescue acts he had directed for Mumbai over the years didn't matter. He could have walked away and played for another team. Wasim Jaffer, the Mumbai captain, took Muzumdar's record for the most runs in the Ranji Trophy two days ago. If he had been playing, Jaffer might not have caught up.

On the other hand, having accomplished practically everything there is to accomplish in domestic cricket, Muzumdar could even have retired and hopped on the television bandwagon - which he has explored with stints on Neo Cricket. (He happened to be commentating on the game in which Jaffer broke his record).

But he wasn't ready to give up. At a time when the virtues of youth are touted from every rooftop, Muzumdar, all of 37 (though he looks 10 years younger), believes he still has a lot to contribute. "I am fit, I have got the motivation, and I really want to give something back." Besides, even batting in club cricket is still batting. And Muzumdar loves nothing more than batting. "It is an addiction," he says. "You can't just let it go."

Off the field, his family helped him cope with the changes. When he questioned, back in 2002, whether he wanted to keep playing, his wife helped him realise that he still loved the game; that there was more to life and cricket than playing at the top level. When it came time to discuss playing club cricket with her and his parents, their answers were the same: the fire still burns, so make the most of it while you can.

"You have to move on and find something else to motivate you," Muzumdar says. "My family has made me realise that you have to focus on the present, on what you have and do the best you can. Whatever comes, accept, and move ahead."

That attitude is why he chose to go to Holland earlier this year to be coach-cum-player with Quick the Hague in the Dutch top-tier Topklasse competition. The offer came as a surprise. Muzumdar was looking for a club contract in England, where he has played for the last 16 years, when he got a call asking if he would be interested in going to Holland. Not knowing much about cricket in the Netherlands, Muzumdar looked Quick up and thought it sounded interesting (former Zimbabwe batsmen David Houghton and Grant Flower have played for the club). He discussed it with his wife and in the first week of April the family found themselves on a plane.

He expected to have an easy time of things but was in for a bit of a shock. The day after he arrived, he was handed a sheet that told him exactly what he would be doing, hour by hour, for the next three months. He was the coach for the Under-12, U-18 and senior sides, and played for the last of those as well. He led the U-18s to the championship for the first time in 60 years.

Muzumdar says his time in Holland rejuvenated him. "It really got me going and I think it has helped me to focus more." He enjoyed himself so much he has signed up for another go-around in 2012.

After returning to India to discover he was not eligible to play for Mumbai, he strapped on his pads to lead Reliance Energy in the Times Shield on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and turned out for the National Cricket Club on Saturdays and Sundays in the Police Shield. On Fridays he would head over to Khar Gymkhana for a net session. "For one and a half months, I was the busiest cricketer in India," he says with a smile.

There were adjustments to be made, of course. For one, he wasn't travelling. Even Devina noticed that. Muzumdar says that after he hadn't gone anywhere for about two weeks, she asked him what he was doing at home. "I told her, 'Enjoy it while it lasts. It won't be for long.'"

At a time when the virtues of youth are touted from every rooftop, Muzumdar, all of 37, believes he still has a lot to contribute. He loves nothing more than batting. "It is an addiction," he says. "You can't just let it go"

Other changes have been more subtle. Playing for Mumbai meant not needing to worry about anything but the cricket. It was a set pattern of practice, rest and playing in games. Playing for National Cricket Club meant sometimes dropping Devina off at school on his way to a match. Once the game started, though, all the differences evaporated. "When you go in to bat and take the leg-stump guard, that is the time you switch on and it all falls into place."

Muzumdar led Reliance Energy to the quarter-finals of the Times Shield, scoring a century and two fifties in four games. He made another hundred and two fifties from five games as National Cricket Club made the finals. Playing on these pitches forced him to work on his technique, Muzumdar says, after he had grown used to the good batting wickets that predominate in Indian first-class cricket. "You get a wicket which will turn on the second and third days viciously. You have to cope with it."

Muzumdar misses the atmosphere of first-class cricket, but he has no regrets about his decision. He has "loved every moment of the last two months. It [maidan cricket] is the very essence of Mumbai cricket." The expression on his face echoes his words. He does look happy; just glad to be back.

Rajesh Powar, who captained National, says it is rare that someone of Muzumdar's stature chooses to play club cricket and that they would not have made the final without him. "He could not play the final and we lost badly," Powar says. "From that you can tell how important he was for us."

Muzumdar, he says, was not only very motivated on the field, he was also clearly enjoying himself. "He has the same attitude in Ranji and in Police Shield. He never seemed like he was taking it easy. He was just as motivated and focused. He tells us always to just enjoy cricket. It was a big plus point [to have him]."

It is the opportunity to compete for a place in his beloved Mumbai side again that kept Muzumdar going this year. He has stayed in touch with many of his former team-mates. They called him when he broke the record for most Ranji runs, in 2009. He called them when they won the title. He would love nothing more than to be back in that dressing room.

The most important thing he learned playing for Assam was patience and that is helping him bide his time now. But he plans to keep playing, even if he doesn't make the cut for Mumbai next year.

"I personally feel that everything has its own time. This is what I believe. For me, this is not the time where I need to get into something other than cricket."

Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo