Shitanshu Kotak's long haul
Twenty years ago Shitanshu Kotak and VVS Laxman were among the players at an Under-19 camp in Bangalore. "We played two practice matches and in the first I got a hundred," Kotak remembers. "He said, 'Kotak, I know most things about batting, but can you tell me how to make runs?'"
Two decades on, Kotak doubts Laxman remembers that conversation. Turns out he does. Laxman laughs his warm laugh when asked about it. "It was one of the best camps I attended in that age group. There were a lot of a talented cricketers, and I remember Shitanshu being very passionate about cricket," he says. "He took a lot of pride in the way he played his game - not only in his batting but also in his preparation. The discipline was evident in his lifestyle."
As youngsters, both men aspired to play for the country. Laxman went on to do so and called it quits last year. Kotak, a veteran of 21 domestic seasons, and now 40 years old, has never played for India, but continues to toil on. Like Kevin Costner's character in Bull Durham, he is wise, wizened even, but still passionate.
Only four players have played more than his 117 matches in Ranji Trophy history, and of them only Amol Muzumdar, is still active. Since his debut in 1992-93, Kotak has never missed a season. Last week, when asked during the quarter-final against Karnataka if it might be his farewell match if Saurashtra lost, he said, "Rubbish."
Over his dead body
In December 2011 I was in Rajkot covering a Saurashtra-Mumbai Ranji league match. Kotak had spent two full days on the field and admitted he was bored. But he showed no exhaustion, speaking enthusiastically about why he still continued to play, as we drove to his house.
He sat on his sofa, with his whites still on, streaks of red all over his shirt and trousers (he is the official polisher of the ball for Saurashtra). "We are worried how he will stay at home without cricket," his wife, Payal, said with a smile. His son, Hetwik, 11 years old, was curled up at the other end of the sofa, listening intently to his father's every word.
In an age where many Indian first-class cricketers, once they get past 35, decide to migrate to lesser-known teams and play senior statesman there, Kotak is an exception. Youngsters like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja may have emerged as the team's best batsmen over the last few years, but if Saurashtra are contenders today, they owe plenty to Kotak, the team's workhorse. At least twice (in 2003-04 and then 2005-06) when Saurashtra were on the brink of being relegated to the Plate group, Kotak played winning hands to rescue them.
Two of his best batting performances came against Mumbai, the toughest team on the domestic circuit.
In 2007-08, Mumbai were in a corner. The only way they could make the semi-finals was by beating Saurashtra. Kotak, Muzumdar says, "killed" Mumbai. For 796 minutes he resisted, grinding Mumbai down, finishing on 168 not out - his highest first-class score, the fourth-longest Ranji innings in terms of time spent at the crease (and the ninth-longest in all first-class cricket).
Muzumdar remembers electing to field on a fresh Wankhede pitch. "He just denied us any hope. Forget winning, we stopped thinking about it. Not only the amount of balls he played, but the time he consumed, he just put paid to our aspirations."
The following year, in the semi-final Mumbai ran into Kotak again, in Chennai. This time, though, Wasim Jaffer's triple-hundred, and a century by Sachin Tendulkar, had ensured Kotak would have to produce something majestic if he was to deny Mumbai their ticket to the final. Kotak nearly lived up to the challenge with an 89 lasting over five hours. "Tendulkar said: 'Kotak, sab log bolte hain, Kotak out nahin hota hai. Abhi maine bhi dekh liya, tu out nahin hota hai. Maar aur out ho ja, bas tu [Kotak, everyone says you don't get out, and now I've seen it for myself. Now hit and get out],'" Kotak recollects with an embarrassed smile.
The essence of Kotak's batting has always been about stonewalling, grinding the bowlers into submission. From the time he made his debut, the left-hander drew heads with his unorthodox stance. The seeming limp in his stride added to it. "With Kotak he is telling you: 'Bhai, main aisa hi hoon. Aap ko out karna hain to kar lo [This is how I am. You want to get me out, get me out],'" Muzumdar says.
Kotak admits he is limited in his strokeplay, which he puts down to his diffidence about consulting his betters in his youth, along with the lack of quality coaching back then. But what he may lack in technique, he has made up for with grit and hunger.
"He is very determined," Pujara says. "The nature of the pitch never mattered, what score he was batting on did not matter. To get him out was one of the most difficult tasks for a bowler. He did not make mistakes. He would never give you a chance. That is what I will remember. And that is what we youngsters can learn from."
For Muzumdar, Kotak is one of a kind. "He is unbelievably mentally strong. He knows his talent is a little limited, but if there is an example of limited talent and maximum ability, Kotak will top that group. He never gives up easily: keep playing, keep battling, grind the opposition down."
The missed bus
According to Kotak in the first few years of his career, he would walk in at No. 6 and, following instructions from senior players, play aggressively. He ended up making fifties in each of his first eight matches. "I would just hit without bothering about what it could do to my career," he says.
In his first four years, despite being picked in the squad, Kotak did not play a single Duleep Trophy match. The late Ashok Mankad, then the West Zone coach, played him in the 1998 Duleep season and gave him a long rope. Kotak showed promise, and he impressed in the Deodhar Trophy too. He was duly picked for the Irani Cup (the only time he has been, to date) the following season, against Karnataka. Kotak scored a spirited century on a fast pitch in Bangalore in that game, against opposition that included Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath.
Srinath was full of praise for Kotak, and on his next visit to Rajkot said to Niranjan Shah, the Saurashtra Cricket Association president: "We got all the India players out but we could not get this guy out even on a greentop. Who gets him out on the race-course pitch?"
Kotak, though, was never called up by the national selections. To add insult to injury, Chandu Borde, then the national chairman of selectors, while picking an India A team for a tour of the West Indies said the reason Kotak was not included was because he was in his 30s. Kotak was 27 at the time.
"I believed I would play if it is in my destiny"
Did Kotak really belong in the top league? Despite his passion for crease occupation, he has never scored a double-century to date, and only has 15 first-class centuries from over 200 innings. Against Mumbai last year, he recorded his 50th first-class half-century. "It is a setback, actually," he acknowledges, "the inability to score more hundreds. I failed to convert my fifties."
"Thoda style, thoda grace, thoda pull bhi chahiye," Kotak says. "I did not understand this when I was young. You need somebody's sympathy or a good impression to help you progress. Somebody needs to put in words, saying how much you have been performing. Today there are so many players playing for India and all of them catch somebody or the other at one time to get in. I never could do it. I just believed I would play if it is in my destiny.
"I knew even at the age of 31 or 33 that I was still good enough to play. But I realised that the [West Zone] selectors were trying to avoid me playing. Because if I performed in Ranji Trophy and they did not pick me for Duleep, saying I was too old, then I could not go any further. So it was not me who decided." It was, he says, the most difficult phase of his career.
Around 2003 he realised his dream of playing for India was dying. Two years later, he was resigned to his fate. "My only motivation after 2005 was to play, perform and trouble the opponent. And if the [opposition] had senior or international players, I wanted to make them understand: even if he has never played for India, he is a player of our standard."
Perhaps the right sort of coaching might have allowed him to add a string to his bow. "Maybe I could have started playing a bit more aggressive cricket. But for that I needed the knowledge. I am a Level 2 coach now, and I know more about bat speed, bat swing. Today a batsman is more aware about various things which could prove beneficial."
Kotak believes youngsters today are mentally stronger, more stable, and smarter than those of his generation. "The one big thing I see about these guys is, they do not want to be nice to people. They are sure that only if they perform can they capture anything. It can be seen as a bit of arrogance, but it helps you in your game. It is not a bad attitude to have.
"I wanted to be nice to everyone. Even today I do not upset people. I always thought I should not say or do anything that can damage my relationship or hurt my chances. People can take you for granted if you are too nice."
Be that as it may, Kotak has made sure he has never been consumed by cynicism. "I never felt too upset, because that would only harm me," he says. "So I decided, I must play, show people that, come what may, this guy always performs."
The long player
This is has been Kotak's leanest season with Saurashtra (344 runs in nine matches at an average of 26.46 up until the quarter-finals). Otherwise he has consistently been among the side's top three batsmen.
This year, halfway through the league stage, after the regular openers, Chirag Pathak and Bhushan Chauhan, failed regularly, Kotak raised his hand and said he would open. Through his long career Kotak had opened on the odd occasion but never at a stretch. Not that that is an excuse for his poor figures this season, he says.
This is only the third time Saurashtra have reached the semi-finals in Ranji Trophy, and if they get the better of Punjab, Kotak will have made it to his first Ranji final. He has more first-class runs than any other Saurashtra batsman, but he has not thought about retirement. "I would definitely like to at least score a double-century before I stop. Help Saurashtra win the Ranji Trophy," he says.
"What really inspires me about players like Kotak," Laxman says, "is that at some stage of his career he must have accepted that he would not play for the country. Continuing to play in a professional manner, continuing to deliver for so many years, is admirable."
Kotak's story is an anachronism in modern Indian cricket. It is the story of a man who has remained loyal to his duties, to his ambition, and above all else, to cricket.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo