'Playing the game more important than playing for India' - Bundela
While Virender Sehwag made his 100th Test appearance amid fanfare in Mumbai on Friday, a domestic stalwart will reach a similar feat in front of near-empty stands on Saturday. Devendra Bundela will reach 100 Ranji games when Madhya Pradesh take on Bengal in Indore, a central India town also known as mini-Bombay and where Sehwag scored his ODI double-century. Before the 35-year-old Bundela, only 25 other cricketers have achieved the feat. And when it comes to representing only one domestic team, as Bundela has, the list shrinks to 15.
For a workhorse such as Bundela, featuring in 100 Ranji games, that too for his home state Madhya Pradesh, is one of the biggest feats in his cricketing sojourn that started when he was 12, in Ujjain. "It matters a lot that I have been able to serve Madhya Pradesh for so long. Madhya Pradesh has given me so much that I always try to give it back by doing whatever I can to the best of my abilities. And the fact that I have lasted for so long means that I haven't fared badly," Bundela tells ESPNcricinfo.
Just like his achievements as a batsman have been downplayed over the years, the soft-spoken Bundela - known as "Bundi bhai" among his team-mates - tones down the feat. Recounting his formative years, his eyes glitter. "'Eighty-nine se chalu kiya club cricket [I started playing club cricket in 1989]. There was a camp in Ujjain when I was 12 years old. Nobody else used to play the game in the family. I was fond of cricket so I started playing it. Saleem Khan and Vijay Bali [his coaches] taught me the basics," Bundela says.
Once Bundela, along with his coaches and family members, realised he was better than most batsmen his age in Ujjain, the next step was to shift to Indore, the hub of MP cricket. "It wasn't easy. Since my father was a State Bank employee, he had to stay back in Ujjain but I shifted to Indore along with my brother," says Bundela. "While he concentrated on studies, my sole focus was cricket. Sanjay Jagdale sir was my coach then. Once I came to Indore, I played for MP Under-16, then U-19, toured Australia with the India U-19 squad, and then played the Ranji Trophy."
Having featured in an ODI for India U-19 in Australia in March 1995, Bundela was included in MP's Ranji squad at the start of the next season. However, he had to wait till the last match to make his debut - against Tamil Nadu in Indore. "I spent most of that season serving drinks and observing the routine of seniors - both in my team and the opposition. I played in what eventually turned out to be the last game of the season for us. It was a spinning track, and I remember I got some 25  in the first innings and 30-odd  in the second as we lost by an innings."
Even though his maiden season in first-class cricket was far from ideal, it gave Bundela an indication of what was in store for him. "I realised that there was a lot of gap between the U-19 and Ranji Trophy standards and I needed to improve my game if I had to establish myself at that level. Accordingly I started preparing for the next season," he says.
That preparation must have helped him not only survive the rigours of domestic cricket for 16 years but also in becoming the highest-scoring MP batsman, having featured in a Ranji final and in the side that was the domestic one-day champion. It also put him on the fringes of the India side for a brief period.
Though he couldn't make the most of his limited opportunities during India A's tour of the West Indies in 1999 and in the tour game against the New Zealanders later that year, Bundela has no qualms in admitting he was perhaps not good enough for the biggest stage. "What I feel is perhaps I needed to perform better," he says. "I don't have any regrets in not playing for India. I feel perhaps I should have done more to earn the India cap. Somewhere, somehow I may not have done enough to have achieved it."
How many cricketers are so frank about their limitations these days? And most importantly, in a day and age of instant money and fame, how many push themselves to the hilt in order to keep excelling in domestic cricket? That's the difference between them and men like Bundela, who lend meaning to the domestic set-up. "I love this game," Bundela says. "It's more important for me to play the game rather than playing for India. Obviously, I dreamt of playing for India, worked hard towards it but it doesn't happen that if you don't play for India, you give it up."
Once a player accepts this, the perceived grind all through the year in order to keep himself in shape doesn't appear so. A man who naturally has a sweet tooth has to resist the temptation of having sweets. He has to work harder on his fitness, with first-class cricket having become "more competitive than ever". He can do anything that will help him in turning out for his state team, something that gives him the much-needed "kick". So it doesn't come as a surprise that after fielding under the blazing sun in Jaipur for a full day, the first thing he does is to hit the hotel swimming pool for more than half an hour.
"It's not easy to motivate yourself, but if you love the game and play it for self-pride, self-respect and love of the game, you don't need to motivate yourself much," Bundela says. "All I have to tell myself is I am playing for my reputation and I have to give my best for MP. That is more than enough for myself."
Even though not getting his hands on the coveted Ranji Trophy is one of his biggest regrets, when they were "so close and yet so far", losing to Karnataka after gaining the first-innings lead [in 1998-99], his highs include scoring a fifty and 80 in the semi-final and the final to help MP win the Wills Trophy (domestic one-day championship) the same season. Though he thinks long and hard to recount his top three knocks, he has no trouble remembering the biggest compliment he has received.
"It has to be at Wankhede in 2004," Bundela says. "We had gained the first-innings lead but had lost three wickets for virtually nothing on the board. And then I managed to score about 140  to bat Mumbai out of the game as we batted nearly a day and a half. After I got my century on the third day, Dilip Vengsarkar walked in to the MP dressing room and congratulated me. Beating Mumbai in Mumbai and a former India captain coming to shake hands with me are the two most memorable feats for me."
As you wind up the discussion, you realise that it is men like Bundela who are hardly given their due. No doubt the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association is planning to felicitate one of their stalwarts ahead of the game on Saturday. However, it would be a fitting tribute to add Bundela's name to the Hall of Fame section on their website along with the MP players who have played international cricket - from the legendary CK Nayudu to Naman Ojha.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo