'Leaving Maharashtra opened my eyes'
Hrishikesh Kanitkar became the 27th cricketer to play 100 Ranji Trophy matches. The former India batsman, who is the only captain to claim the Ranji Trophy title in the Plate and Elite leagues, reflects on his 18-year journey as a first-class cricketer.
Hundred Ranji Trophy games. It's a big achievement, isn't it?
Yes. Big achievement. And for the selectors to play you that long means you've done well. That's a good feeling.
Early on, was it difficult being the son of a Test cricketer and a Maharashtra captain?
No, I didn't carry any baggage. No pressure at all. That's because of my father. Not once has he ever - whatever match I played - said 'this match is crucial' or 'you have to score runs'. Whether it was school cricket or Ranji, if I had a bad patch, he was the same, if I scored runs, he was the same. Thankfully that pressure was not there. And since there was no pressure from my father, there was no question of there being pressure from anyone else. It didn't matter to me.
So they didn't treat you different just because you were Hemant Kanitkar's son?
They didn't treat me differently. I was always a reserved type of person. Maybe they thought it was better to leave me alone, so they didn't go after me. It was fine. The fact that my dad was very equal in the way he treated me really kept me grounded. He told me that if I wanted to do something in cricket, I had to perform. So there was no pressure at all. In fact, I was lucky because I had someone who could share his experiences with me. If I had a problem or wanted to discuss something about cricket, I could do that with him at any time. In that regard, I had a slight advantage over others. But because he wasn't [forcing] me to do things his way, it gave me the freedom to be natural and play the way I could.
What do you remember of your Ranji debut? It was a long time ago, a little over 18 years ...
We were playing Bombay at Solapur. Sanjay (Manjrekar) was captaining Bombay and like any other derby game, it was a big game. Bombay got a big total. Amol (Muzumdar) scored runs and Sunil More also scored a lot of runs, I think. Then when we batted, I was batting well. (I had scored) 42 very aggressively. But the next day, I (scored) two more runs and I got out. Very disappointed to have got out on 44. But it was a great feeling to play for Maharashtra. And all my childhood heroes like (Surendra) Bhave, (Shantanu) Sugwekar and (Santosh) Jedhe were playing, I felt very honoured to be playing alongside them. Another thing I remember is Manjrekar was sent off the field by umpire (VN) Kulkarni from Karnataka. I am not sure what exactly happened. Shantanu was batting, something happened and Kulkarni sent him off.
How would you sum up your journey over all these years?
I started off like any youngster - wanting to play for Maharashtra, do well, score runs and all. And also, dreaming about winning the Ranji Trophy. All the other things happened. Winning Ranji never happened. We reached the semis once and lost to Delhi. I pretty much had seen everything apart from winning Ranji till a couple of years ago. Till then, it was a great journey. Very humbling, very exciting. Taught me a lot of things. Most of all that when you're not doing well, it doesn't matter. You get up next day and try again. Keep coming back. It taught me that. That was a big thing for me. Even later on, when one retires, these things really matter. And then the highlight was getting selected for India. I don't have words to express how I felt about that … Just getting to play for India and then getting that opportunity to hit that boundary and all those things. It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Like anybody else, I would have loved to have gone on playing for India. Whatever the reasons, my performances or whatever the other reasons were, one thing I can honestly say is there are no regrets. I don't dwell on that even for a minute now because I did the best I could. I used all my knowledge and experience to do well. This is how it turned out. I have no regrets at all. I have always played cricket with a positive mentality. I have been open to learning. (For the) past few years, I have been even more open to really learning from other people and situations. Since leaving Maharashtra, it's opened my eyes about how other teams practise, how they travel in different conditions and what problems the boys face in difficult conditions. I hadn't experienced all that with Maharashtra. It has been a learning experience and a fabulous one. And winning the Ranji is a dream come true, at par with playing for India as far as I am concerned, especially for a state like Rajasthan, where you had talent but the boys didn't believe in themselves. And now you have four-five boys playing for the zones and even India A. I am proud of that.
Was it difficult to keep pushing yourself to go through the domestic grind after your stint in international cricket?
The first time I was dropped, the only thing that was on my mind was to get back into the Indian team. So motivation wasn't a problem, till a point of time where I realised that it's difficult to get back in - you still hope for a miracle but you know at the back of the mind that it's getting even more difficult. That was around the time when I left Maharashtra. Then I came to (Madhya Pradesh) and the challenges were pretty different. I had to prove that I could play for another team and score runs out of my comfort zone. Those two years, I didn't (score) any century. I scored a lot of fifties but couldn't convert them. In one of the seasons, we got a lot of rain, so we hardly played any game. That was a tough time. Then I came to Rajasthan with all that knowledge I gained while playing for MP. And I think that bit that I learned for two years really helped me - as a person, as a cricketer, as a communicator with the boys. I think I put all those things into practice for Rajasthan and I could see the results.
Would you say leaving Maharashtra has been a kind of a boon in that sense?
At that point, I felt I had to leave Maharashtra. If I had to continue playing first-class cricket, I had to be proactive and make that decision. The first year was very difficult; instead of going to Poona Club or Cadence or any other club in Pune after getting up, I had to go to the airport, take a flight and go to Indore. And it felt very unfair. But then I came to terms with the facts. The facts were that if I love to play the game, I had to find a way to score runs and enjoy doing that. Once I was at peace with that, then there are no more regrets. Maybe, had I not left Maharashtra, I wouldn't have been a captain who won the Ranji Trophy. So God knows what he is doing. You just have to do your part. I really believe in that and that's what I focus on now.
How would you compare all the Ranji formats that you have experienced?
I think the Super League format that was in existence in my fourth and fifth season was a very good format. You first qualified from the zone and played another league. That gave you nine to ten games if you qualified for the semis. It was a challenging format because first you played teams from your zone and then after qualifying, you played the ones from outside.
And how has the new three-tier format shaped up in its first year?
The main thing it does is strong teams play against strong teams, so usually the teams are well-matched. The cricket is good and there is little disparity between the teams. With competition pretty equal, the performances can be counted. Otherwise, if strong teams are playing weaker teams, the performances can't really be counted.
You are one of the 30-odd professionals on the domestic circuit. How does the practice of hiring professionals impact Indian domestic cricket?
It's excellent for the Indian domestic circuit and it's excellent for the professionals also because, otherwise, they would have been shut out of cricket when they had a lot to give. Also, for states who hire professionals, if they use the professionals properly, they can really help hone the youngsters by sharing their experiences, talking about how to play in certain situations ... If that is done, it will help a great deal. If the professionals just come, score their runs or take their wickets and leave, then it will produce wins but the knowledge won't spread. So it's up to the associations about how to use the professionals. If that's done properly, then I think it's a very positive thing.
How long do you see yourself playing?
It's a difficult question. My theory is simple: until I can keep fit, until I can work out, until I have the motivation of getting up on a cold night and going to the gym, or jogging or training, I will keep playing cricket because I enjoy playing cricket. The moment I find that I have slowed down a little bit, the younger boys are playing much better than I am, that will be an indicator to stop. But that point hasn't come yet. I am still enjoying the challenge. It's more exciting to go and play against guys half your age and still score and perform well and beat them. That excitement is still there. As long as I keep enjoying it and enjoying working hard, I will keep playing.
Whenever that stage arrives, will coaching be the obvious move?
It is possible. I also like to write, so doing something related to the media is also an option. But I enjoy coaching. I enjoy sharing what I have.
In that regard, how much has this season with Rajasthan helped you - you've virtually had to double up as captain and coach?
It has helped me a lot. All these seasons that I have been away from Maharashtra has helped me a lot. It has made me a better communicator over the years. I still like to have my own space, but I am able to communicate better. I am able to communicate in the other person's language, which is very important. If they don't understand where I am coming from, then there's no point. It has helped me that way, it has changed me that way. It's all about learning, I feel. You just try to improve all the time.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo