'Wearing the Bengal jersey is my motivation'- Shukla
"I was informed over the phone that I was picked for the Indian team. I was very excited and everyone - my family, friends, area, mohalla - was happy. That was the outstanding moment of my life. I hope, shayad kabhi na kabhi phir se repeat hoga. Phirse khabar milega phone pe, message aayega ke aap select ho gaye. [I hope maybe sometime in the future, I get the news on the phone or through a message telling me I've been selected.]"
The last time Laxmi Shukla, allrounder and current captain of Bengal, wore India colours was in September 1999, back when he was supposed to be one of the many next Kapil Devs. Six months earlier, he had made his ODI debut against Sri Lanka in Nagpur - he didn't bat and in his four overs conceded 32 runs. Two games later, he was dropped from the ODI side. Nearly 15 years later, Shukla is insistent there is little rancour as he looks back on his career. Neither is he bitter about having missed the chance of playing a Test, after coming so close.
Shukla made his first-class debut at the age of 16, in 1997, and less than two years later, was playing an ODI for India. If your chance comes at such a young age, never to show up again for the next 15 years, you begin to wonder what if that opportunity had come when you were a little more mature. Not with Shukla, though. He wouldn't have had it another way.
"When I got the chance, I came into the team because of my performances," Shukla says. "After that, when I played two unofficial games against Pakistan in 1999, I took 10 wickets. I didn't get to play a Test after that. I performed even then, but I was removed from the team. Still, I am not disappointed. A person gets an opportunity when he does well. So I will not be disappointed. I choose to be positive. I lost a few years due to injury. I am trying to do well, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I will keep trying and uparwala kabhi na kabhi toh kuch na kuch dega [gods will relent some day]."
Shukla has had some impressive patches in the interim, including one of his most successful seasons in 2011-12, where he scored 294 runs and took 12 wickets to help Bengal win their maiden one-day Ranji Trophy title. In the final against Mumbai, Shukla took four wickets and struck an unbeaten hundred to secure the title. Performances in that season helped him win the Lala Amarnath Award for the best allrounder in the 2011-12 season.
Between 2002 and 2004, the period he considers his lowest point due to a heel injury that forced him to play solely as a batsman, Shukla scored 492 List A runs and more than 900 first-class runs. In this season, he has played an almost talismanic role guiding to the semi-final a young Bengal side, which has lost Manoj Tiwary to injury, and Mohammed Shami and Wriddhiman Saha to national duty. He has scored 584 runs at an average of 53, including two hundreds. Along the way he has become the first cricketer from Bengal to play more than 100 Ranji Trophy games.
Shukla still remembers the excitement of playing his first season in domestic cricket at the age of 16. "When I made my first-class debut, there were lots of senior players like Sourav and Saba Karim, Utpal Chatterjee, and they all backed me," Shukla says. "I remember that I was very excited after finishing the Under-19 World Cup and getting to play here. When I got picked in the Ranji Trophy team, I thought it was a big milestone of my life. When you know you are getting to play for your state team at the age of 16, I feel there can be few greater joys. To play for and represent a state in which you were born and then captain the side is a big thing. It's a feeling of great pride."
For Shukla, cricket is such a passion that he needs little external motivation. He is almost philosophical when he talks about his commitment and ambitions on the domestic circuit. "The dream is always to play for India," he says. "But right now, my focus is only on Bengal. I have to play a match for them. There's no point focusing on an India place now. That depends on performance, and you get that chance if you keep performing.
"When people ask me how I feel that I didn't play more for India, that I should have played 150 ODIs, I tell them I feel very good because I played those many games for Bengal. To wear the Bengal jersey is a matter of great pride. People tell me I should have played many matches for India, I won the allrounder's award but I am still not picked. How do I stay motivated? And I tell them, 'Wearing the Bengal jersey and the cap is a motivation, my family is a motivation for me. So I don't need to find motivation elsewhere. I am fortunate to be born in a place as emotional as West Bengal.'
"So far things are going good, but things can never be only good in a person's life. There are ups and downs. But if you're sincere and you work hard, then the bad times become less. So for me, the goal is that until I play cricket, to play the game honestly. I should never have to feel that if I had worked a little more, I would have played more. When I quit cricket and analyse my career, I should be able to feel that I gave my full effort and I was honest in my work. I never cheat myself."
Up ahead is the semi-final against Maharashtra in Indore, which begins on Saturday. Shukla was a part of the squad the last time Bengal reached a Ranji Trophy semi-final, in 2006-07, and their campaign then ended in failure as they lost to Mumbai in the final. This time around, Bengal will do well to take a leaf from their captain's book: when they look back at the season, they shouldn't feel they could have done more.
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo