What it takes to go pro at the Ranji Trophy
Professional cricketers from outside a state association have been an integral part of Ranji Trophy teams since the tournament's early years. These experienced players are valued not only for their run-making ability but also for the mentoring roles they can perform. Aakash Chopra was with Delhi for 12 years before moving on to Rajasthan for a couple of seasons and ending his career at Himachal Pradesh. Amol Muzumdar played for Mumbai for 15 years before signing off with two seasons each at Assam and Andhra. The veterans of heavyweight teams speak to ESPNcricinfo about what it takes to adapt to smaller sides.
How does one handle the shift initially?
Chopra: Even if you have scored plenty of runs, when you walk into a new side, you are craving for acceptance. You need to become one of them. If you don't, it becomes a huge issue. Initial acceptance happens because of what you have done elsewhere but that lasts only for a little while. Beyond that, you need to start afresh, build relationships. You need to quickly identify who are the right people to talk to, and what to talk about. I was fortunate in that Rajasthan was a great bunch of kids. I had also played Buchi Babu with them. So when the Ranji Trophy began I had had a fair amount of interaction. Also my coach Tarak Sinha was coach of their academy then. That also helped.
Muzumdar: After sharing 16 years in the Mumbai dressing room, when I went to Assam, it was completely different in Guwahati. I was used to having Vinod Kambli, Wasim Jaffer, Ajit Agarkar, Sameer Dighe, big names in the dressing room. To be very honest, after 16 years in first-class cricket, you are some kind of a senior pro. For a junior to adjust would have been a little different. But as a senior pro I took it in my stride. I knew I needed to adjust. I wasn't too long in that frame of mind that 'oh God, this is different'.
Staying in hotels after "home" games must be tough...
Chopra: You are not really in your comfort zone ever. That happened more at Dharamsala for me, and that was where playing as a professional eventually got to me. Logistically, I was challenged so much on every single count every single day that I had no gas left in the tank. We were playing in a small place called Amtar, small ground, very minimal facilities, no proper hotel. I was the only one staying at the ground. The phone connectivity was slightly better at the ground, and I wanted to stay connected to my family. I was eating at dhabas because hotels were not available. If you wanted to have a can of Diet Coke - it may be a very trivial example - you had to drive for almost 60-odd km.
Muzumdar: It was never a home game. Once you left your house in October, that was it. You had to finish the season and come back home. That was a big ask. Even with the hotel next to the ground [in Guwahati]. I could jump off from my hotel on to the ground. Luckily I had [former Mumbai team-mate] Sairaj Bahutule with me. Bang opposite the stadium there were also plenty of shops. There was a road where I and Sairaj used to go often. There was a buzz. It was right in the centre of the city.
What's the impact like on the family?
Chopra: Extremely difficult. The first two seasons were all right. I did not have a baby, my wife was travelling with me. Hrishikesh Kanitkar's mother would come to the ground. Some of the players' wives started coming because my wife Aakshi was there. Last season, Aakshi was pregnant. She could not come to Dharamsala, she would not have been able to anyway with the logistics. Aarna was born and I was away. To leave your one-month-old kid behind… it gets to you, it gets to your family as well, that you are playing domestic cricket in India, but you are still not there.
Muzumdar: Not only us, the family also has to make that adjustment. It is easier to play for Mumbai; if you have a game at hand, even in Trivandrum, there will be a flight in the evening to Mumbai. But that is not the case from other centres, that advantage is lost. It was a difficult phase for all of us. In the rare case I had a game close to Mumbai, I would hop on to a flight. There was never a Diwali celebrated, although both my and my daughter's birthdays are during the Diwali period.
How does one cope with relatively poorer facilities?
Chopra: After 10-15 years of first-class cricket, you felt you had earned the right to stay in a good hotel, sleep in a decent bed, good meals, gym, nets, these are the basic facilities you would want to have. Once that is not available, you find yourself fighting a new battle every day. And that can get to you. Someone who has played as a professional, if he is coming from a big state, or has played for India or IPL, he has been exposed to the nicer lifestyle, then beyond a point, he will realise 'hello, what have I got myself into'? That was one of the things in Dharamsala that made my decision to quit cricket much easier. I did not want to go through that again. I did not want to stay in a shady hotel, not having access to the internet, not having good food, struggling to have a proper bath because the water is muddy.
Muzumdar: The facilities were pretty okay, not great. When I first went to Guwahati it was raining so we were confined indoors. And I asked them, 'Wow, do you really have indoors?' At that time not many centres had indoor facilities. I was pleasantly surprised. But it was just under a stand. On concrete they had laid out a greenish, artificial wicket. And there was a bowling machine on, and you were going to bat. That was basically the indoor nets. I and Sai looked at each other and had a smile. But we took it in our stride. You had to make a lot of adjustment. There was only one ground, and you were confined to it. Now there is one more in Assam.
How important is the rapport with the adopted-state association?
Chopra: It helped that I had Tarak Sinha, who was handpicked by the [Rajasthan] association. They trusted him. The communication channel was open. I have played long enough to know that in cricket administration, you don't get everything you want. But at least you knew that you could fight and get certain things done. In Dharamsala it did not happen. I was the captain. Hemanth Kumar, who was hired as a pro, had three-four bad games. I wanted him to be around for at least one more game. But that communication channel was not open for me. I had no idea of the inner dynamics of the association and the repercussions of the team not doing well. I could not stop him from being dropped. Then you realise that this is not your association, you do not know these people. It is a new place, it will take time, and there are some collateral damages that you make peace with.
Muzumdar: I had a two year contract with Assam. I had never paid attention to all those things. That had never been my style of operation. I have always been on the ground, done my job. I was there to do a job, I would do it to the best of my ability, whether I was successful in that or not does not matter. I felt I did my best on the ground and off the field I do not know.
What about the pressure to score runs, while keeping a local player out?
Chopra: They will make sure that someone will quietly mention in your ear that 'boss, the runs have not come'. When you talk about the players, there will be some amount of discord, that some of their friends are being kept out because of you. If you have not made runs, and there is an 18-19 year-old local kid, why do you need Aakash Chopra or Hrishikesh Kanitkar? You understood by the body language. In the first season at Rajasthan, I started with 70-odd, and missed out in the second game. Third game, Tarak Sinha quietly told me, 'Aakash, you need to start scoring runs.' I was like I have played only two-three innings. But that is the kind of patience people have. And then I scored runs, a triple-century also. That season you did not look back, but it again came to hurt you next season. A couple of bad innings and you start hearing the murmurs, that 'no, the professionals are not doing enough'. At some level, you are not from the inside. You are from the outside and have come to play.
Muzumdar: No. That feeling was not there [that I was keeping someone out of the side]. I was there to help them grow as cricketers. I was there to do a certain job. The association had hired me to do a certain job. I am a professional cricketer. All those things do not matter. Emotions and all, you need to keep in the back.
The pressure was more in Mumbai. You really had to score runs for Mumbai . It was tough sometimes, couple of games and it used to get into your head that 'oh God, I need to score runs'. Every time I walked on to the ground, I had the same feeling, whether for Mumbai or Assam. I had to gauge what was happening in the middle, is the ball turning, swinging, or going off the track... That was my main concern. It did not matter where I played.
How much of mentoring is involved for professionals?
Chopra: I'll speak to people, motivate them, try and mentor them, even if there is no brief. It came naturally to me. It made my job easier. What happens with some teams is there are certain individuals who are not forthcoming, they do not ask, and you also stay in your comfort zone. If your opinion is sought you go that extra mile. With my access to the association being a bit more than others, we had made sure we kept the flock together. We wanted certain guys to continue playing, and be given ample opportunities. When you have done that much, naturally there is this sentiment that you want these guys to do well. You know them outside the ground as well, it is not just the number of runs they have scored or the number of wickets they have taken. I know what they have gone through, their personal stories, their hardships. I have seen them work hard, fret over a bad performance even at a dinner table. When you know all that, the understanding changes.
Muzumdar: Assam made me a better captain, in Andhra I came out as a better human being. Sometimes when you are playing for a side like Mumbai you are carried away by the luxuries that surround you. You ask for anything and you can get it. States like Assam and Andhra, the boys are good. You can see that they are genuinely trying. Not that in Mumbai they did not try. But they came from a subdued background in Assam, and my job was to lift them up. And if I have lifted a couple of them up in their careers, I have done my job.
You had to be a bigger motivator than a captain in Assam. In Mumbai you could lead the team, you knew that there was Rohit Sharma, Wasim Jaffer, Ajit Agarkar, they don't need to be told what they are supposed to do. They know exactly what is required of them. But over there some players needed motivation. That was my basic role. Not only to motivate, but at the end of the season or end of the two-year term, if I had changed them into better cricketers, I was happy.
Which was the best dressing room?
Chopra: Rajasthan. By a mile. First time I have seen people genuinely happy for each others' success, even if you are a competitor. That did not happen anywhere. I have seen all kinds of things happening in the Delhi dressing room. There are underlying jealousies, competition. When somebody gets out, nobody feels too bad about it. In Rajasthan, I have seen competitors helping each other out.
It was more like a family, we stayed together for three-four months. They would call my wife bhabhi and take care of her, she would constantly pray for these kids. In Delhi you went home. In Rajasthan nobody went home. That made a huge difference. If you are staying together, the level of camaraderie changes completely.
Muzumdar: Mumbai, without a shred of doubt. In Mumbai, although there was cut-throat competition, we were happy with each others' company. I could tell a Nilesh Kulkarni what to do in the dressing room or a Sairaj Bahutule could tell me 'Amol, come on, pick it up from here.' He could motivate me and tell me to my face that I needed to be on my guard. There was healthy competition with everyone.
Andhra I loved it and enjoyed the first year. Assam I felt there was a little bit of a burden. Burden is a harsh word actually. I felt everything was thrust upon me to make the team better.
Abhishek Purohit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo