Mumbai state of mind
The Ranji Trophy match between Mumbai and Karnataka has ended, the players have disappeared in their cars into Mumbai, and the Wankhede Stadium is echoing with the voices of the ground staff. Amid the debris of food, cigarette butts and upturned plastic chairs, Amol Muzumdar sits down for a chat that, inevitably, moves on to the topic of the elusive India cap, and the passion of playing for Mumbai. Just then, an astrologer walks up and offers to decode his fate. Muzumdar shrugs him off and says, "I don't believe in all that."
Yet, it seems almost apt to picture him blaming the lines on his palm for his fate on the cricket field. He was padded up when Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli had their then world-record 664-run partnership back in school. His turn didn't come that day. That has been his lot. His chance to play for India never came.
For 15 seasons he has turned up for his Mumbai, scored 22 centuries, 50 half-centuries, and 8769 runs; and won seven Ranji titles. The India cap is unlikely to come now. What makes him carry on?
"The day I don't feel like coming to the ground, I will stop," Muzumdar says. He nearly did in 2002, his year of the devil, when his spirit broke and he was ready to give up. "I had had enough. I was getting agitated that I was not getting the break.
"I was close to the India cap in 1994 and fought hard in the years after that, but to be honest, I started losing it by the end of the '90s. I was slowly losing my determination, and in 2002 I thought it was time to quit."
A break - during which he played in the English leagues - helped. So did the uncomfortable questions his wife threw at him: "Do you want to quit like this? Do you want to fade away in this manner?"
With that returned the need to prove a point. "Makarand Waingankar [a coach and a journalist in Mumbai] pointed out a couple of things I could work on. I made it a point to video shoot myself (there were no computer analysts then). I really took a break in those five months in England, recharged my batteries, and started working hard on fitness and my batting. Things slowly started to fall into place."
Passion hastened the process of rediscovering the joy of batting. He would hang a cricket ball from a rope and hit it. Again and again. A beam ran beside his bed in England and it was just perfect for the exercise. "I would get up in the morning and immediately hit 50 balls. Tuck, tuck. That connection of bat and ball really helped. I loved that sound." The joy was coming back.
"For a pure batsman, runs are blood," he says at least a couple of times during the conversation. "When runs stop, you feel you are out of place. If the blood flow stops, it is difficult to live. Similarly, what drives me is to go out there and perform, which means to get runs.
"My sole aim is to get runs. What happened in the nineties, whoever didn't pick me, whoever ignored me ... all that doesn't feature when I go out there to perform."
And he had to perform to stay afloat in the team. With just 173 runs from 10 innings in the 2002-03 season, he was dropped from the Mumbai side for the Irani Trophy game for the next season.
It all hung on one game against Andhra in Vijayawada. "It was probably my last game under Chandrakant Pandit, the coach then. There was no need for Pandit to say anything. I knew it. Luckily, I got a hundred there and I crossed that barrier."
What if he had not got that century? What if Mumbai had dropped him? Would he have gone on to play for some other state?
My sole aim is to get runs. What happened in the nineties, whoever didn't pick me, whoever ignored me ... all that doesn't feature when I go out there to perform
"I would have quit," he says firmly. "If that hundred had not happened, I wouldn't have played for any other team. I would have hung up my boots."
The reason? "Bombay cricket ... isey ek baar chakh liya toh chakh liya (If you have tasted it once, you are addicted for life). You ask any Mumbai player from that era of 1993-94, they will tell you about it.
"Mumbai cricket is an addiction for life. Last year was my 14th season and we have won the title seven times. Obviously, when you have tasted that, you don't want to taste anything else."
He may say that now but back then it bothered him that he wasn't picked for India. "I kept analysing why I didn't play for India, but I never got the correct answers."
Closure came when he buried the past. "Now I have shut it out. I don't regret the effort that I had put in around 1994-95 and now, in 2007, I invest the same effort. Sometimes you feel the India cap is everything, but if I have chosen to do work as a captain for Mumbai, I will do my best to get that job done correctly. I would like to do things right here - which I am doing. If India happens, it will."
Would he be driven just as much if he were not captain now?
"It's my passion to score runs for Mumbai.This is my 15th season as a middle-order batsman for Mumbai, without playing for India. Tendulkar, Kambli, [Sanjay] Manjrekar, [Ravi] Shastri, and [Jatin] Paranjpe were there when I came in. You had to somehow fit in and it was difficult. I played under so many captains ...
"Captaincy doesn't drive me; playing for Mumbai does. Other states probably won't get the best out of me.
"What I got from the seniors, like Shastri, Kadu bhai [Karsan Ghavri], Manjrekar, Kambli, Tendulkar, I would like to pass it on to the next generation. That's my aim."
He adds: "When I am no longer playing, and if the boys say, 'Player tha yaar ... crunch situations mein kya khelta tha (He was some player ... exceptional in crunch situations), I would be absolutely happy."
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo