Defence as the best form of defence
Venkatapathy Raju, the national selector, calls from Kolkata asking about the lunchtime score at Wankhede Stadium. On hearing that Shitanshu Kotak, unbeaten overnight, is still batting, he bursts into laughter. "What a fellow! He will keep on batting," he says.
Kotak's reputation as a stonewaller precedes him. It is well earned - and it is something he accepts with typical humour.
"Bore kiya, lekin kaam to hua na? (I bored you, but I got the job done, right?)" Kotak said yesterday in his broad Saurashtran twang. He has for years been a prime example of the dogged domestic batsman who puts a big price on his wicket. Not that he can't play shots either; he once hit five fours off consecutive balls in an Under-19 game.
Watching Kotak in action brings to mind what Neville Cardus wrote about Trevor Bailey. "Before he [Bailey] gathered together 20 runs, a newly-married couple could have left Heathrow and arrived in Lisbon to enjoy a honeymoon. By the time Bailey had congealed 50, this pair could easily have settled down in Surbiton; and by the time his innings had gone to its close they might have been divorced. Nonetheless, Bailey was a character...He stonewalled passionately, inveterately; and where human passion is in action, there can be no evaporation of dull, anaesthetic air..."
In a world of big hitting and fast scoring, Kotak gives the feeling of being rooted in the past. There is a lazy air to him as he stands at the non-striker's end; the hunch of the left shoulder, the slow transfer of weight from one leg to the other. One can almost hear him humming a song from the 1950s. And yet the man is supremely fit, fit enough to bat for 747 minutes in the Mumbai humidity. In the off season, he works extensively on his fitness while playing for Kenilworth Wardens, a club in the Birmingham league in England where he has been an overseas cricketer for the past 14-odd years.
By lunch today, he was on 102 and gave a thumbs-up sign, by tea he had pottered along to 138 and accepted the bear hug from his coach. By the end of the day, even the Mumbai players were praising his knock. That's nothing new for Kotak.
In the Irani Trophy match in 1999/2000, Javagal Srinath was so exasperated by his inability to get through the Kotak wall that, at one point, he just stood and lobbed the ball over. Kotak, en route a 302-ball 118, was not to be taken in; he just patted it gently away with a big smile on his face.
Srinath still remembers that knock. "Kotak! That lefty?" he exclaims down the wire. "Yeah, I remember that innings now. He was such a pain in the neck!" Kotak carries the story forward. "Srinath and [Anil] Kumble came to Rajkot later to play for India and, after a look at the paata track, told Niranjan bhai (Niranjan Shah, president of the Saurashtra Cricket Association and secretary of the BCCI), we couldn't get Kotak out on a green top, how can anybody get him out here?"
Kotak rates that Irani knock as his best. Karnataka were bowled out for 170 on a green top and Rest of India were tottering at 110 for 5 - VVS Laxman, SS Das and Hemang Badani had fallen cheaply - when Kotak pulled the shutters down. However, neither this knock nor his 961 runs the previous season were enough for the ultimate prize. He recalls, with audible sadness, what transpired next. "India were about to tour Australia and India A were going to West Indies. The chairman of selectors, Chandu Borde, made an announcement that I was not considered as I was 37. I was 27 then! Later, realising the folly, they sent me to West Indies as a player got injured. But continuous rain meant I got to play one limited-over game." The fallout has been borne by domestic bowlers, against whom he has an average of 43.36.
He just loves that feeling of seeing the opposition tearing their hair apart while he is batting. Amol Muzumdar, Mumbai's captain at the receiving end today, explained his frustration. "He plays with a closed face of the bat and very rarely jabs his bat out at the ball. As a result he might be beaten a lot, but the ball just flies past the outside edge. The bowlers get really frustrated, but it makes no difference to him. What a temperament to play an innings like this."
Even as his team-mates offered their tributes, the best reaction came from Muzumdar. As he was trudging out of the stadium, he said, "I need a massage now. Not aisi waisi (ordinary), but a Kotak (referring to the duration perhaps) massage." Kotak had really bent Mumbai's back.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo