Samant in the spotlight
Yesterday Praveen Amre said this season had been his most clinical campaign as Mumbai coach. Everything that was planned fell into place. And some that wasn't planned too. Today two contrasting individuals accomplished two big achievements in their careers. Rohit Sharma, who played only 294 balls in the Ranji Trophy last season, became only the sixth to hit two hundreds in a Ranji Trophy final, while wicketkeeper Vinayak Samant, pushed into opening by Amre in the final league game, scored his maiden ton to allow Mumbai have a firm grasp on their 38th title.
No one doubted Rohit's talent but a few had questioned his commitment to play big knocks in the longer version. No one doubted the 36-year-old Samant's commitment - he comes across as your typical hardened domestic cricketer - but questions over whether he had necessary the talent to open remained.
And as it turned out Samant's innings was much better than Rohit's. While Samant had to face a lovely, probing marathon spell of swing bowling from Praveen Kumar, Rohit didn't face a single ball from Praveen or RP Singh, who didn't bowl today due to a shoulder niggle, and played only 20 balls from the first-innings hero Bhuvneshwar Kumar - that too after he had gone past 70. However, Rohit's test was not of his skills but that of his concentration levels and he passed with flying colours. Even in the first innings, where he was repeatedly beaten throughout, Rohit showed he was willing to look ugly. For a batsman who is so easy on the eye, it is no small thing. It's a sign he is maturing from the days of attractive 40s and 50s.
Samant too has walked through his test of fire. While Rohit's story from Borivili (a suburban area in north-west Mumbai) to the Indian team is well documented, the obscure Samant's struggles in domestic cricket don't often make it to the sports pages.
Unable to break into the Mumbai side, he plied his trade with Assam for his first five years in first-class cricket. He even played the Duleep Trophy for East Zone but felt he never got the required push that would help his career. And he ran into troubles with the management. "There was a lot of politics. The captain would send me to open or at No. 3 when there was a green track and would demote me very low in the order on a good batting wicket," he says. "I had enough of it and moved back to Mumbai in 2001. I had to wait for one more year to get a break in the Mumbai side and I immediately shone with a few half-centuries that season."
He rates that season with Mumbai as really special, having developed a reputation of saving the side in crisis situations. He also cherishes the times he has spent with Sachin Tendulkar in the team. "We went to the same school [Shardashram Vidyamandir] and now I feel very lucky and honoured to share the same dressing room with such a great player."
And if you believe Amol Muzumdar, Samant does a great impersonation of Tendulkar. "He is a funny character, a live wire on the field. And he mimics all the stars brilliantly. He is very hard-working guy and a focused individual. Some one you want in your team." And a very good sledger too.
There are stories, some apocryphal, abound in domestic circuit of how Samant would create the sound of an edge while keeping to the spinners and deceive umpires. Though he vehemently denies such incidents, he says he has got under many a batsman's nose. Gautam Gambhir was one such prized victim. "I kept irritating him with this and that and shouts of oohs and aahs even when he perfectly left deliveries. It got to him and we exchanged words. Just two balls later, he got out," he says with a mischievous laugh. "Sledging is an art and I love it.
"You've got to plan, you know. Just a few words here and there, like shouting to the bowler not to allow this batsmen to flick through the on-side gap - left deliberately to force the batsman play across the line - or say don't flight too much as he can step down the wicket and hit you …"
Samant kept dreaming of the India cap till the days of Parthiv Patel. "Patel kept and also, [Deep Das] Dasgupta and MSK Prasad [got chances]. Then I knew, they wanted some one who is more a batsman-keeper than the other way around."
However, his biggest test came when the team asked him to open. Amre had sounded him pre-season that such a situation could arise and both had worked very hard in improving his technique. "I had problems in leaving balls outside off and we worked on correcting it." Amre later suggested to the captain Wasim Jaffer about promoting Samant. Jaffer wasn't keen initially but Amre told him to sleep over the decision. Later, Jaffer agreed and so, Samant opened. "I didn't think he would do it this successfully," Ramesh Powar said yesterday.
"This [opening] was a big challenge for me," says Samant, "And I am very happy I have done well." His amazing fitness level has helped him to take the load of keeping and opening the batting. In his younger days, he used to skip 10,000 times in one and half-hours, a practice that he discontinued after a doctor told him it could hurt his knees in the long run. But his devotion to fitness remained. "It's only due to my fitness that I am still playing for Mumbai at this age. It feels great to score your first hundred as an opener and that too in the Ranji Trophy final."
The sparse but spirited crowd chanted, "Samant … Samant" as he neared his ton, TV cameras showered him with arc lights later and his voice sank into tape-recorders of the reporters. All these don't happen often in a life of a domestic cricketer. And Mumbai would be thrilled that it came when they needed it.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo