I was aware that people were talking about my performances and how I was hyped as a "big star from Uttar Pradesh" about to play for India even before I made my Ranji Trophy debut. In 1996, I had been part of India Under-15s World Cup final win over Pakistan. I had played the Under-19 World Cup in 1998 in South Africa. I had made decent runs for UP Under-19s. Yet, I felt breaking into the Ranji Trophy squad would be tough and I had to work much harder.
At the time, I was in the youth hostel in Kanpur, sharing a room with five others. Your reputation didn't matter there - if you were a junior, you would be ragged. One night, before the ragging session, my room-mates and I decided to turn the lights off and not open the door even if someone knocked. We hoped they would go away after seeing the lights off. Predictably in the night, there was a knock on the door. We didn't open the door for fifteen minutes. After a while, I realised it must be something important and opened the door. It was the warden, who informed me of my selection for the Ranji Trophy match against Bengal in Calcutta. We didn't have mobile phones or internet then, so the association had sent the message through our hostel warden.
Soon after I was picked, I called my father from a telephone booth. He told me one thing: "Remember, this is UP. To shine here, you have to fight your way through. If someone makes 100, you have to make 175. Even if you make 101, it may not be enough."
The next day at training, everyone was talking about playing in Calcutta, but I didn't understand the significance. I didn't really know about the history of Eden Gardens or how special it was for an Indian cricketer to play there. So I didn't understand what the fuss was. Only before we left for the match, we were told this match was to be played at the Calcutta Cricket and Football ground.
I had batted at No. 3 for most of my junior days, and so was told to bat in the same position on my debut. I remember walking out and being taunted by the opposition. I didn't understand every word of it, but it was something on the lines of "He's made runs in junior cricket; let's see what he does here". Every minute spent there was torture. Finally, I was out nicking to Saba Karim for 11. While walking back, I wondered if I would get another chance, because in UP the culture was such that if you had to work your way up the system you would get just one chance, and I had missed the chance.
I was surprised when I was picked for the next game, which was a quarter-final against Haryana. Our opener Rakesh Sharma was off the field and couldn't open the batting. Our coach Venkat Sundaram went around asking the other players if they would open, but didn't get a favourable response. He was furious. I was sitting in a corner when he asked me, "Chhotu, open karega?". I immediately said "Yes". I went out and made a century. That made me feel I belong. That's when I realised, however hard it was for me in the dressing room to mingle with the group, especially the senior players, you are your own man on the field. If you score runs there, it doesn't matter what happens in the dressing room.
Maybe I survived my debut season because I had my elder brother Mohammad Saif also playing around the same time. So I used to feel a little comfortable that there was someone I could talk to. Musi Raza, my room-mate, was also in and around the fringes of the team. These two helped me in my debut season, because of which I became a much better player.
As told to Shashank Kishore