Abhishek Nayar had just started to turn a rather tepid Ranji Trophy season around when he played against Andhra in November 2017. He made 73 runs and was dismissed only once, and he took a wicket in the first innings. Called on for only five overs in the second, he gave up just four runs. It was a good time to come back to form in his 99th first-class match. Mumbai's next was at the Wankhede Stadium against Tripura, perennial Ranji lightweights. A fitting occasion for a 100th first-class match.
Except that two days after the Andhra game, Nayar got a call from Ajit Agarkar, then chief selector of Mumbai, and was told he wouldn't be in the squad. Nayar didn't get to play for the rest of the season.
He will get to 100 this time around, but it will be with Pondicherry, one of the nine new teams in the Ranji Trophy. Nayar had been in talks with the team, and indicated willingness to come on-board. On Monday, he announced via Twitter that the move was official.
MUMBAI >>>PUDUCHERRY...thank you everyone who has helped me and been part of this wonderful 20 years of khadoos cricket,right from the u14s to 99firstclass games..it's been an honour.it's an emotional moment for me but I leave a happy man.the lion shall always roar in my.— abhishek nayar (@abhisheknayar1) August 20, 2018
It will be a fresh start with Pondicherry, but Nayar has no regrets when he looks back at his Mumbai journey.
"Initially, I was very sour. I wasn't very happy with how things went - 100th game, in Mumbai, versus Tripura," he reflects. "I was just getting back into form, getting back my flow. I kept thinking 'Why? What can the thinking be? I mean, I've done so much. I've been there. I've always been someone who has given everything for the team. Why?'
"After I got dropped I played a lot of club cricket, company cricket and did well there. But I still didn't get picked anywhere… I don't want to judge anyone. I have immense respect for Ajit as a cricketer, person and friend. He's one of the persons I believe is honest enough and practical enough in that whole set-up. I won't lie - initially I felt like, 'What the hell yaar? It's just one game. They could have given me that and asked me to go.' But it's fine. And he still had the courtesy to pick up the phone, call me, and tell me in person - which for me shows character. A lot of people have been dropped in the past just like that."
There was also the fact that Nayar's previous two seasons had been blockbuster, netting a combined 1006 runs (average 43.74) and 40 wickets (average 28.975) across 18 games in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Nayar called them "dream seasons" - and the irony of 2017-18 being a nightmare was stark.
Time away from the Mumbai team though, meant Nayar could focus more on his mentoring of other players. Dinesh Karthik's is the best known example, but Nayar has, and continues to work, with the likes of Shreyas Iyer, Shardul Thakur and Siddhesh Lad among others. It also meant Nayar got a taste of commentary during IPL 2018, and was signed on by Kolkata Knight Riders in a mentoring and coaching capacity. Karthik had no part to play in the appointment, even though he was the captain of the team. When Venky Mysore, the Knight Riders CEO, asked him about bringing Nayar on board, the answer was, "Don't ask me for my opinion because I'll be very biased. I'll say he's the best. You ask others and decide."
Mysore did ask others, and Nayar was brought on board. He's part of the set-up now, and was even appointed head coach of the KKR Academy, which had a camp in Bangalore in July and is aiming to help the franchise's cricketers develop skills away from the IPL too. The camp is unique in that it is the first time a T20 franchise is using the shortest format's off-season to hone their players' red-ball skills.
"When I look back at it, I feel like I didn't play my 100th game then, but so what?" he says. "Two years later, no one talks about who you played your 100th game for, or where you played. I'm sure my team-mates have the same amount of respect for me, five games or 100 games. Whether or not it was my last game for Mumbai, I'm going, knowing that the relationships I've formed with people there will last."
Pondicherry certainly presents the kind of set-up that Nayar enjoys - a fresh team, a big challenge, being friend, philosopher and guide to a new bunch.
"For me, if I'm going somewhere, I should be able to make a difference," he says. "So I don't want to go to a team where I will take someone's spot, or a youngster coming in won't get to play - but rather somewhere I can help people grow into better cricketers, or be in a set-up where ideally, there are people who need that help.
"Pondicherry is an exciting set-up for me to be in. It's a brand new team, they don't have (established local) players."
Nayar is clear about one thing: he'll be going as a player, and only as a player. He won't be the coach. He won't even be the captain. "I'll be a player-mentor. I won't lead, because I don't believe in going and captaining a side when you're not going to be there long-term," he says. "If I'm not going to play for three-four years, it doesn't make sense me being captain. I might as well help and groom someone who can lead the team for the next eight-ten years. Being leader for just a year, I'll actually be damaging the long-term planning rather than being of help. So it'll definitely be someone else leading, but I'll obviously make sure that I can pass on my advice and experience so that when I leave, he can take the team forward."
So the 100th first-class game will happen. And Nayar the mentor/coach will also continue in what looks certain to become a flourishing career.
"Because I've failed so much in life, all through my career I've always had to fight for where I want to get to. And in that fight, I've always found time to help other people. And this was right from Under-19 days. I've always liked doing that, and wanted to do that. If you don't know how to fail, or have never failed, you're never going to understand someone else's problem. Because it will seem too small for you. I've been lucky with a little bit of success - but I've been very lucky with a lot of failure. It's helping me in my cricketing after-life. In short, I'm a happy man. As long as I get that one game, it doesn't matter where, I'm happy."