Hrishikesh Kanitkar has a calming presence on his surroundings. The way he bats, the way he leads his side out on the field, the way he stands in the middle, even the way he answers questions from the media. Everything he does is composed and collected, the mark of a traditional Konkanastha Chitapavan Brahmin upbringing. But even his normally measured voice quivered with extreme emotion at the post-match presentation of the Ranji Trophy final.
One could see what it meant to him to lift the Ranji Trophy for the first time after 16 years of first-class cricket. "Yes, it mattered a lot. The Ranji Trophy is a very big deal for me. Every year that I have played, I have imagined what the winning captain must feel like lifting that trophy," Kanitkar, the Rajasthan captain, said. "And then you look at a side like Mumbai who have won 39 times. It's simply brilliant. What a feeling it must be to win so many times."
Kanitkar will forever be remembered for hitting that winning boundary for India off Saqlain Mushtaq in Dhaka, but he says that the Ranji triumph is right up there. "It was definitely one of the things I wanted to do in my career. In fact, it is as big as anything I have achieved. Yes, it is as big as the boundary."
He has achieved the ultimate domestic triumph with his third team, Rajasthan, where he moved because his earlier side, Madhya Pradesh, could not decide on whether they wanted a professional for this season. "Rajasthan contacted me much earlier. MP couldn't confirm whether they wanted a professional at that moment. So I decided to go to Rajasthan. I had been to Jaipur, seen the infrastructure, the facilities, and felt it was a good place to play cricket."
Captaincy was part of the understanding. Rajiv Rathore, the Rajasthan selector, said Kanitkar has been rated highly as a captain, so much that when he applied to Air India, the word 'captain' was noted on the application. Over the years, he has learnt to let people make errors, and that is the approach he adopted with the Rajasthan players. "Many people don't accept others making mistakes which I think is the wrong approach. Once the boys know that they are allowed to make mistakes, they make less of them as the pressure is gone. Then they can aspire to be the best they can, not as good as anybody else."
He is usually a reserved person, and does not speak much, but he made a conscious effort to be approachable. "I was willing to respect their space. I was willing to talk to them when they needed it, but also gave them a choice to say yes or no if something I said did not work for them. For me, ego does not come into it. If I tell somebody something and he does not accept it, I am fine with that. It creates a very good relationship. They don't expect me to get angry with them if they don't follow what I say. My nature worked very well for myself and for the boys."
And the players responded under their captain, doing all what was asked of them. "When I wanted a spinner to bowl a negative leg-stump line, he did. He knew he will be judged by the wickets he takes, but he did it, as he knew that when the time came I would speak up for him. Sumit Mathur did the thankless job of containing the batsmen. Looking at others getting the wickets while he was just toiling away was very unselfish but also crucial. I didn't want Pankaj Singh and Deepak Chahar to bowl containing lines."
It was not only important to appreciate the player, but also to tell others how important the performances were. "Telling Sumit how much I value him does not count for much. I need to tell people how much he matters to me."
Getting people from a different culture to perform wasn't easy. Kanitkar took his time getting used to the changed environment. The lessons learnt during his time at MP were applied. "Everything is different here, the way they approach the game, the culture, the dressing room atmosphere. There are a lot of people around the dressing room which never happens in the West Zone, where the players are secluded from everything.
"When I moved out of Pune, I was out of my comfort zone. MP welcomed me at that time. If I hadn't got a team then, I don't know what I would have done. Sanjay Jagdale was very kind. I enjoyed my time there. I am thankful to MP for all the experience, which I applied in Rajasthan."
This has been one of the best seasons personally for Kanitkar. He wasn't able to convert even one of his ten half-centuries in the previous three seasons into hundreds, but has made four centuries this time. He has also signed a contract with IPL franchise Team Kochi as player-cum-assistant coach. "There were some franchises who wanted me only as assistant coach, but I wanted to play. Kochi were willing to offer me the role."
He is past 36, but retirement is the last thing on his mind at the moment. "Not at all, not even a little bit. With the season I have had, I will play forever," he jokes. The kind of success Rajasthan have had under him, they would not like to let go of him as well.