Amol Muzumdar is smiling, unable to help himself. He's back in Mumbai to play the Ranji Trophy, even if it is as the captain of Assam. "It's great to be back," he told ESPNcricinfo during practice at the Mumbai Cricket Association ground [in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai] two days before the defending Ranji Trophy champions were due to take on the Super League newcomers.
He was greeted like an old friend as he walked through the clubhouse, catching up with the Mumbai players and indulging in some good-natured ribbing with Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar. It was only when he walked into the visitors' dressing room that the reality of the situation sank in.
Muzumdar was once the man for all seasons for Mumbai. For 16 years, he plied his trade at the heart of India's most demanding domestic side, winning eight Ranji Trophy titles and becoming the team's leading run-scorer. But in August last year, he decided to leave the city he grew up in for Assam - then in the Ranji Plate division - after not being selected for the Buchi Babu tournament.
"Yes, I said I could never imagine playing anywhere other than Mumbai, but things change. The way things unfolded, it made sense for me to leave." Assam, he said, were desperate to get out of the Plate league, and they thought he was the person to help them do that. He admitted this game had "a different feeling" for him, but said he prepared for it like he would any other game. "I just try to play good cricket."
In his first season as Assam captain, Muzumdar helped his young side earn promotion to the upper tier, where, as it happens, they were drawn in the same group as his old team this season, along with other domestic heavyweights such as Delhi and Bengal. "The group has five Ranji Trophy champions. If we can survive in this group, then we belong here."
Assam have made a good start to their season, picking up six points from three games, and surprising Bengal by overhauling their first innings score of 562 for 6 in the last game. Yet Muzumdar has told his new team "they are here to learn" from the way Mumbai plays cricket. He said some of the players feel like they have accomplished their goal just by making it to the Super League - a far cry from Mumbai, who consider a season without a Ranji Trophy championship a failure. "Having to explain the difference between big dreams and small dreams is in itself a challenge."
The smile was widest when talking about his many happy memories of playing here. Naturally, they all involve winning. The sight of Ravi Shastri lifting the Ranji Trophy in his first season in 1993-94, after the city had gone 10 years without winning the tournament, is one that will always stay with him. "It was my debut season and I was happy to make some contributions," he said. Muzumdar is being modest. What he calls "some contribution" includes making 260 on debut, still a record for the highest score by a debutant in first-class cricket, and a tournament average of 164.66. Not bad for a 19-year old.
He also mentioned the 2006-07 season, his first as captain, when Mumbai were in danger of not even making it to the knockout stage. "There will never be another year like that. It was up and down, like a rollercoaster. We lost our first three matches, no points on the table. We had to win the next four matches with four bonus points. We won the next four matches with four bonus points to reach the semi-finals. Then being bowled out for 233 in the first innings [against Baroda]. Being 0 for 5 in the second innings.
"There was so much pressure," he says shaking his head. "It puts a big smile on my face to think about it." In the end, you can take the cricketer out of Mumbai, but you can't take Mumbai out of the cricketer.