In 1998, a young Zaheer Khan travelled with the Mumbai Ranji team without playing a single game. He could not even find a seat in the dressing room - the space was taken by Mumbai's stalwarts - and would park himself in the adjoining room. He left Mumbai the next year, helped Baroda win the Ranji Trophy in 2000-01, returned to Mumbai in 2006-07 for one game, the final, and won another Ranji Trophy title. Today, he propelled Mumbai to the verge of its 38th Ranji Trophy.
Zaheer plucked four wickets in eight balls in the afternoon to knock the wind out of Uttar Pradesh. In the morning, he walked out with just rubber soles and not his bowling shoes, telling some of his team-mates not to worry, "Main lunch ke baad khatam karta hoon. (I will finish them after lunch.)"
Zaheer's words came true, and he did not let the batsmen have it easy in the morning. He got the old ball to reverse, and was denied a wicket only because Parvinder Singh managed to handle what many Test batsmen wouldn't. Three overs first-up with the second new ball didn't bring a breakthrough, but a few overs later Zaheer breathed fire with a devastating spell that read 4.2-1-20-5. The ball swung in the air before leaving the batsmen late, a few bounced nastily and in general he created hell. His 7 for 54 was his best in the Ranji Trophy .
It was a breeze. "I was definitely tired and I wanted to get away quickly and am glad that I could get the wickets in that spell." That cool temperament led to the obvious question: "Is it almost unfair on the domestic batsmen to be playing against you in such conditions?" Zaheer responded with the right thing. "You can't say that. Shivakant Shukla played really well and offered a contest."
Shukla later said it was a battle that he immensely enjoyed. "He reversed the ball, got it to swing normally and bowled really well." Zaheer returned the compliment. "He deserved a century but it obviously felt good to get him on 99". It was one that nipped in which caught Shukla in front of the stumps.
Till then Shukla had made sure he wasn't exposed by Zaheer. At the start of the season, he wasn't sure whether he would be in the squad but stunned many with a marathon hundred in the semi-final. The turnaround in his batting happened under interesting circumstances in September 2008. An irregular bowler, he was identified with a suspect action and asked to report to the NCA. There he bumped into Dav Whatmore and a batting coach from Sri Lanka, Mattau Owen, who had worked with the likes of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara and under whom Indian batsman such as Shikhar Dhawan have benefited.
"I corrected my action under the supervision of Sivaramakrishnan sir [L Sivaramkrishnan] and worked on my batting with the Sri Lankan coach," said Shukla. "It was a great experience. We worked hard on my batting technique and that has really helped in improving my batting."
A struggling batsman went to correct his bowling action and returned as a more confident batsman. His family too helped him overcome the insecurity that arose out of playing for his spot in the side. "Jyaada sey jyaada kya hoga, cricket nahi chala toh tum apne ghar hi aa rahe ho na." (Even if your cricket doesn't click, you are just going to come back to your home, so why worry?)" Shukla relaxed as a result and decided he would enjoy his cricket.
The new year has dawned brightly for him. Mohammad Kaif believes the innings in the semi-final is the turning point in Shukla's career. "He is going to be more self-aware of his batting now and I think you will see a different Shukla from now on. It's great that we have some one apart from Tanmay [Srivastava], [Suresh] Raina and [Mohammad] Kaif in the UP team."
And that is exactly what is really giving Shukla the biggest kick. "I hear murmurs from the coach and the team in the dressing room. "Shukla hai abhi, hume abhi be chance hai game mey. (Shukla is still batting, we still have a chance.) I feel important in the team and I feel really nice about it."
Sometimes, self-esteem rises from what others that matter think of you. And for Shukla, this season will be the time in which he has earned his team's respect.