By choosing Mohammad Kaif ahead of some of the younger batsmen - and those perhaps easier on the eye - who replaced him in the limited-overs sides, India's national selectors have sent out two positive messages: that performances in first-class cricket do count after all, and that they look at Test cricket as a different discipline. The likes of Gautam Gambhir and Aakash Chopra, who have the right to feel aggrieved at losing out on a recall after a prolific season, can at least take heart from the message even if they don't directly benefit from it.
Although surprising on the surface, Kaif's selection actually is a logical move: the selectors put him ahead of Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara and S Badrinath [the other prolific middle-order batsmen this season], while the ODI middle order [Rohit Sharma and Robin Uthappa] has struggled badly in the four-day game this season. Rohit's performances for India in the CB Series earned him widespread praise but he was criticised after faring poorly for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy this season. "If he's still in the mode of Twenty20 and one-day cricket, he needs to come out of it," Amol Muzumdar, the Mumbai captain, said after Mumbai were knocked out of the Ranji Trophy this season. "It doesn't matter whether he has played for India. He is playing for Mumbai now and there is a responsibility to shoulder."
Kaif, who last played a Test in the West Indies in 2006 - ironically the series in which he scored his only Test century in - has done himself no harm, though, by staying focused on his game. His biggest plus is a maniacal attitude to fitness; unlike some others who lose their fitness as soon as they fall out of the national scene, Kaif, at 27, remains one of the fittest cricketers in Indian cricket. He has also altered his batting grip, which he says allows him to play more freely, as a strike-rate of close to 60 this season suggests. All that, of course, would be wasted if he hadn't scored the runs.
Scored he has, and some quality runs at that. In the 2007-08 first-class season in India, he finished fourth on the list of run-getters, scoring 993 in 13 first-class games at 58.41. It must have helped that Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman of the selection committee, was present when he played one of the most important innings of the season, in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Saurashtra. On a Vadodara wicket where nobody else looked like scoring runs, Kaif scored 80 off 122 balls, countering the seam movement and counterattacking at the same time to lead UP to a 48-run win.
Out of the Indian team for almost two years, Kaif has often expressed a gripe that he didn't know why he was dropped. Or why, for a considerable period of time, he didn't know which number he would bat at, as he told Cricinfo last January. Some will argue he got enough chances before he was dropped, but one can also see where Kaif is coming from: in the last seven ODI innings he played he batted at all positions between Nos 3 and 7. It must have been awfully easy to get distracted - there were rumours he was about to join the Indian Cricket League, which Kaif emphatically denied, but he has stuck on. While some of the other national players found it tough to motivate themselves in the non-glamorous domestic game, Kaif was one of the most determined.
Every time one went to a domestic game he was playing in, a cheery Kaif would be sure to greet you with: "What are you doing at this useless game, you should be at the India game?" That spirit has got him back into the squad. And he has a better idea of where he will fit in the frame after the Fab Four are gone.