"So you think you are Klusener?" Anil Kumble shot out at Abhishek Nayar after being hit for three consecutive fours on the second day's play at the Wankhede Stadium. Replay this for a moment: after Nayar stepped out to swing the first two balls to cow corner, Kumble shrugged, "That was just a slog". He fired the next one in quick and short, Nayar went back to slap it to the cover-point fence and smiled at the comparison with Klusener.
However, if Pravin Amre and Sachin Tendulkar had not helped, the aggressive 24-year old Mumbai allrounder would not be here today, having a chuckle on the cricket field. He was dropped after three ducks in the 2005-06 Ranji season but just as the self-doubt started sinking in, Tendulkar happened. Nayar recalls with gratitude a special 45 minutes he spent with Tendulkar at the Bandra-Kurla complex in suburban Mumbai.
"I was down and was having problems with my batting. I was unable to get any power in my strokes off the back foot," Nayar told Cricinfo. He says he could drive but knew his back-foot play was going to hinder his cricketing career. Tendulkar asked him to take his stance and play a few back-foot shots. Nayar, who crouches in his stance before shuffling across from an outside-leg-stump guard, tried changing his stance in the Under-16 and 19 days but felt uncomfortable and returned to what he knew best - attack. Tendulkar spotted that his weight was on the heels rather than toes and that Nayar's shift in balance was not smooth.
"He suggested a few drills - playing with a cone, he told me not to bother about changing my stance and talked a lot about the mental strength. He gave examples from his own career - how he once famously played out seven quiet overs from [Glenn] McGrath in a Test before returning the next morning and going onto the attack."
Nayar told himself that if such a famed batsman could swallow his ego and play according to the situation, so could he.
Amre, Mumbai's coach, worked on Nayar's batting at the Shivaji Park Gymkhana club and gave valuable input on the mental aspect of cricket. Two years ago, Nayar says, he would've probably said something back at Kumble but not now. Because Amre has made him realise the importance of being cool, calm and collected.
Flash forward to the 2006-07 season when, after playing three games without a point on the board, Mumbai recalled Nayar for a game against Gujarat. Ajit Agarkar was set to play the next game and Nayar knew if he failed there, he would be dropped again. Remembering Tendulkar's words, he fought hard initially before exploding in the end to finish with 97 from 173 balls. He added 213 with Rohit Sharma, and that turned the tide for both player and team. Nayar was the third highest run-scorer for Mumbai, with 360 runs in five matches, and took 15 wickets to finish third in the bowling tally. Two breezy centuries this season, including one in the Irani Trophy, and life is suddenly sunnier for Nayar.
Naik has that same walk to the crease and although he doesn't turn it big, you can see the Tendulkar imprint all over him
Unlike many others in India Nayar didn't play much tennis-ball cricket. Instead, he started off with the leather ball as a 10-year old. One man who shares that uncommon trait is his team-mate Prashant Naik, who tackled Kumble with a straight bat to score a crucial 78 to help Mumbai stretch the lead in the first innings. Like Nayar, he too was drafted into the squad in the last season for the Gujarat game. He didn't play, but instead of idling his time, Naik hit the gym and lost four kilograms
If Nayyar's association with Amre was at the Shivaji Park, Naik came under the former India batsman while playing for Air India, with which Amre was involved. Ironically, for a man who took a confident front-foot stride to tackle Kumble with aplomb, the front-foot movement used to be his major flaw. "I had a very short forward stride and I was struggling a touch with my front-foot play. Amre sir gave me specific drills [he was made to hit golf balls thrown at him with a shortened bat and had to stretch well forward to make proper contact] and that helped."
Naik too has a special Tendulkar moment. Earlier in his life, he used to bowl an assorted mixture of legspin and medium pace. On one occasion Tendulkar, batting at an adjacent net, spotted him bowling his spinners and told him to concentrate on just that. "He gave me tips on my run-up, action, follow-through and the other nuances of the art," says Naik, who bowled a few overs today against Rahul Dravid, mirroring Tendulkar's action. He has that same walk to the crease and although he doesn't turn it big, you can see the Tendulkar imprint all over him.
Naik played his junior grade cricket in Pune before he moved to Mumbai upon the advice of his cricket-crazy father and uncle. He missed the U-14 trials as he arrived late to the city, but was given a chance in the U-16 round. He impressed and has risen through the ranks to play for Mumbai and now dreams of representing India. The signs have been good, based on a century on first-class debut in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy recently, and 78 here.
In Nayar, Kerala-born but raised in Mumbai, and Naik, from Pune, the defending Ranji champions have found two talents for the future.