Back up to speed

A remarkable debut gave way to a year spent on the fringes, but Munaf Patel is finally back, action tweaked and body stronger. Sidharth Monga met him.

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga

Repairs in progress: Munaf has eliminated the sideways movement towards the stumps just before delivery © AFP
"If people call my home and get the answer 'He is at his second home'," Munaf Patel says, "they know I am in Chennai, at MRF." Indeed, the pace academy seems to have become something of a home away from home for Munaf - much like a boarding-school kid who does not want to go home during vacations because he won't be able to play there. Whenever he finds the time, Munaf comes to Chennai. He has been doing so for five years now.
It is easy to see that Munaf is at home at MRF. In Chennai he is a relaxed man. If he has much on his mind, he doesn't show it. He has bonded with the students at the school; he has picked up some Tamil; he knows the names of the kids who come for autographs. ("They come every year," he says.) After a period of play with the children, who are clearly having a ball after a day at school, he gets to the nets.
The nets are housed in the premises of the Madras Christian College High School. The ground is quite nondescript, and even the immediate neighbours would likely not be able to provide directions if one asked for the MRF Pace Academy. It is just the kind of place for an international fast bowler in rehabilitation.
In a career of just over a year, Munaf has broken down twice - in fact, since November last he has largely been a passenger with the team. He did not play a single full Test on the South Africa tour. He then missed the four-ODI series against West Indies but returned in time for the World Cup, which for India lasted just three matches. He then broke down with a back injury in Bangladesh. The selectors, this time, decided to be stern and sent him back home. Before the England tour Munaf was declared fit at the bowlers' conditioning camp in Mysore. And then he was found to be less than match-fit just before the team was picked.
Munaf cannot not know that he has got himself a reputation for dubious fitness. The comments made by Sandeep Patil in 2004, when he coached the India A team that Munaf was a part of, began to ring true last year. "Munaf was a big disappointment," Patil had said. "He developed a shoulder injury. The physio checked him and said everything was okay. But he could not bowl and finish his spells. I see it as more of a mental problem than physical. He played one-and-a-half matches in a one-and-a-half-month tour."
"He has let us down," a national selector was quoted as saying by The Times of India recently. "We cannot keep picking him again and again just on promise. He has to back it up with fitness and play out a full series."
Munaf seems to know his game better than people give him credit for. At MRF he can be seen correcting other bowlers, advising them
At the academy, head coach TA Sekhar is happy with what he sees. He does not believe Munaf is a walking magnet for injuries. "He does have a fast twitch to his muscles, which gets him the pace, but he is not a special case."
At the nets Munaf works up a good pace; he is visibly faster than any of the others there, Irfan Pathan included. The mind goes back to a recent article written by Mike Selvey in The Guardian, bemoaning the lack of fast bowlers in world cricket. "Where are the genuine pace aces?" Selvey wrote. "There is [Brett] Lee certainly, [Steve] Harmison when he can be roused and Shane Bond when fit. The three slingers - [Fidel] Edwards, Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga - are rapid, but that is about it really, isn't it?"
A little over a year ago Munaf would perhaps have been part of that roster. Back then he was hitting about 140kph consistently, impressing all who saw him. During the Champions Trophy last year, though, a new Munaf was on display - running in from wide of the stumps and moving towards them in the final leap; more accurate, economical, but down on pace. Although he had developed into India's best one-day bowler, the change surprised everyone - not least Sekhar.
"To me, he was asked to bowl like [Glenn] McGrath, that's where the problem started," Sekhar says. But that doesn't explain Munaf's brittleness, does it? It does, according to Sekhar - at least the latest back injury.
"The idea behind fast bowling is to have all your movements towards the batsman," Sekhar says. "He ran in straight, but he jumped towards fine leg, just before the stride. The batsman suddenly was at a different angle.
"Naturally and biomechanically, if your force doesn't go in the right direction, problems are bound to happen. McGrath can do it because he is bloody strong. Munaf is strong but not that strong. When you are bowling that way, you have to rotate to bowl. Naturally there is a twist. Initially it would have been stiffness, then pain; then he is not able to bowl." Munaf has now eliminated that final sideways movement, but just why did he do it in the first place?
"I thought line and length was more important in one-day cricket," he says. "I was feeling good with that action; the team was getting good support too. I was feeling good because that inward jump made the away-going delivery more effective." One wonders if the presence of a specialist bowling coach then would have helped, if the tinkering with the action was what caused the injury.
"But now," says Munaf, "as Sekhar sir has advised, I am running in straight and going for full pace. I enjoy it, people watching also enjoy it. That pace is natural; that I won't lose. I can raise it whenever I want to.

"The pace is natural. I can raise it when I want to" © AFP
"I feel bad that I have got injured twice in a short career," he says. "It's worse to see the team do well from outside. The worst feeling was getting injured in South Africa. I played next to nothing. The wickets were such that I felt we could have won the series had I played."
"Rustic" is a tag that gets naturally attached to Munaf. There is a somewhat patronising school of thought that says he is the sort that needs to be guided constantly, that his brittleness lies in his mind and not his body. One of the reasons for coaches and selectors to have developed such an opinion could be that Munaf has frustrated by showing promise and not being able to live up to it. Munaf thinks otherwise, though. "They must have seen something to say that. But only I know what's happening in my back or my shoulder. That they can't see. If I am talking to you right now, how will you know if I have an internal injury?
"It has not helped that I have got injured twice in a year and a half. But before that, I have only got injured once in domestic cricket."
Munaf seems to know his game better than people give him credit for. At MRF he can be seen correcting other bowlers, advising them. Pathan, who is also at MRF, looks for Munaf's approval of the way he is loading, going into his delivery stride. In fact, Munaf is referred to as "coach" at the academy. "When he talks to them, he is also looking to learn something," Sekhar says. "He is looking to improve himself whenever he sees other bowlers."
Munaf has fulfilled his first short-term goal: to get fit and selected for the one-dayers in England. He is also reportedly close to signing for Worcestershire, where Zaheer Khan spent the last season and came back an improved bowler.
The time of agony is over, and his first chance comes against the team who were at the receiving end when he made his debut at Mohali last year. With the other fast bowlers doing well in England and a few more looking to make comebacks, Munaf will hate to create vacancies again - through injury most of all.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine