It is November 26, 2005. India have just reached Mumbai after losing to South Africa on a green seamer in Kolkata, and having been booed by the partisan crowd upset at the exclusion of Sourav Ganguly. It is the time when Rahul Dravid is believed to have said it feels good coming back to India. Coach Greg Chappell comes to know the regional winners of Scorpio Speedster, a pace bowling talent hunt, are in Mumbai for their final round, which is being judged by Wasim Akram and Ajay Jadeja. Chappell calls them up for the nets. Harbhajan Singh draws his attention to a bowler with a slingy action, who is deceptively quick. They make a mental note.
Next month Sri Lanka are in town. They have a young slingy bowler in their side who is a bit of an unknown quantity. India call that slinger from that talent hunt to bowl in the nets, to help them prepare against Lasith Malinga. Harbhajan is impressed, Chappell is impressed, selector Kiran More is impressed. They ask him where he is from. He says Sehore, a small town near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. They ask him why he is not playing first-class cricket, and he has no clue why. They put in a word with MP, but nothing comes of it.
Regardless, the national management gets him selected for Cricket Club of India XI for a three-day match against the touring England side. The slinger takes out Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, and feels he might even be able to bypass the wall he has hit in his home state. For England's next practice match, a proper first-class game against Board President's XI, India try another quick out of nowhere. This one, Munaf Patel, takes 10 wickets in the match and, in his third season as a first-class player, debuts for India.
Our slinger goes back to his home state, fighting the selectors there. His father is retired, his brother is the sole bread winner in the family, and he himself is 22-23 years old, a time when you have to start earning, especially if you come from a family of limited means. As he gets more and more desperate, a cricketer five-six years older than him, who is working in Oman, calls him up and asks him about his prospects. He says they look bleak, and is told there is a job waiting for him in Oman, where he has to work two-three hours a day and can play cricket for that company in the local leagues.
So our slinger moves to Oman to work for shipping giants Khimji Ramdas for Rs40,000 (US$600) a month, which in 2009 for an unemployed man in his mid-20s, with no degree in hand, with a family that has started to ask him to earn, is a life-altering decision. But he keeps staying fit - half an hour of sprint and an hour in the gym everyday - and keeps playing cricket, slinging balls at the toes. Four years later he has served the qualification period and leads Oman's charge towards the World T20 qualifiers in Ireland and Scotland. There he is the leading bowler for his side, and plays a big part in bringing Oman to the World T20 India 2016.
"I didn't have family. I didn't have friends. Coming back to an empty flat. Who's there to check on you if you are unwell?"
Now he is called the "Omani Malinga" but Munis Ansari didn't know Malinga existed until 2005. This is a perfectly natural action brought about by similar needs as those of Malinga: to hurl a tennis ball fast. His take on leaving India for Oman is pretty philosophical: "jab apne yahan kuch nahi milta hai chhod ke jaana padta hai [when you don't get anything at home, you have to leave]." The sad part is, he was obviously a promising bowler, on the peripheries of the state team, but he doesn't know of any attempts made by his state selectors to look for him when he disappeared from a camp of the Bhopal division team, one step below first-class cricket. "I have had no contact with them ever since I left," he says, "but some people, when they see where I am now, make excuses."
Life for an Indian migrant worker in the gulf is strange. He makes more money than in India, but he also works harder, and mostly everybody's aim is to save as much as they can to be able to provide for those back home and retire peacefully in India. For Ansari, though, work wasn't hard, there was cricket, and soon enough he realised he could play for Oman. Still he missed home. "I didn't have family," he says. "I didn't have friends. Coming back to an empty flat. Who's there to check on you if you are unwell?"
Ansari can't forget the support he received from his brother, several years older and an employee in the government's education department, when the family was after him to pull his weight. "He said, 'Munis is only playing cricket, not doing something wrong.'" When Ansari brought home Rs10,000 (US$150) through Scorpio Speedster, the family realised there was potential, and started to support his choices. Still, going to Oman, knowing he was giving up four years of his cricket career, was a big risk, which he took on his own. Now having his brother up in Dharamsala to watch him take two crucial wickets and bowling tightly at the death in a close win over Ireland makes it all worth it.
Even the original slinger has taken note. During the recently concluded Asia Cup, Oman's coaches, Duleep Mendis and Rumesh Ratnayake, arranged a meeting. A generous Malinga gave him valuable tips. How to read what a batsman is trying to do. More importantly, to go with the yorkers, how to bowl the slower ball. Complete the action as if bowling really fast, but remove the thumb. Let the ball sit between two fingers and the ring finger, and don't let the thumb touch it on the release. "The batsman thinks it is coming straight at his face, but it dips on his toes."
Ansari bowled Kevin O'Brien with the slower ball in their first match in this World T20, but he knows it was a normal slower ball, not the lethal Malinga slower ball, which behaves like it has been punctured mid-flight. Malinga has shown him how to perfect it, though. Bowl 15-16 such balls in every nets session. People around will laugh at you. At first it will land on top of the nets, into the side netting, all over the place, but there will be a day when you will get it right. Malinga took a year and a half.
The problem with time, though, is Ansari doesn't know whom he will be playing against next year. The next world opportunity will come in four years because the World T20 has now become a four-yearly event. That makes the game against Bangladesh, a straight shootout for a spot in the tournament proper, a massively important one. "Who has seen four years?" Ansari says. "I have to play this here as if my last game."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo