Twitching on the sofa, his big eyes gleaming with excitement, Munis Ansari recounts the most unforgettable ball of his life. Unforgettable not because it’s the most spectacular he had ever bowled, but because of the batsman he had accounted for. There was nothing demonic, or special, about the delivery, he says. A back-of-length ball pitched a feet outside off-stump. The batsman coiled expansively for the cut, but the oldish ball cut back a tad to take his inside edge to the stumps. Ansari stood stupefied.
Only when his teammates swarmed him did he realise this was for real. He had, on his first very outing against any international side, dismissed one of the most feared batsman around. It was Kevin Pietersen.
He says he just stood there gazing at the rattled stumps. “I didn’t know what to do. I don’t even know how I felt at that exact moment. I hadn’t even played first class cricket and now I get the wicket of Pietersen?” he reminiscences.
This was a few days after he battered Harbhajan Singh’s bat and nearly broke his arm at the nets in the Brabourne Stadium. “The local coach informed Sanjay Jagdale sir about me and after seeing a couple of first division matches, he referred me to the Cricket Club of India (CCI) in Mumbai and got me an opportunity to bowl at the nets. I couldn’t bowl at the top batsmen, because I was kind of a junior bowler. But when I got an opportunity, I showed what I could do, and upon Bhajji’s insistence I was included in the CCI President’s XI match against England (2006),” he says.
His contribution to the practice match, which the tourists eventually won by a landslide 238 runs, wasn’t yet done with. In the second innings, he wore the garb of Pietersen’s nemesis, this time running the maverick batsman out. In his second spell, he nailed skipper Andrew Flintoff, caught behind off an outswinger. “I was mainly bowling inswingers to him, but this one I got to shape away and he poked it to the ‘keeper,” he recollects.
Almost a decade later, he narrates the match with as much delight as pain, a touchstone of his immense promise, but also a sad reminder of how he ended up as a nobody in Indian cricket. He was overlooked for the next practice game. He wasn’t summoned for the India nets either. Worse still, even his home state overlooked him. “I do regret not playing for the country. Every day I used to wake up with the dream of playing Test cricket for the country. But then I couldn’t even play for my state,” he says.
What exactly happened to him after the match, he is not sure of. He didn’t seek any explanation. He didn’t know who to ask either.
The only thing he knew and which pained him was one of his teammates, Robin Uthappa, who made just 23 runs in two innings, made his India debut in a month’s time. In the second practice game he was replaced with a wiry bowler from a similarly obscure background. He took 10 wickets in the match and made his Test debut a fortnight later. He was Munaf Patel. But by then, Munaf was already the most talked-about tearaway in the domestic ring.
Maybe, Ansari wasn’t quite good enough. He was still raw and uncut, without any first-class experience behind him. And this wasn’t exactly a period when Indian selectors were so hard-pressed for fast bowlers that they would fast-track a literal outlier.
He vented out all his frustration at the hapless batsman in Bhopal’s first division circuit. “I took six five-wicket hauls in the first eight matches. I went to the gym and worked really hard on my fitness. I also started bowling faster, and in one match when all the MP selectors were watching, I took seven wickets,” he remembers.
But recognition was still hard to woo. He was disillusioned. He decided to quit the sport and return home to his village in Sehore district, some 37 km from Bhopal. On his bus journey back home, he just kept crying.
“I thought enough was enough. I will go home and help my father in his wheat fields. I had four young sisters, and my father and brother were working really hard to meet the ends. So I decided to join them,” he says, his words stuttering.
He would hark back to the day he impressed none other Wasim Akram during a talent hunt. “It happened when I was 16. There was a talent hunt for pacers in Bhopal and Wasim sir and Ajay Jadeja were the judges. Wasim sir was impressed with me and asked me how I developed my slinging action,” he recollects. The answer was Ansari didn’t know how he developed the side-arm slinging action, much like Lasith Malinga’s, sans his freakish whip of the wrists at the release. “I started playing with rubber ball and then tennis ball. If you pitch short or back of length, the batsmen will swing hard and because the ground wasn’t big even mis-hits would go for sixes. The best way was to bowl full and yorkers at good pace. And while striving for pace, I accidentally started to sling.”
His cricket dreams were rekindled with just one phone call from a friend. “It happened sometime in 2009. One night when I was having dinner with my family, I got a call from an old club-mate of mine. He asked me whether I would be interested in shifting to Oman where I can get a decent job with Khimji Ramdas (shipping company) and also play club cricket.”
He made an instant impression, taking 30-odd wickets in 13 50-over matches, establishing himself as the most dreaded bowler in the country. He made his international debut last year, against Afghanistan. It wasn’t a memorable one, as he conceded 38 runs in 3.5 overs.
But he made his World Cup debut grand. Ansari took three wickets for 37 runs. The whole of Oman were in raptures. So did the whole of Sehore.