First came the snub from the selectors. This was followed by a drop in batting form and then came the telling blow — an injury at the start of the Ranji season. Not surprisingly, Madhya Pradesh’s premier wicket-keeper batsman Naman Ojha has been subdued and largely understated this year. On a day when Parthiv Patel was announced as the replacement keeper for an injured Wriddhiman Saha, many fear Ojha’s lone Test match appearance against Sri Lanka at the SSC in Colombo in 2015 could well be his last.
In August, the 33-year-old had packed his bags, got his visa ready to lead India A for the quadrangular series in Australia. Inexplicably, he then got a call from the selectors saying he was dropped from the side, and Manish Pandey would be replacing him as the captain. Ojha concedes he had no clue what had transpired. “I don’t know what had happened. You have to ask the selectors,” was how he would respond. He would eventually board the flight Down Under two weeks later as the captain for the two unofficial Tests against Australia at Brisbane. He admits the whole selection flip-flop had affected him mentally and had even dented his confidence.
He would fail with the bat in the two outings in Australia, accruing only 21 runs from four innings. He was not forthcoming on the fact that the loss in form was a direct outcome of the mental disintegration.
If anything, it only meant that he would not be in the reckoning for sometime now. He had his chance to change things around this Ranji season. Sadly, a side strain kept him out for the opening four games. “I was not in good form. However, I had expectations of a comeback. However, a side strain at the start of the Ranji season kept me out for four games. Usse bhi (selection pe) farak padta hain,” he rues. Ojha believes issues like team selection and injuries were not under his control. The best way forward, according to him was to focus on the ongoing Ranji campaign.
“Right now, the best thing for me is to focus on Ranji and score runs. Aage na jyada nahi sochta hoon. That’s the best way forward,” he says. He admits being a nervous wreck ahead of his first Ranji game of the season — against Gujarat last week. He was not at his fluent best though, but was effective nevertheless, scoring 80 runs in the two innings. Ojha has been been Madhya Pradesh’s pillar of strength for close to 15 years now. Despite the dip in form, his numbers in first-class cricket have been terrific – close to 9,000 runs and 20 centuries.
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Ever since Mahendra Singh Dhoni cemented his place as the numero uno keeper in the country, Ojha knew his task of breaking into the Indian team would be arduous. Only a mountain of runs would give bring him back in the reckoning to the national side. And a couple of prolific seasons at the domestic circuit would have helped. Thankfully, that season came in 2014-15.
A big double hundred in the Ranji Trophy, then a couple of centuries against Australia A was followed by another double hundred against North Zone in Duleep Trophy. Despite notching up a series of consistent scores, Ojha could not break through. “Even when I was scoring runs, I did not get picked. Even now, the situation is pretty much the same. I performed decently during my Test debut against Sri Lanka last year, There has been a vacuum,” he says with a hint of regret.
Despite such setbacks, Ojha is hopeful of a turnaround. “There is no lack of motivation. You never know boss…cricket is a funny game. You remain positive and keep working hard at your game and improve after every season. That’s all I can do right now,” he adds.
Thumbs up to neutral venues
BCCI’S initiative of implementing neutral venues this season has evoked mixed response. But Ojha has backed the move to the hilt, saying this was one of the best decisions taken by the BCCI. “The inception of neutral venues is one of the best decisions taken by the BCCI. Now you cannot crib about the nature of the wickets. Abhi situation aisa hain ki saare associations ko acha wickets banane padenge…aur agar aapke paas dum hain to match jitao. Simple hain,” he explains.
He goes on to add that the result in Lahli, in which the game got over inside two days was just a one-off thing. “Out of 120 games in a season, there is only one venue (Lahli) that traditionally helps the seamers. I think players must develop the skill to play on such tracks. Just think of the Haryana batsmen…they have been batting on such conditions the whole year. A good player must learn to play on all kinds of surface.”
Brief Scores: Railways: 371; Madhya Pradesh: 356/s (Devendra Bundela 131 not out, Shubham Sharma 91 not).