This week’s Ranji final at Hyderabad will be played in the shadow of India’s tour of New Zealand. But as Chinmay Brahme finds out, for four Maharashtra players, the game against Karnataka could be their defining moment — the summit of their otherwise plateauing careers
Irfani cafe boy turns the corner
Samad Fallah, 28
Even for the self-confessed, attention-seeker Samad Fallah, the past few days have been a bit too much.
On Thursday, Fallah was the centre of attention as a TV crew followed him for an entire day. Fallah, with 201 first-class scalps in 50 matches, says that after a while the constant glare was a little embarrassing.
The day culminated with Fallah, decked up in a sharp suit —diamond studs glinting viciously in his ears — being interviewed on prime-time, an experience he calls ‘five star’.
Fallah’s 31 wickets have been the driving force for Maharashtra this season. Ever since Fallah, who has Iranian parentage, made his debut for Maharashtra in the 2007-08 season, he has been the lynchpin of their bowling attack. He hasn’t picked less than 25 wickets over seven seasons he’s played, but he says Maharashtra’s run to the final has suddenly seen a lot of people sit up and take notice. As he whips off his sunglasses and makes himself comfortable at the cafe his father owns, a glass of steaming tea in his hand, Fallah says recognition might be at his doorstep.
“It wasn’t as if I was not performing before this season. Midway through this season I had accepted that this time I was not even going to reach 20 wickets. However, since then, fate’s had something completely different in store for me. Now, I am going to play the biggest match of my career. A good performance might just make up for all the recognition at a higher level that has passed me by,” he says.
Much has been written and said about Fallah’s eccentric bowling where he does not mark his run-up, often putting to use his tennis ball cricket skills. Though he has 200 wickets, Fallah says that he has often heard snide comments about how he is not a very pleasing bowler to look at. “My head falls away from my body when I deliver the ball. I don’t bowl at express pace and they say I can’t field but at the end of the day I get wickets. Shouldn’t that be enough? I guess, Maharashtra and my own performance in the quarters and the semis answered a lot of questions,” he says.
Picking up all 10 wickets in an innings during a district match got Fallah a place in the Maharashtra Ranji squad back in 2007. A self-confessed drifter before that, Fallah once ran away from a Maharashtra Under-22 camp, saying he just didn’t feel like sticking around. After that, for two years he handled the cashier’s desk at his father’s restaurant before the fateful day when a few friends came and forced him to appear for a local side in a club match.
Fallah’s father, Mohammed Hussain, who own a modest cafe in Pune, a place where Fallah says he understood that sitting behind the counter wasn’t going to get him the attention he craved for, says that his son has always been ‘apne dil ka raja’. “You can never really force him to do anything. For 10 years I tried my best to make him take up cricket. He didn’t listen. However, after a couple of hard years, he found his calling and the boy has taken off,” he beams.
Spice trader gets a taste of fame
Anupam Sanklecha, 31
Scenes at Anupam Sanklecha’s home in Ahmednagar over the past couple of weeks have been nothing short of festive. There’s been a steady stream of people visiting, often lingering in front of a packed trophy cabinet and watching re-runs of old games.
Sanklecha’s 55-year-old mother, Meena, has been brewing endless cups of tea, and empty mithai boxes are piled high in a corner of the kitchen. With constant discussions of Sanklecha’s exploits in the televised quarter-final between Maharashtra and Mumbai, the pacer’s three-year-old daughter Kanishka’s favourite pastime has been imitating her father’s post-wicket celebrations.
Sanklecha’s 22 wickets in six matches have been crucial to Maharashtra’s march into the Ranji Trophy final. The 31-year-old, only among the two 30-plus players in the squad, is Ahmednagar’s latest and most coveted celebrity.
In the last four days since he returned from Indore after winning the semi-final against Bengal, Sanklecha has attended 34 felicitation functions. In addition to that, he’s been invited as guest of honour at Ahmednagar’s 15-odd cricket academies. At every function, kids have flocked around the wiry fast bowler, thrusting autograph books, bats and outstretched palms into his face, desperate for a signature. At every event, Sanklecha has been asked to share a few words of wisdom, and the man, who till three years ago was seriously contemplating joining his father’s spice-trade at the central market, repeats he doesn’t really have any great insights into what is the precise recipe for success.
On a hot Thursday afternoon, while Sanklecha is assisting his father at the shop, a crowd gathers across the street with people showering the younger of the two with adoration. Sanklecha though is unfazed, rattling off prices of turmeric, cumin and cardamom while helping his father analyse the latest fluctuations in the spice market.
“I have just been working hard. There is nothing special that I have done apart from bowl my heart out day-in, day-out ,” he says.
Sanklecha, who played for the Mumbai Champs in the now defunct ICL, says that even a couple of seasons after accepting BCCI’s amnesty offer, life continued to be challenging.
Sanklecha’s 58-year-old father Amrutlal, who runs a spice trading firm in Ahmednagar’s main bazaar, says his son’s exploits on the field a couple of weeks ago brought the normally-buzzing market to a grinding halt. “We have a television set in the shop and once news spread that Bhaiyya (Anupam) was on TV, I suddenly had a crowd of 250-odd people converge and cheer every ball that he bowled,” says the proud father.
Come Wednesday, and Sanklecha will feature in the Ranji Trophy final, perhaps the culmination of a stop-start career. Three years ago after the ICL stint, Sanklecha had almost given up hope of ever making it to India’s premier domestic competition.
“Hyderabad is the biggest test of my career. I am treating it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The second chance that I have been searching for ever since the ICL, has finally come. I don’t want to take too much pressure but then a good performance might open a few important doors for me,” he says.
Dominic Muthuswamy, 32
Till a few months back, Dominic Muthuswamy was used to just a few appreciative glances, courtesy his appearances for Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy. In his day-job, he operated a bullet-making machine at the Ammunition Factory, Khadki. However, this past week, the admiration for the lanky Muthuswamy’s exploits with the ball for Maharashtra seems to have hit the roof.
From the time the 32-year-old Muthuswamy enters the imposing gate of the factory, everyone from the sentries at the guardhouse to his floor supervisor rush to shake his hand, wishing him luck for what is a heady peak in the pacer’s brief cricket career. He continues to head to work everyday at 7.30 am, saying that he owes this much to his employers who took him in, when the family feared for survival.
Muthuswamy says he is taking a little time to get used to all the attention. His family too seem to be finding that a challenge.
Muthuswamy’s wife and two children seem rather flustered as camera lenses whir and focus on the lanky Dominic. While Muthuswamy’s children, Joy and Johan, gradually get comfortable, his wife remains shy to have her picture taken.
The youngest of four children, born to a driver in the vicinity of the factory, Muthuswamy made his debut at the age of 30. Before that, he says he had too much on his plate to really care about even giving a thought to pursuing cricket seriously.
“I lost my dad 12 years ago. With three elder sisters, the responsibility of settling them fell naturally to me. I was lucky to get a job at the ammunition factory in place of my dad. For 10 years, playing cricket did not really make too much sense,” he says.
However, since being spotted in a club tournament four years ago, Muthuswamy has made rapid progress, first in tennis ball matches and then in first-class cricket.
He says that he simply cannot comprehend the fact that he is part of a team which is in the final of India’s premier domestic competition. “For someone who till three years back was content bowling two overs in a tennis ball match, a Ranji final is obviously a little too much to imagine. However, this campaign has been such a terrific ride and I really want to perform in the final,” he says.
But what has really given him the most pleasure is the shift in behaviour from his neighbours. “Earlier, they said I was wasting my life playing tennis ball cricket.
“They said I needed to find a good job and try and live a settled life. Since a couple of years though, they have started respecting me. People who I haven’t seen for 10-12 years are now visiting my house to wish me success. This season has gone a long way in changing how people are looking at me,” he says.
A suitable boy, on and off the field
Sangram Atitkar, 25
An important hundred in a Ranji Trophy semi-final would be a rather momentous occasion for most people. That too, coming in a crunch situation, with no batsman to follow and the team in dire need of a big knock. Sangram Atitkar, a footballer-turned-cricketer, did just that, smacking the Bengal bowlers all over the park, compiling an aggressive 168, which gave Maharashtra a decisive 341 run-lead and eventual victory.
However, Atitkar’s knock seemed to have passed under the radar back home in his native village of Ambewadi, three kilometres away from Kolhapur. Apart from a few congratulatory messages, Atitkar’s family seemed to be consumed by their only son’s impending wedding. Atitkar will tie the knot on February 4, a couple of days after Ranji final concludes against Karnataka.
“When I went home, there was such a rush. With wedding preparations, I thought people had almost forgotten my ton. I had planned to go and rest at home but instead spent all my time preparing for my big day,” chuckles Atitkar.
However, Atitkar’s would-be father-in-law, Dr. Ravi Jadhav, seems to be making up for all the supposed indifference that the 25-year-old was subjected to. “Sangram has given me the biggest gift, and that too even before he is actually married. All of Kolhapur is extremely proud of my son-in-law,” he says.
Jadhav, a professor at a college in Kolhapur, who counts Maharashtra legend Raosaheb Nimbalkar and Bhausaheb Nimbalkar (who played for Baroda and Holkars through the 40s and 50s) as his uncles, says he is more than happy to welcome another ‘dashing’ cricketer to the family.
“I have been teaching at this college for more than a decade. I don’t think I got so much recognition in 10 years than what I’m receiving now after Sangram’s performance in the semis,” he says.
Atitkar, whose father owns a wholesale jaggery shop and grows sugarcane on the 16 acres that the family owns, says that his performance this season has given him considerable satisfaction. He has 628 runs in 13 innings at a healthy average of 57.09.
He was part of the Maharashtra team that won the Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy in 2005-06, but Atitkar says winning the Trophy final is something that will give him validation. “I’ve had to struggle to prove myself. Every match, it was as if I had to score big just to justify my place in the team. My 168 did prove a point to a lot of people. But noone really remembers a semi-final.
My goal now is to contribute substantially in the final. If I manage to do that, it will show that I performed when it mattered and also it would be the best gift I could give myself before getting married,” he says.