LIFE came a full circle for Mohammad Kaif on July 13. It was on July 13, 2002 that Kaif became a household name after his heroic innings in the Natwest Trophy final. And on July 13, 2018, he decided to end his 18-year-long cricketing career by announcing his retirement from all forms of the game.
On a day he hung up his boots, Kaif’s team-mates and social media couldn’t stop rewinding to that almighty effort from him in the finals of the Natwest Trophy. Not quite with the same finesse as Laxman, but the man had flicking wrists in the rare times he chose to look picturesque.
It wasn’t the batting flair though that Kaif made his mark — his moment was that of hard-working hustle.
Sports careers can be scrunched into a single passage of play, into one late evening of magic. And after debuting in March 2000, the epic Lord’s run-chase — when 326 was still a monster target — is what Kaif will forever be tied in with, in doting Indian memories, and stay imprinted on sullen English hearts.
As praise and wishes kept pouring from around the world recalling an unseeming target-chase at a time when Indians weren’t the confident big score-assailants they are today, the one area which probably never got its due was his captaincy on the domestic circuit. His international cricketing career and his batting ability to score at a fast clip even without the daddy sixes, could have varied from year by year. But, Kaif managed what many others from that part of the world couldn’t. He showed the way for Uttar Pradesh players to make it to the Indian team and became the figure everyone looked upto, back in his state. In the four years since he took charge of UP since 2005, UP thrice entered the Ranji Tropy final.
Under his captaincy, Uttar Pradesh bagged the Ranji Trophy for the first time in 2005-06 season. Ironically, that would be the same year that Kaif would lose his place from the Indian side.
From being with the Indian team which was buffed up by the presence of trainers, five star accommodations, physios and video analysts, Kaif was now asked to lead a team where there was no support staff. When UP defeated Mumbai in 2005 while winning finals, the team was lodged in a two-star hotel of Mumbai.
Handling UP is akin to handling the Pakistan cricket team where each player boasts a whiplash tongue and a general outspoken nature. Besides, cricket politics is never too far away from UP’s kit-bag.
In 2007, UP had just lost to star-studded Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy final with Sachin Tendulkar turning out for the domestic giants of Indian cricket. As the spotlight was on Mumbai post the win, far away in one corner of the dressing room, Kaif was busy noting down key points.
“Sab likh ke rakha hai, aage kaam aayega. Let’s see how we can improve for the next season,” he had said. Back in UP, there was no one for Kaif to look up to. He wanted to create a system which remained only on paper. There were no grounds, no tournaments, and like all his team mates, Kaif travelled to Delhi and Mumbai to play local cricket.
At a time when he was under pressure to make a comeback, he faced pressures from within his squad. His team-mates, who had just played for India, didn’t like the idea of a young 17-year-old lanky swing bowler from Meerut — Bhuvaneshwar Kumar — being given the new ball ahead of them.
One player even confronted him at mid-night by banging on Kaif’s door, though it wouldn’t change his mind. Kaif could see the talent that Bhuvneshwar had. There weren’t enough bowlers who could swing the ball both ways as Bhuvneshwar did.
As it turned out, Bhuvaneshwar would pack off Sachin Tendulkar for a duck, his only zero in domestic cricket. It was Kaif’s style of field placements which earned Bhuvaneshwar his dream wicket.
Kaif said, “Naya ball nahi denge toh ladka (Bhuvneshwar) khatam ho jayega. Ladka wicket leta hai naye ball se, uska bhavishya banana hai, khatam nahi karna hai.” Down the line, Bhuvneshwar became the spearhead for Virat Kohli & team. Kaif had led India U19s to the World Cup title, and though he remained a shy, slightly awkward lad, an astute brain that loved and gorged on cricket’s minutiae, ticked behind that perennially anxious face. His commitment – pulling off run-chases from the deep No 7 position or trying the comical but effective chicken-leg stance when fielding to cut that micro-second of reaction — was never in doubt, even as the age of big-hitters slowly pushed him out of the frame.
Tanmay Srivastava, who represented the India under 19 team, says Kaif brought a sturdy cricket culture into the UP team.
“If UP’s cricket graph has gone up then it’s only because of Kaif. Those who are playing for India now, apart from Kuldeep, Kaif had an important role to play in them doing well. He knew how to get performances out of an individual.” It was perhaps what was lacking in his own early days that he sought to fill for those who came after him: presence of a perceptive mentor. “He too came from the hostel that is why his understanding was perfect in reading people. He always said that he has limited resources but it’s only because of hard-work that he went on to play for India,” Srivastava said.
UP no doubt had limited resources and next to no big players in the team to rely on. However, Kaif never stopped himself from trying unconventional things. “So be it trying to open with Praveen Kumar in Ranji games — Kaif knew if PK got those 40-50 runs early it would help the team. Or be it his weird field placements which are not in the cricket manual.
When he left UP, the graph went down. He moved to Andhra where the team went to qualify for knock-outs. He was a good leader. Once he even decided to drop himself from the T20 side so that a youngster got a chance. Ab aise aadmi ke liye batayie kaun nahi jaan dega?” the opener says.