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Monday, August 03, 2020

‘People lined up on the roads, that day I felt like Amitabh Bachchan’: Mohammad Kaif

Mohammad Kaif recalls a magical afternoon at Lord’s 18 years ago, when he played the most significant innings of his career that made India believe they could chase big totals in ODIs

Written by Mohammad Kaif | Updated: July 14, 2020 3:34:06 pm
Mohammad Kaif’s 87* had been instrumental in India’s run chase of 326 in the Natwest Trophy final.

The first memory of that chase at Lord’s that comes to my mind is people walking out when I was walking in to bat. They felt the match was over as Sachin had got out. Later, I would find out that my family in Allahabad too had done the same. The movie Devdas was running at a nearby theatre and my father, who was a fan of Dilip Kumar, had taken the family to see the Shahrukh Khan starrer after Sachin fell. Don’t worry, I have forgiven them!

I also remember Nasser Hussain sledging me as I walked in. “He is the bus driver. He drives Tendulkar around.” Because of the accent, it took me a little time to understand what he exactly said but I clearly heard ‘bus driver’. I used to field close at covers and talk a lot to the batsmen too, and so you should be prepared to hear back. Once, in a Test against Australia, I had an argument on field with Adam Gilchrist and quite enjoyed fielding that day. Nasser was rebuilding his team at that stage and had scored his first century. He was excited that they were about to win the game. I had to wait for the right moment to reply and it came after we won the match. I told Nasser: “Not bad for a bus driver, eh?”

Team in trouble

It hadn’t started so well. I remember the scene in the dressing room just before we went out to chase. We were struggling to figure out how to chase big totals those days and there was a feeling of ‘here we go again’. The mood was low. John Wright, our coach, stood at one end and it was more a players’ meeting. We stood around as Sourav Ganguly spoke: “Don’t panic. We will just start well, try not to lose any wicket and take it on later.”

And he did what he said. He hit a six over covers, as he and Virender Sehwag gave us momentum. But then wickets fell and I was in the middle. I had never batted in such an atmosphere, in at no. 7, Sachin was out and still some 180-odd runs needed in 24 overs.

Time to be a hero

Kaif points to the Lord’s final momento at his Gurugram house.

Yuvraj and I were burning to make a name for ourselves, and we really wanted to do well. We had played together in youth teams and had an understanding. I remember the required rate never got over eight at any stage. He played his shots, I did what I do and runs started to come. The game started to slowly turn around.

At one stage, [91 needed from 72 balls], I could see Ganguly waving his hands to catch my attention. He put his finger up, signalling that I should take a single and give the strike to Yuvraj. As any captain would do, he wanted to guide the youngsters in the middle. But I was in my zone: see the ball, react to it, hit it. I had to take my own call in the middle.

Also, I wanted to make a name for myself. Show the world who I am.

And so almost immediately after that message, when Alex Tudor was bowling, it was perhaps not even the length to pull but I instinctively went for it.

As the ball flew into the stands, I told Yuvraj in some anger, “Bhai, hum bhi khelne aaye hain!” (I have also come to play).

I was trying to carve an identity for myself then. Everyone’s focus was on bigger names likes Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Sehwag, Yuvraj and as a youngster, you have that fire within to prove a point. Bhai, hum bhi hain yahan (I’m also here).

That shot was all about reaction but also preparation. I had been dropped from the Indian Test team, and the South African series in particular had made me decide to work on my pull shot. In Kanpur, I called young players, made them use a wet ball and told them to bowl short on cement pitches. I would pull and cut and became a good puller after that.

Then, suddenly, Yuvraj fell. I was in shock, now I had to do it with the tail-enders but had no experience in dealing with them. I remember I pulled a six off Ronnie Irani – again not really the length for it but I just reacted. Irani was someone who would bowl around 120 kmph but had the attitude of a fast bowler. We two had a bit going in that game, I think.

Ï told Harbhajan to play his game as I didn’t want to confuse anyone. But it was Bhajji who helped me at an important moment. I had slogged Paul Collingwood and the ball went off the inside edge to fine leg for two runs. Bhaji told me, “Kya kar raha hai, what are you doing? Run-a-ball now, look at the scorecard.” I thought, yes, he is right. I just needed to watch the ball, play the ball.

With 25 needed from the last four, Darren Gough, who Nasser trusted a lot, came on. I hit two fours in that over – over covers and to midwicket – but even then, I knew it wasn’t over. Then in one over Flintoff got Harbhajan and Anil Kumble, who fell to a wrong decision by Steve Bucknor. Off the last ball of the 48th, with six runs needed, Hussain had the long-on and long-off in the circle. I went for a big leg-side shot against Gough but it flew off the edge to the third man boundary. Even then, I wasn’t sure of the win.

You never know. Because if Zak got out, we had Nehraji. I can visualise him sitting in the dressing room, scratching his head. Zaheer played out two dot balls, they didn’t want me on strike. There was a fear of losing the game till the end. But off the third ball, we went for a single but there was an overthrow and a panic run. That was it!

I would forever remember what happened next. First Yuvraj ran out for a big hug. And then Ganguly, who had the shirt-off celebration on the balcony, ran and jumped onto me and we were both down on the ground. Rahul Dravid too was pumping his fist and celebrating. He doesn’t do that usually. Behind them, I could see Sachin Tendulkar. In those times, he would never come onto the ground after a match. But there he was that day, running on to the field, high-fiving me. It was a really special moment – some of these legends, who I had grown up watching, were now jumping and celebrating with me.

Back home in Allahabad, once I returned, I couldn’t handle the celebrations. I was a shy person but people kept coming to my home. Mummy was serving tea snacks to everyone all the time. The media attention too was different. They would follow me everywhere. I loved to fly kites at the bank of the Yamuna and they would be there too, saying, ‘Look, Kaif ne aaj patang udayi (Kaif flew kites today!)”. Arre! I have been flying kites daily from childhood. It took me a while to understand all those reactions.

That win changed Indian cricket to an extent. It showed us we could chase big scores, it showed us we could win big finals – that’s one of the reasons Indian fans remember it a lot as this was a big tournament win at Lord’s after the 1983 World Cup final. I remember the series in Pakistan later, where the scores were consistently over 300 but we were never fazed in the dressing room. There was a sense of calm and belief. That I think came after the Natwest Trophy win.

I remember another special image. When I returned home to Allahabad, I was put on an open-jeep procession. It took us nearly three-four hours to travel the five-six km to our home. People lined up on the roads. Garlands, chants, happy faces. When I was a kid, I had seen Amitabh Bachchan in an open jeep after he had won an election in my hometown. That day, I felt like Amitabh Bachchan.

As told to Devendra Pandey

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