Sphere of Influence: Thank You, Man of the Moment - Mohammad Kaif

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Sphere of Influence: Thank You, Mohammad Kaif! 

Sphere of Influence: Thank You, Mohammad Kaif!
Mohammad Kaif has been electrifying on the field. Photo Credit: PA Images/Getty Images.

Sourav Ganguly’s seven batsmen strategy was often criticised. Was the risk worth taking? But what were the options? Kapil Dev had retired years back. This was even before Irfan Pathan. There was no luxury of Robin Singh either. Reetinder Sodhi couldn’t match up to the brilliance of his teens.

This was July 2002.

We now know what a Hardik Pandya brings to the table. From Sanjay Bangar to JP Yadav, none could replicate their domestic genius.

Seven batsmen meant Ganguly between himself, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, would bowl the quota of 10 overs. In the NatWest Trophy tri-nation tournament, India’s fifth bowler department till the final had sent down 45 overs, given away 213 runs and picked five wickets. It was a job reasonably done. But the risk remained.

And the pressure game awaited…

Those were times when India had found novel ways to lose tournament finals. They had lost nine successive tournament finals since January 1999. The fifth-bowler department flopped in the all-important finale at Lord’s. Ganguly, Sehwag, and Yuvraj collectively bowled ten overs, gave away 72 runs and claimed no wickets.

England had posted 325 for 5 in their 50 overs. Centurion Nasser Hussain was sniffing the metal.

Three months prior, Australia had successfully chased down the target of 326 against South Africa at Port Elizabeth. That was the world record, and no one came close. Before that, the record was with India. They had once chased down 317 against Pakistan in the Independence Cup Final at Dhaka in 1998 courtesy a brilliant hundred from Ganguly.

Hopes remained pinned on the skipper. With the odds heavily stacked against India, a seemingly possessed Ganguly began the blitz at Lord’s, a venue he could do little wrong. Not often Sehwag had been dominated by another opening partner in such fashion. Ganguly fell for a 43-ball 60 with India 106 for 1 in the 15th over.

By the end of the 24th over, India had lost half their side. The scoreboard read 146 for 5. Tendulkar had just been cleaned up by his nemesis Ashley Giles. Walked into the greens, Mohammad Kaif.

Rest, as they say, is history.

 

Still, 21, playing his 14th ODI innings, Kaif added a 106-ball 121-run stand with fellow youngster Yuvraj Singh for the sixth wicket. Yuvraj, the aggressor, fell in the 42nd over but Kaif displayed immaculate calmness to see India home and provide the nation one of its most memorable sporting glories.

Off came Ganguly’s shirt at the Lord’s balcony, expressing his tit-for-tat act to Andrew Flintoff, then the famous pounce on Kaif that almost choked him. The scenes will be etched in the sports’ plaque forever.

To Ganguly’s glee, the batsman No.7 turned out to be the saviour.

On the 16th anniversary of NatWest Trophy win, Kaif, 37, announced his retirement from the sport. He had last played First-Class cricket in November 2017 where he led Chhattisgarh. Could he have timed this call better?

Kaif was more than just NatWest.

Kaif, the teenage prodigy –

Though Yuvraj went on to earn more accolades and success, Kaif was the first to don the national cap from the illustrious India Under-19 World Cup batch of 2000.

Long before that he was a teen prodigy.

Kaif was born in Allahabad, on December 1, 1980, and cricket had to be an obvious choice. Father Mohammad Tarif and elder brother Mohammad Saif were distinguished First-Class cricketers for Uttar Pradesh. Kaif was just following the footsteps.

He wasn’t blessed with the flair of Yuvraj or the machismo of MS Dhoni; he managed to carve a niche with his street-smart intelligence.

August 1996 was when I first read the name, Mohammad Kaif. In the Under-15 Challenge Cup (colloquially referred as the U-15 World Cup), Kaif’s 85* against West Indies U-15 guided India home. The newspaper report hailed the calmness of the 15-year-old, who helped India chase down 214.

In the semi-final of the tournament, Kaif stroked a fine 54* to help India chase down 263 against South Africa U-15.

Kaif’s good shows were overshadowed by his captain Reetinder Singh Sodhi’s all-round brilliance. India beat Pakistan in the tournament final to be crowned champions. Sodhi’s all-round show won him the Player of the Match.

In 1998, only 17, he was picked in the Amit Pagnis-led Under-19 India side for the World Cup in South Africa. On a surface that behaved like trampoline, Kaif, in the tournament opener against South Africa at The Wanderers, produced a gutsy show. Coming to bat in the second over, Kaif took the blows from a tail-up Victor Mpitsang and Murray Creed.

Kaif’s gritty 31 and a third-wicket stand of 57 with Virender Sehwag, provided India with some platform. India got 197, the bowlers fought hard, but the hosts scraped away.

India would win four out of its six matches in the tournament and Kaif, by far, was the team’s best batsman. Batting at No.3 on testing surfaces, the 17-year-old finished with 251 runs at 62.75.

(Trivia: Chris Gayle was the highest run-getter in the tournament with 364 runs at 72.8. Virender Sehwag, on the other hand, had scored 76 runs in the tournament at 12.66. However, Sehwag the off-spinner claimed seven wickets at 11.71)

 By 1999, Kaif was already a national prospect. He was picked for India’s Board President’s XI match against Pakistan ahead of the Eden Gardens’ Test. Kaif scored 21 and 8*.

A year later, Kaif led India U-19 to a World Cup triumph. Sodhi produced a Man of the Match feat again in the final while Yuvraj was awarded the Player of the Tournament. Kaif was already scoring runs in domestic cricket. He finished as India’s fourth highest run-getter in the U-19 World Cup with 170 runs at 34.

(Trivia: Graeme Smith was the highest run-getter in the tournament with 348 runs at 87. Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni failed to make it to the Indian U-19 side for the World Cup.)  

Barely a month after he had led India to their first U-19 World Cup glory, Kaif made his Test debut. Still, a teenager learning the ropes of diving, he was thrown into the shark-infested ocean.

India had returned battered and bruised from Australia. The strong South Africans had won the Mumbai Test and India had to win at Bengaluru to prevent a rare home series defeat.

To Kaif’s delight, he was playing alongside both of his heroes — Mohammad Azharuddin and Tendulkar. More than Kaif’s debut, the Test is best remembered as Azhar’s last, Tendulkar’s last as captain and a rare home series defeat for India.

Kaif scored 12 and 23, batted 150 balls against the rampant attack comprising Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Nantie Hayward and the in-form Nicky Boje. He bowled three overs for four runs. He was forgotten for a year. With Tendulkar and VVS Laxman injured, he was recalled during Sri Lanka tour in 2001 under Ganguly’s captaincy.

Kaif’s Test career spanned six years and sporadic appearances. He played 13 Tests, scored 624 runs at 32.84, scoring a hundred and three fifties.

These numbers are far from being impressive, but they tell a startling story. Kaif’s average till 2005 was less than 22. When the Greg Chappell era began, the then Indian coach found reasons to keep Ganguly out of the side. Kaif was provided with an opportunity to cement his spot in the Test side.

Kaif played five Tests in 2006, scored 317 runs at 63.4. He played a big role in India’s series win in West Indies, crafting a fine 148* at Gros Islet in the second Test.

That was his last Test series.

“I wish I’d played longer for India. I wish I’d played better in few Tests I did get to play, and I wish we had a system where someone would have sat down with a still introverted 25-year-old and told him why he never played a Test again after a Caribbean series where he got 148 not out,” Kaif writes in his retirement note.

But that was the Chappell era, and logics mattered little.

***

Kaif remained a vital cog for Uttar Pradesh. Players like Suresh Raina, RP Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla flourished under Kaif’s leadership.

Kaif led Uttar Pradesh to their only Ranji Trophy win in the 2005-06 season. He starred with 92 and 109 in the tournament final against Bengal. He led the side to runners-up position in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, losing the final to Delhi and Mumbai respectively.

Long before Dhoni, Kaif was the finisher, and the man touted to be India’s next captain.

India’s Bevan? At least the promise!

Almost two years after his Test debut, Kaif won his ODI cap at his home ground in Kanpur. It was the fourth ODI of the series against England. Kaif had no role to play on his debut as Sehwag, Tendulkar and Ganguly steamrolled Hussain’s side to go up 3-1.

The heavyweights in Indian top-order meant Kaif wouldn’t get his preferred No.3 spot in the XI. In the Delhi ODI, India looked on course for their chase of 272.

Ganguly was at his sublime best and Kaif was complementing his captain with quick singles and the odd boundaries. The duo had added 111 off 114 balls for the fourth wicket. India needed 61 runs off their final ten overs when Ganguly fell for 74. Kaif followed his captain three balls later for 46. India lost by two runs.

In the series finale at Mumbai, Kaif would again follow Ganguly, and this time India lost by five runs. When Ganguly had fallen for 80, India needed only 65 off 79 balls. England had drawn the series 3-3. Months before Ganguly’s act at Lord’s, Flintoff had stripped his jersey off and waved it at the Wankhede Stadium.

Kaif’s first two ODI innings — 46 and 20 — didn’t help India win, but there were glimpses of what was to come. He was only 21, and there was the promise. There was a sense of zen-like calmness, willingness, and commitment. Add the fielding to the mix, India were looking at a serious ODI player.

Less than six months later came the knock in the NatWest series final. His next innings came two months later, and it was as special.

India’s tournament opener in the Champions Trophy 2002 saw them stuttering at 87 for 5 in the 14th over against Zimbabwe. While Sehwag was making merry at one end, others struggled against Douglas Hondo.

Kaif carved out a Bevan-esque 111* off just 112 balls to help India to 288 for 6. He was well supported by Rahul Dravid’s 71. Once again, the No.7 batsman proved to be the differentiator. India completed a 14-run victory.

With the top-order flourishing in the next few games, Kaif had little role to play. India were the joint-winners of the Champions Trophy.

Kaif’s form eluded him during the home series against West Indies. He managed 80 runs at 20 from the seven ODIs. Worse was to follow. In India’s disastrous tour of New Zealand in 2002-03, Kaif managed 55 runs from seven innings. Kaif’s loss of form before the 2003 World Cup opened the debate if Laxman was a better choice?

At that stage of career, Kaif had 717 runs in 37 ODIs at 32.59 and a strike rate of 78.3. In contrast, Laxman had 1,250 runs in 51 ODIs at 27.17 and a strike rate of 66.3. Unlike Laxman, Kaif could be used as a floater in the batting line-up, and his fielding was in the league of Rhodes and Gibbs of the world.

Ganguly’s faith in Kaif won him the ticket to South Africa.

Kaif didn’t set the tournament alight with the bat. However, he played a fine hand of 35 against Pakistan and later a patient 68* against New Zealand. Kaif couldn’t replicate the magic of Lord’s at The Wanderers in the tournament final against Australia. He fell to Glenn McGrath for a three-ball duck.

However, there was more to that. India benefitted from Kaif’s acrobatics on the field. That Nick Knight run out at Durban and four catches against Sri Lanka at Johannesburg were amongst the highlights.

Kaif remained a fixture in the blue jersey for the next three years. Steller shows amidst stretches of barren spells; the expectations were more from Kaif. He started young, so the nation forgot that he was still a young man.

Kaif won the Man of the Series against Bangladesh in 2004-05 series. That series marked the debut of Dhoni, a man who would successfully phase out Kaif from the finisher’s spot. Dhoni was a once in generation cricketer, one who possessed brain and brawn to excel at the highest level.

A prominent figure like Kaif, witnessed his best days came under Ganguly’s captaincy. With Chappell-Dravid era taking over Wright-Ganguly days, Kaif’s confidence took a blow.

M R HS Ave SR 100s 50s
Under Ganguly 83 1,935 111* 35.18 75 2 11
Under Dravid 38 735 83* 26.25 66.8 0 6
Overall 125 2,753 111* 32.01 72 2 17

India lost to West Indies 1-4 in 2006, but Kaif had a good run with the bat, scoring three fifties from five matches, amassing 205 runs at 51.25. A poor South Africa series (28 runs from three matches) brought down curtains to his career. He played his last international game two days before he turned 26.

The argument often presented is that Kaif was a spent force and India were brimming with brighter talent.

Comparison of Kaif and Rohit Sharma after 100 ODIs

  Age R HS Ave SR 100s 50s
Mohammad Kaif 24 2,369 111* 34.83 73.6 2 14
Rohit Sharma 26 2,480 114 31.79 75.8 2 17

Now evaluate the argument again. Ifs have no place in the game. But what if Kaif had got more backing? Don’t batsmen get better in their late 20s?

Despite a mediocre start, Rohit will end his career as an ODI great. Didn’t Kaif, a proven match-winner, deserve better?

(Trivia: Michael Hussey made his ODI debut three months before he turned 29. He ended his career as one of the finest limited-overs cricketers)

“When management change, so do attitudes. The decision makers who followed Sourav Ganguly and John Wright – coach Greg Chappell and chief selector DilipVengsarkar – didn’t have the same confidence in me. I came under pressure and failed. Looking back, I should’ve spoken to them more, rather than just focus on making runs. I suffered due to my reserved nature,” Kaif had famously said.

Kaif had made no reservations talking about Chappell’s era.

“He questioned my fielding technique, and it left me so confused that I dropped a catch in the very next game. Chappell created an atmosphere where the players were backbiting about each other rather than focusing on their performances.”

Chappell seriously questioned Kaif’s fielding techniques. He did.

Forgotten man?

Not quite. Kaif’s fielding always found a mention. He became a benchmark while judging fielders. He inspired a generation. The 2000s saw India rise from probably the worst fielding sides to being amongst the best.

Jonty Rhodes has time and again hailed Kaif’s work ethics and credited him for bringing the change in attitude in Indian fielding.

Despite not playing international cricket for a year and a half, Kaif attracted US$ 685,000 in the inaugural IPL auction in 2008, making him Rajasthan Royals’ most expensive player. T20s were never Kaif’s forte, but he kept finding teams. His popularity never declined.

Be it the videos of NatWest knock, his spectacular acrobatics, his weird batting or slip fielding stances or internet trolls; Kaif remains prevalent in the social media age. He juggles between the roles of being a politician, coach, mentor and analyst, and remains one of the most likeable characters in Indian cricket.

For a generation, Kaif will be all about everlasting fond memories and the ‘never say die’ attitude. Here was a common man amidst the heroes which made the commoners believe in themselves. For the fans of a team that longed for the touch of the west, Kaif provided those rare Jonty or Bevan moments — achieved with simplicity and a smile.

Kids wanting to emulate Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag, Dravid or Dhoni during play hours was natural those days. But Kaif? Yes, children gleefully dived around wanting to be Kaif.

Hero-worshipping culture symbolises India. But not all who play the sport attain the hero-level. Kaif did.

Kaif’s career had already come to a halt. The retirement announcement only opened the boxful of pleasant memories. Thank you, Mohammad Kaif.

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