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Reticent ranger

The first time Munaf Patel was asked to come and play in a "real" cricket match, the teenager ran away and hid himself in the very house of the man who asked him to join the team - Golden Cricket Club captain Haroon Handi. He had to be forcibly taken to the ground. Abhijeet Kulkarni reports.

cricket Updated: Feb 17, 2011 16:09 IST
Abhijeet Kulkarni

The first time Munaf Patel was asked to come and play in a "real" cricket match, the teenager ran away and hid himself in the very house of the man who asked him to join the team - Golden Cricket Club captain Haroon Handi. He had to be forcibly taken to the ground.

Daddy didn't care
Munaf did not really like the prospect of inviting his father Musa's ire. Nor did he care too much for cricket to be more than a pastime and an excuse to hang out with his friends.

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One of them was his namesake and Handi's younger brother - Munaf.

Munaf's father, a daily wage farm hand, was reluctant to let his only son waste time playing cricket, when he could earn a few extra bucks for his struggling family.

"Then, Munaf used to hang out with my younger brother, whose name is also Munaf, and spend a lot of time at our house. It took time to convince his father, but finally he came around," says Handi, who has played the lead role in creating cricket infrastructure in Ikhar and villages nearby.

Could bat, couldn't bowl
Once he got over his initial trepidation, the sport began to turn into a source of sporadic income for the lanky pace bowler when spectators began giving cash prizes for every good performance. He began to turn out regularly for Ikhar village's team.

At the time, however, he was not considered valuable for his fiery pace. "You would be surprised to know that we banked on his batting more than his bowling to win matches against other villages. He scored quite a few centuries and all of them were better than run-a-ball," says Idris Fadia, who played alongside Munaf for the Golden Cricket Club.

But wasn't he in the team for his pace bowling? "Yes. Par shuru shuru mein jab woh tej dalta tha, tab ek ball Bharuch jati thi tho doosri Baroda (Initially when he used to bowl fast, he used to bowl all over the place). He improved over the years and began spearheading our attack," he adds.

Vadodara calling
The word of Munaf's raw pace slowly spread around Bharuch and reached Vadodara city, about a 90-minute drive away, and Handi felt it was time for the bowler to test "foreign" waters.

Help also came from villagers and a few NRIs, who pooled in money to help Munaf try his luck in Vadodara. "I had a good rapport with Mehndi sir (Mehndi Sheikh, who also coached Yusuf and Irfan Pathan) and sent him to train with him," says Handi.

A bowler is born
Sheikh still remembers the first time Munaf came to his nets. "He came to me in 2002. I noticed that he had good height but was not sure what he could do. I just asked him to come back the next day.

"The next day when I came to the nets, I saw him fielding far away. I asked the other boys why they were not giving him a chance to bowl. They told me he bowled very fast! So I asked him to bowl, and the batsmen were terrorised by his speed on the matting wicket."

But the Baroda Sports Club ground where Sheikh coached was not good for fast bowlers to train. It was not level and had little grass.

Munaf, after all, preferred to bowl barefoot. "I spoke to Kiran (More) to enrol him in his academy, and he agreed."

Impressed by Munaf's talent, More sent him to the MRF pace academy in Chennai under TA Sekhar and Dennis Lillee, where the coaches worked on his run-up and action. "He has a very clean action now. Earlier he used to start his run-up from mid on, now it is straighter" says Firoz Sufi, Munaf's new ball bowling partner in Ikhar.

Breakthrough
However, all this did not get him a spot in the Gujarat Ranji squad. Munaf's breakthrough came after he rattled the who's who of Indian cricket in a net session at the National Cricket Academy in 2003. None other than Sachin Tendulkar exclaimed that Munaf was one of the fastest Indian bowlers he had faced.

Fortunes changed overnight for Munaf. He was picked in the India 'A' squad. And Mumbai bent their rule of not selecting outsiders as professionals in the Ranji squad till they had played three years of local cricket to pick him.

Explaining that decision, then Mumbai coach Chandrakant Pandit says, "Everyone was impressed by his speed. And the thought process was that he could be an asset to the team."

"The day I saw him, I knew that this boy would have to be handled with care. He had a carefree attitude, a laid back approach to everything in life. With him, I always had to see what his mood was before pushing him or giving him leeway, and it worked," says Pandit, who is known to be a hard taskmaster on the domestic circuit.

Munaf followed Pandit to Maharashtra the next year. Though he earned his India cap during the stint, his career suffered due to injuries. The then India 'A' coach Sandeep Patil went to the extent of saying his injuries were more psychological. "He was never aware of the concept of fitness regime and proper training. So there was no point in blaming him," says Pandit.

With injury problems mounting and the initial euphoria about his pace dying down, Munaf soon lost the aura around him and had to go through the grind in the domestic circuit. He returned to Vadodara to resurrect his career.

Resurrection
"He cut down on his pace to avoid injuries and became more disciplined," points out Umang Patel, who trained with Munaf at the Kiran More International Academy, and now doubles up as manager of the Baroda team.

However, after spending over three years with the team, Munaf remains an enigma, even for his team mates and support staff.

"He is a regular for team practice sessions and will be all committed on the ground. But try and talk to him about cricket outside the ground, and he will just brush you aside," says Patel.

Apart from the time he spends playing domestic and international cricket, Munaf locks himself in Ikhar, where he has built a new house on the outskirts of the village.

His visit to the village cricket ground is sporadic, and communication with friends is restricted to late night chats at a Chinese food joint.

But Munaf has started taking his cricket a lot more seriously, and one could see the difference in his approach during the South Africa tour.

India will be hoping the boy from Ikhar retains that motivation at the World Cup.