It is the house at the end of the road. The black gates are firmly barred; the security guards outside look suspiciously at every passer-by. They can't be bothered to do more than glare though — it is far too hot on Tuesday, even in the shaded avenues of this posh colony.
When you state you're there to meet Mohammad Kaif, one guard ostentatiously mops his head, creaks himself up and lets you in after checking on the intercom.
The house is beautiful, an interior decorator's dream in muted cream and bronze, a sudden splash of colour lending it an artist's touch. It is a different world from the 6 feet by three pigeonhole, separated from the rest of world by a threadbare piece of cloth, that was Kaif's home for several teenage years — his piece of a tacky Green Park hostel room in Kanpur. Kaif walks in, in the familiar royal blue of India's training kit.
You ask how it feels to call a veritable mansion like this home. He smiles. “It is home”. And what of Allahabad and the crowded, familiar sights and sounds of the town he once lived in? “That is home too, it is different of course, but they are both home.” And then he adds, looking around anew, “I have been blessed.” And smiles wryly.
The feeling is genuine, the smile perhaps a tad self-deprecatingly, after all, he is well aware that it is exactly six months to the day that he played his last one-day international for India. November 29, 2006, at Port Elizabeth.
“It's been very tough,” he agrees, asked the obvious question. “It's been my longest ever break from the team. The last year-and-a-half hasn't been good. I've not been in the XI consistently, played a couple of games and then been out for a few, it's been a rollercoaster ride, a time of ups and downs, I've had to come to terms with a lot of things, learnt some things about myself.”
He insists though that it hasn't got him down. “I would be lying if I said it hasn't affected me at all, of course it has, but I've decided to use this time to just work harder, work on things I think needed to be worked on. “
So what does he think went wrong? “I'm not sure. I hear this and that but unfortunately, have never been told specifically that this was the exact problem. That would have really helped. But being out of the team is also beneficial if you take it in the right spirit. You can sit back and take stock, play state and company matches, train, have the time to experiment, work on you game. On my eldest brother Asif's advice, I've adjusted my grip slightly, a minor shift that gives me far greater power, done a little bit with my stance. I made 151 not out against Rajasthan in a one-dayer for UP hitting a few sixes, I'd never made 150 in my life! It is a power game now and I needed to work on that and what I've done seems to be working.”
Kaif says that while he's happy with whatever he's contributed so far to India's cause, he's also realised that there were some things he could have done better. “Life is so unpredictable. There have been times when I've been doing really well, feeling in the zone, getting some runs, but for some reason or the other, I've found myself not in the playing XI for the next game. Positions have moved up and down, you lose that rhythm. Every batsman wants to bat when he's feeling good about it. Then again, there have been times when I could have used an opportunity better and did not. Having said that, these things happen in cricket.”
And, he's decided to be philosophical about it. In fact, as he says, his getting his first big break itself (making the eventually, World Cup-winning u-15 India squad), was by chance. “When you go for these age-group trials, luck plays a huge part. You have 700 (now about 2000) boys each facing about four balls each before someone decides if they move to the next round. One unplayable ball somewhere and you could be facing life as a lower division clerk somewhere instead of a cricketer.”
And then, almost inaudibly, he murmurs. “I sometimes wonder about that”. The dreamy look is gone and he looks up. “I didn't make the probables camp of 40 but was called back by Sarkar Talwar, a selector and the u-15 coach. God knows what he liked about me but whatever it was, I had had my first brush with fate. I did well in the camp and practice games and later, being part of that squad gave me a slight edge when I played grade cricket for UP. My journey began there. But I still had to work really hard, there's no substitute for that.”
It's been a strange journey for Kaif, a man often dubbed a future India captain till recently — not just because of an ability to keep a steady head on his shoulders in pressure-cooker situations and win matches for India coming in at a difficult No. 7, but also because he showed none of the off-field quirks of character or unsteadiness that some of his contemporaries displayed.
Now though, life has taken another twist and the future seems less certain. He seems unperturbed. “Everything is an experience and you are moulded by how you use them. I think I've used this time well. I've been able to understand myself and my reactions, I've calmed down through the years, am less bristly with people, more accepting, I've been growing and growing up with all these experiences.”
“Let's see… I believe in myself and more importantly, so many ordinary people, on the streets, in trains, in planes, at functions, they come and tell me they believe in me, that I belong with India. Often, I don't sleep straightaway. I lie in bed thinking about life, about what could have been and what is. And finally, I always say, if it wasn't for cricket, I wouldn't have been me. This has been my life and it always will.”