Appearances can be deceptive. And in the peculiar case of Munaf Patel, completely misleading. A haggard visage, unkempt hair, artless manners and a proclivity to answer in monosyllables, or go completely off tangent, make Munaf the antonym of the dapper modern cricketer.
Add his exasperating nonchalance and seemingly I-give-a-damn demeanour — he’s said to possess a poor attitude and a fragile mind — and you may find it hard to take him seriously as a sportsman. Even one-day captain MS Dhoni once said he was playing Munaf because he needed a bowler who does not think!
But a town bereft of possibilities — Ikhar in Gujarat — has bred in him a desperate hunger to succeed, as well as a self-defeating value system based on living by one’s will — as was apparent when he “fled” home to seek mental comfort before a Ranji Trophy game without informing anyone.
<b1>Being oblivious to the ways of the world has its pitfalls, as Munaf has discovered. Few in India have generated the kind of hype Munaf did even before making his first class debut. When you’re genuinely quick - as Munaf then was - the word spreads very quickly, especially in a country perennially deprived of an out-and-out quickie. Spotted by former national selector Kiran More during nets, Munaf was promptly sent to the MRF Pace Foundation to learn the tricks of the trade. The transition was not smooth — after a rustic upbringing, he was thrown into a cut-throat world of fame, where heroes and villains are made every day. He was totally unprepared.
After much speculation, Munaf was “prematurely” drafted into the national side with great expectations. He turned in the best performance by an Indian fast bowler on Test debut, and those expectations multiplied, and the going got tough. In need of support, Munaf was left to his own devices. He’d grown up playing tennis ball cricket and wasn’t even aware of the term “weight training” before playing at a serious level.
After India’s tour of the West Indies in 2006, the honeymoon ended. Munaf did not play a single full Test when India toured South Africa in late 2007 due to an ankle injury and missed the ODI series against the West Indies. He then broke down with a back injury in Bangladesh and was sent home. Declared fit before last year’s tour of England, he was found less than match-fit before the team was picked. India A coach Sandeep Patil said Munaf’s problems were more mental than physical. Some even alleged he feigned injuries, and the boot followed. To give him credit, Munaf dealt with the heartbreak admirably. Though he cut down on pace, he developed discipline. The result is that after a gruelling domestic season and in the IPL, he has got a new lease of life.
“He has gone through hell,” More told HT. “Munaf came late in cricket and everybody started expecting miracles. He was raw and had no knowledge of fitness, people, and naturally he picked some injuries, which he was castigated for. But he’s got a good brain, he knows his limitations and is more mature. The stint under Warne has also helped him. He will yet emerge a top bowler for India.”
Warne rates Munaf highly and his performances have only got better by the day. He has bowled in crunch situations and has held his nerve, surprising even the strongest doubters with his discipline. Hope the selectors are watching the ‘fragile one’!