It’s not clear who Nagesh Kukoonor had in mind when he directed Iqbal, but if he were to make the film now, the consensus would be that the lead character is based on Munaf Patel.
The fast bowler's story is uncannily similar to that of the film's protagonist, who goes on to make it big after battling poverty earlier in life. In that sense, Patel’s emergence as India’s pace spearhead lends credence to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
In keeping with his rural background, Patel may appear somewhat unsophisticated in comparison to most of his teammates, but that should not matter -- his job starts when he’s handed the ball. He only needs to prove himself on the field, and that he has done consistently on this tour of the West Indies.
It’s difficult to get Patel to talk about cricket -- partly because of his background and partly due to his inexperience in interacting with the media, Patel is much more comfortable talking about how he has come this far.
“My family got to see the brighter side of life after I started earning. Before that, we had nothing. What can the family of a landless labourer have? I can never forget those days,” Patel reminisced during a chat with HT.
The oldest of three siblings, Patel didn’t get anything in his childhood that helps kids dream big -- he hardly could have got, as there was a time when his father used to earn Rs 7 for a day’s work.
However, his dream began with cricket: He added in his rustic Hindi that he was always addicted to the game. “A few families in our village had televisions and I remember watching the Nehru World Series (in 1989), where Wasim Akram won it for Pakistan with a six.”
Patel was quick to discover that like Akram, he could work up a bit of pace. “We had matting wickets in our village (Ikhar in Gujarat) and batsmen would run for cover each time I ran in. I liked the fact that I was an object of fear.”
His passion received attention after he joined Kiran More's academy in Vadodara. It was no smooth sailing, though. “Vadodara is about 70 km from my home and it takes a 90-minute train journey to reach there. The rigours of this daily journey made me determined to make it big.”
From the More academy, Patel, went to the MRF Pace Foundation, where he learnt his most important lessons. “It was under the guidance of Dennis Lillee and following the advice of TA Shekar and Javagal Srinath that I learnt the nuances of fast bowling. That stint in Chennai made me.” Patel also learnt how to carry himself in that period. “That's when I saw what the media is. I would stare at men with cameras speaking to our coaches. Watching them, I learnt how to speak and learnt etiquette.
“I knew I could play at a higher level but had no idea of how to go about it. I didn’t know what Ranji Trophy or Duleep Trophy were. I started thinking of playing for India after moving to Mumbai,” said the bowler who now plays for Maharashtra.
After he started making money, the first thing Patel did was to put an end to his father's labours. Now his parents can watch him on TV at home these days, but are not willing to move to a city. “They can't adjust to urban life. I plan to build a new house but till that happens, we’ll live at our old home. I will never leave my family. That’s where my heart is," said Patel.
Patel is decidedly more comfortable talking about things other than bowling because that is something he does without airing his views on it. Sure, he thinks about it too, but like his ability to understand English without trying to speak the language, he keeps those views close to himself. “I don't think I have become India's chief strike bowler yet, but this has been a very good year for me,” is all that he says.
A few more of his kind, bowlers who are not eloquent but expressive with the ball, will do the team no harm.