A loud cheer went around the Sussex County Cricket Club ground when India's first-change bowler marked his run-up in the one-day warm-up game on Thursday. It might come as a surprise but in a team of stalwarts, Munaf Patel is among the most sought after.
It has nothing to do with his performances. He's been a passenger in the team so far, only playing in tour games. Maybe, not playing in Tests has worked in his favour.
It has earned him sympathy as his fans felt he deserved to play the fourth Test ahead of RP Singh. He bowled without a care in the world on Thursday too. But, for the sizeable Gujarati community in England, he's 'apro Munna', especially for those from around his village Ikhar. The region straddling the Baroda-Bharuch highway, where Ikhar is located, has many families who have migrated to England and United States. His former village sarpanch, Haroon Patel, is a big businessman here.
In the warm-up game at Northampton earlier, it was amusing to hear Indian fans rooting for him though he did precious little on the field.
Almost everyone from his region has a tale to tell about his early days. There was a security person at Edgbaston during the third Test who was desperate to meet him: "We hail from the same taluka (town) and our village team used to invite him to play in important games, mainly in night tournaments. My brother played in that team."
Munaf understands the genuine affection and tries his best to oblige as many as he can.
30-year-old Akshay Patel, manager at a newspaper and provision store behind the Sussex ground, was thrilled to bits on Wednesday. The bowler was in the middle of his spell at the nets when he arrived, and started calling out loudly 'Munna, Munna'. He was hoping Munaf would rush out to meet him. He had to be told Munaf can meet him only after training. "He has to recognise me; my village is just three kms from his. My dad was the sarpanch of the village, he will know his name," said Akshay, calling up Haroon to inform him that his Munna was bowling.
Akshay's day was made when the bowler responded. 'Munna, hoon Dora no chu (I am from Dora)," said Akshay, bringing a smile to Munaf's face.
They exchanged pleasantries and Akshay then passed Haroon's message that he should connect the phone when Munaf is around. During the exchange it was learnt Munaf's wife had been to Haroon's house a week ago. "We are proud of him. We have seen him in his struggling days when he used to work at a ceramic tiles factory, earning Rs90 per day as a contract labourer. He is a successful man now, but he has not forgotten his roots," said Akshay.