"Ikhar?" "Woh toh Munaf Patel ka gaon hai." (It is Munaf Patel's village). My autorickshawala Ajay remarks on this fact while striking a deal to take me from Bharuch to Ikhar and back in one day. "You are not the first one," he adds. "Once Yusuf Pathan (Irfan's brother) hired my rickshaw to Ikhar. He went to meet Munaf."
Well, I guess, it is a good way to start my visit, to travel in the rickshaw graced by Yusuf.
Ikhar is about 30 minutes drive from Bharuch. The first impression is that it is smaller and more isolated than I expected. Almost like it is frozen in time.
And it being the month of Ramzan when I travelled last fortnight, most of the villagers - predominantly Muslim - are asleep. They are fasting and are tired after getting up at 3am to pray.
The streets are deserted but I approach a couple of elderly villagers sitting near a paan shop and ask for Haroon Handi, the captain under whom Munaf started playing cricket. They point to a nearby house.
I get down from the rickshaw, walk up to it and knock. My endeavor to discover Munaf Patel, the person, had begun.
Munaf on fire
Just a day before I went to Ikhar, Munaf had bowled with fire in the second innings of the Irani Trophy game in Rajkot. He had picked up five wickets, leading the Rest of India to a win over Ranji champions Mumbai.
In the first innings, however, he was not a patch on himself. He bowled insipidly. He picked up arguments with the fielders when he thought they could have been faster. He looked a harmless medium pacer at best.
And then suddenly, he came back a different man. He began bowling aggressively. He glared at the batsmen, even got talking with them. I don't think he was asking after their health. He got them out.
And after the win, he refused to speak to the media. He stayed put inside the dressing room, refusing to even come out. Just three days before that, he had told a national television channel about how he was unjustly left out of the T20 World Championship and the series against Australia.
There was something going on in Munaf's mind. Was he always like this? I was asked to find out. So here I was, in Ikhar, to try and meet people who would know Munaf better.
And Haroon Handi was the first I wanted to meet.
Haroon, captain of the Golden Cricket Club, is not home. "He is in the bunker," says a youngster from the neighbourhood.
Bunker is what they call Haroon's ancestral house. Now, nobody stays there but the captain and his friends, including Munaf, hang out here watching TV or talking shop.
I had to climb creaky wooden stair to enter a room with a low roof. Munaf is 6 feet 4 inches tall. He has to be crouching when he's here.
Haroon, strapping and strikingly handsome at 31, is woken up. He doesn't seem to mind. "Munaf was my younger brother's friend," he begins. "One day, my brother brought him to me and told me that he could bowl. I saw him bowl and knew he was talented. Even at 16, he could bowl fast."
There's a pause here. "But his father would not let him join the team. The family was impoverished and he wanted Munaf to take up farming instead. It took a lot of convincing to make him understand."
Munaf, the man
"Munaf was very aggressive on the field," says Haroon. "He did not like being hit for runs and would shout at fielders if they dropped a catch." That sounds familiar. "But he would be the first person to apologise later," Haroon adds.
Haroon is somebody Munaf looked up to. He says Munaf used to take things too casually and so, he would shout at him to make him obey.
"Once, he was selected for the district team after attending trials for only 10 days. We were to play Kheda the next day and supposed to leave for there by 2pm. Munaf suddenly went missing. An hour's search later, he was found hiding in the fields, clutching his cricket kit. His father had asked him not to play."
"He was scared I would shout at him. I asked him to play just one match and then take a call." Munaf took seven wickets against Kheda. His father agreed to let him play.
Munaf off the field, says Haroon, is a different man. He is fun loving and uncomplaining. "During his first match for my club, I suddenly asked him to bat at No.3. He smashed 56. But whenever the ball was bowled on his body he would try to get away. I forgot to wear the abdomen guard," he told me later.A 'rustic' and his family
After his recent outburst in the media, a lot has been made about Munaf's background contributing. "It's just a lack of education," says Haroon. "If he was well educated, he would have known what to say and how to say things. But he has improved a lot."
There's another pause and then he mentions that Munaf did not like spending time at house as a boy. "A lot of people stayed together in his house, many relatives. But apart from his father, nobody bothered about where he slept or ate. He would always be with my brother, even at night, even while praying."
Haroon says Munaf had no interest other than cricket. "Even when we watched TV in the Bunker, he would sit with his back to the set and chat with us."
Memories of childhood
Sadik Hayat and Munaf met in Class III in the village school. "We were 8-year-olds then," says Sadik. Sadik, Munaf and Munaf Handi (Haroon's younger brother) were always together, a mischievous trio.
"We were notorious," says Sadik. "If somebody left a cycle unlocked, we would take it and ride around for hours and then leave where we found it. If we found cattle on the school ground, Munaf and I would throw stones at it and lead it to some unknown place while the owner searched a long time for it."
School held little attraction for the trio. "We used to steal mangoes from one of the trees over there," Sadik points to the spot. "We were caught once. Munaf pleaded our case and then we thankfully fled."
"We would eat, sleep and play together," says Sadik smiling. "We had nothing serious to do, so we played cricket for the most and troubled the villagers… even now, whenever Munaf comes home, the first thing he does is send somebody to fetch me."
Tu kal chala jaayega…
Ikhar is largely a village of not too well to do cotton farmers. Many families have at least one member working abroad, mainly in countries in Africa and Europe. Many youngsters from here work as shopkeepers in African countries like Zambia and Mozambique to supplement their family's income.
Munaf Handi, too, left for Africa four years ago.
Says Sadik: "The night before he left, we three got together and spent the whole night chatting. Munaf and I sang him that song from the movie Naam…Tu kal chala jaaeyega toh main kya karunga…"
Munaf too was set to go to Africa. "His father even sold some land to send him there. But a month-and-a-half before he was to leave, his father changed his mind and allowed Munaf to pursue cricket."
Sadik, remembering, suddenly switches to another quaint Munaf anecdote. "There are qawwals here who sing and ask for money. A young Munaf would ask them to sing songs for him. Later, he would borrow their dhols, beat on them and sing. He would announce that as he sang as well as they did, he would, of course, not pay." Those once furious qawwals have now composed songs in praise of the fast bowler who made their village famous.
Munaf incidentally, will also be separated from his remaining friend. Sadik is all set to go to Africa. "I am just waiting for my papers. Munaf Handi has arranged a job in a shop for me." And then he adds, a tad forlorn. "Not much can be earned through farming here. Munaf is lucky he doesn't have to go anywhere."
Munaf, by every account, was always very generous. "If anybody asked for money he would give them whatever he had in his pocket," says Sadik.
Not many know that after quitting school, Munaf worked in a local ceramic tile factory for about Rs 1,200 a month. "We had to stand near the kiln and watch the line of tiles. If any were damaged, we would take it away," says Sadik. They both worked there for three months.
"And knowing Munaf's generous nature, every pay day, people would ask for money. And he would give them 20 or 50 rupees without giving it a thought."
Fame hasn't changed him. Munaf's former teacher at MM high school, Yunus Chahadat, says, "He recently gave one poor person Rs 70,000. He has always been like that. He also gave a labourer Rs 500 just because he said salaam Munaf bhai."
A teacher's account
According to Chahadat, Munaf was always very religious. "He has great belief in Godand this has helped him get wherever he has." And then he adds, "he was never a good student, he always wanted to play cricket."
They initially tried to dissuade him from playing cricket but gave up after they saw his talent. There's a smile again. "Even now, when he comes to Ikhar, he doesn't behave like an international cricketer."
"He hasn't changed one bit. He still never sits in front of me out of respect and still roams the alleys here talking to kids and giving them bats and balls and whatever he can."
"Earlier, the villagers pooled in to pay Munaf's coaching fee and all that. Now, Munaf is giving money to the villagers."
Ikhar, Munaf, the future…
Ikhar is hardly a place where an international cricketer can train properly. It is made up of a couple of mosques, madrasas and a small school surrounded by houses and a ground with overgrown grass.
Yet, Munaf wants to stay in Ikhar, says Chhadat. "He has been planning to buy a bigger house around here. We want him to stay in Baroda though, so he can train properly… but he is unlikely to change his mind. He will stay here. He is very stubborn."
Many will want him to. Mohammed, a Class V student, is playing with a rubber ball in the school ground where Munaf played most of his cricket. "Munaf bhai aayenge toh saath mein khelenge (when Munaf comes we will play together)," he says happily.
Munaf in Ikhar is not a star, he is just one of them.
Once you have been to Ikhar, it is easier to understand Munaf Patel. He is one of a kind. A son of a poor farmer from a nondescript village makes it to the Indian cricket team. It is surreal.
Despite all the success, one cannot take Ikhar out of Munaf. And the three people met in the village said as much. "He is not exactly what you see on TV."
Yet, when Munaf takes his mark at the bowling run-up, he is aggressive, passionate and wants to win matches. The 7,000 people in Ikhar want him to keep doing that.