It’s March 2000. A lanky 19-year old walks out to bat at No. 6 for India. The city of Allahabad is overjoyed to see its son Mohammad Kaif make his Test debut. The script has begun to write itself.
2 years down the line comes the ODI call. This would be the format where he would go down in history as one of the finest fielders India ever produced. He made his ODI debut in January 2002. With a sword always hanging on his Test selection, he continued to excel in the blue jersey.
His dreams of whites could never really take off. The Test career spanned just six years and he played his last Test aged 25 in July 2006. Irony or paradox, what could it be? Clearly, we haven’t found an answer. Neither has Kaif himself. By his own admission in his retirement note, he regretted he had no one to sit him down and chart the path ahead.
He was shy, he was too reserved. He could not communicate enough. Little did he know this would cling on to him as a regret.
The ODI curtains fell in November 2006 too. What remains to be seen is, in the five years of his 125 one-day appearances, he had carved a bequest for himself.
The batsmen were in awe of the lean figure charging towards them from covers like a bolt of lightning and diving left, right and center to save a run, or to run them out. If he was in the outfield, an obvious double was cut down to one. If he stayed in the circle, the single never existed. And the ones who went wait for it paid for it. He along with Yuvraj Singh redefined India’s fielding ethos.
Ask Nick Knight who tried to sneak in a run in the 2003 ICC World Cup match with Kaif swooping down on the stumps, and was left flummoxed. Ask Paul Collingwood who tried to flick one past forward short leg but found himself caught in Kaif’s brilliance with the latter running him out in less than a second. Or ask Shoaib Malik who couldn’t believe his eyes when the fielder in discussion almost collided into Hemang Badani to take a blinder at mid-on.
What Sachin was to batting, Kaif was to fielding. The department of the game that was often undermined was brought alive by this man from UP. The impact this man had in world cricket due to his fielding was second to none. An Indian version of Jonty Rhodes, he saved almost 20 runs every time he stepped on to the field.
But there are achievements he could be way more than proud of. He was a part of India’s World Cup winning U-15 squad. In 2000, he led the U-19 India Team to their first ever World Cup title.
While we are going all gaga about his athleticism on the field, he was not a bunny with the bat either. Make no mistake. He could stand tall as anybody whenever the situation demanded, and his two centuries and 17 half-centuries in ODIs are a testimony to that.
What and when exactly went wrong with him is a story waiting to be told, maybe in his own words or maybe when somebody else puts a pen to paper. You don’t often see a batsman score an unbeaten 148 in the first Test of the series and being dropped for the next assignment, only to be never picked again. Actually, you never see.
And if there’s someone who disagrees that fairy tales are not written or do not exist, they might have to reconsider their thoughts. Rather, they should.
It was July 13th, 2018 a couple of days back. He called it a day from all forms of cricket.
Floating an emotional message on social media, he announced his retirement on the day he scripted history 16 years ago in 2002, the day he made the Indians believe that no situation is tough enough to not bounce back from, the day when India made a statement to the world. We are an aggressive bunch, and we are here to stay. Conquer us if you can. His unbeaten 75-ball 87 at Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket, in the NatWest Series final versus England remains India’s one of the sweetest and toughest victories ever, in any format against any opposition.
A country of 100 crores, India had a ritual of switching the TV sets off after Sachin Tendulkar got out. Those who still stayed glued to their sets witnessed an epic, those who had slept off woke up to frenzied images of Kaif and Yuvraj enveloped by a sea of blue, in TV and newspapers both.
THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE.
Surely, he was not a media superstar whose megawattage blinded a naked eye, nor was he a charmer that Yuvraj Singh was. He was in his own, an enthusiastic student of the game and all he knew was to radiate exuberance on the field and hugging everyone tightly whenever an opposition wicket fell, something that Suresh Raina imbibed later on.
Such a legacy has been left behind where every youngster diving on the turfs, in the maidans or the streets will be cheered and encouraged by his name for many years to come.
Hunched, collars upright, blowing the palms, taking a start from the 30-yard circle, and on to the ball in a flash! Been more than a decade witnessing this routine at the highest level, but the images are clearer than they ever were.
Thank you for the memories, Mohammad Kaif.