Fond memories of adelaide

A golden moment for Ajit Agarkar as he poses with the legend, Sachin Tendulkar,and the Ranji Trophy. Agarkar was the Mumbai captain as the team triumphed last season.-VIVEK BENDRE

“Cricket is played differently because of the amount of one-day and Twenty20 cricket that’s come into the picture. The mindset has completely changed,” Ajit Agarkar tells G. Viswanath.

Ajit Agarkar has called it quits at the right time. He led Mumbai to its 40th Ranji Trophy title in the last season. And the day the Mumbai selectors met to pick the team for the first Ranji Trophy match against Haryana this season, the 35-year-old said he was finding it difficult to push himself hard to be fit and retired from all forms of the game. Raised at Shivaji Park as a batsman, Agarkar made an impact as a seamer, largely excelled in limited-overs games and to an extent in Test match cricket.

Recalling his nascent days in cricket Agarkar said: “Ramakant Achrekar was not the greatest of coaches in the world, but he did the basics right which is so important. I mean he made us play seven games a week. Sometimes my parents found this ridiculous. Once he came home four days before my X Std. exams to take me for practice. My mother said that’s enough and it was time to study. But he said he would make me bat in one of the nets and drop me back. You don’t see this kind of commitment and work ethics. Once when I was in school he told me “There will be time to rest and this is not the time to rest. If I rest now, I will be resting for the rest of my life.”

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: How would you like to sum up your long career?

Answer: I am very happy. It’s not been easy as a fast bowler to have lasted for so many years in India. You could have easily fractured the back in the first year of your career and that could have been the end. In that sense I have been fortunate, I did not have a major injury. I worked my guts out. Yes, I am very satisfied. I got close to 350 international wickets. If someone had told me at the start that I would get there, I would have signed up then and there. In hindsight one would have liked to have done certain things differently. While growing up, your dream is to play one match for India. I was part of an era when six greats actually played the game (laughs) for India: Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh… they are the true Indian greats and also Sourav (Ganguly), who played over 100 Tests with many successes and V. V. S. Laxman. Rahul and Kumble were real greats, they were overshadowed by Sachin. Rahul in another era, perhaps, would have been the greatest…Anil took 619 Test wickets and 337 ODI wickets. That says it all.

The way you started in the ODIs, you may have nursed an ambition to play just as well in Test cricket?

That’s what I was referring to as looking at certain things in hindsight….I was 28 when I played my last Test (against Pakistan, Gaddafi Stadium in January 2006). I suppose that’s the time one gets to know how to bowl in Test cricket. That was my last Test. I could have bagged a few more Test wickets, there’s no doubt about that. It bugged me for a while, but not really. I mean, I tried my best whenever I played. It’s not that I was found out for lack of trying, sometimes it did not go my way. When I was bowling well I did not play for a stretch because of injury or something else. It took me a bit of time to know my body and also how to bowl in Test cricket. But after I came to know about all this, I did not play another Test. It was all a question of fitness, not lack of ability. When I came in at 1998, Andrew Kokinos was there; but it was only in 2003 or 2004, everyone started coming in as part of the support staff.

Agarkar celebrates his six for 41 with captain Sourav Ganguly on the fourth day of the second Test against Australia at the Adelaide Oval on December 15, 2003.-V.V. KRISHNAN

You tried a lot of things to get wickets; maybe accuracy was not your forte?

I became smarter in the later stages of my career. I could control it a bit more. But I always had the ability to pick wickets and to end up with an economy of 5 in 191 ODIs is not too bad.

Ashish Nehra was probably like you…had fitness issues and ended with figures somewhat like yours?

He had a complicated action and it was really tough on his body. I am not trying to compare, but Zak (Zaheer Khan) too, began to be exceptional in the last seven years. You learn a lot as you grow older. I learned to pace myself in the Ranji Trophy, which is no comparison with international cricket. Srinath was initially a tearaway, he became much smarter later.

How would you compare, Zaheer, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad?

I did not play many Test matches with Venky. He had a great action with super skill. When I played with him I think he had lost a little bit of that because of his shoulder. I have not seen him at his best. Srinath had the special ability; as time went on he got a lot more control over his bowling. He had a massive inswinger and bounce. When I played with him he had already matured, more so in Test cricket. He could not get the outswinger going; he could keep it straight. He had a massive shoulder injury; he worked really hard to come back from that. Wasim (Akram), when he was with KKR, used to say that Srinath could have done a lot more.

I think with Zak, his stint with Worcestershire changed his outlook towards bowling. I think he found his trigger in that county season. He bowled so many overs and actually started taking the ball away from the right hander. He worked out his bowling. I hope he gets to the 300 Test-wicket mark. He is most deserving; he’s been such a match-winner in recent times.

Which was your best phase, perhaps in Australia ?

I really bowled well in Australia in 1999. It got overshadowed by the zeros with the bat; I got 11 wickets in the first two Tests. The funny thing is I have played two Tests and one ODI in Sydney and don’t have a single wicket there. On the next tour, I got 16 wickets and Adelaide has to be the best (six for 41) because India won the Test match. Also the Leeds Test; I got Michael Vaughan in both innings. I have been trying to get the videos of that bowling from ESPN. Even in the home series we won 2-1 against Australia, I was bowling well. I came out of a Challenger series in Chennai, and I was bowling well actually. But I fell sick after the Mumbai Test and missed the next two Tests.

So the six for 41 in Adelaide is the best?

After what happened in 1999, 2003-04 made it sweeter. Sachin, Rahul, Laxman and Anil were there in 1999 and to go back and win a Test in 2003-04 was unimaginable.

Though having a slight frame, you surprised batsmen with the ability to generate speed…

Sanjay Manjrekar... Agarkar's mentor in the Mumbai team.-V.V. SUBRAMANIUM

I did not have too much of a mixed action. I did not have a perfect action though. But I really had a fast arm speed; so that generated all the speed really. I did not lift too many weights or spend time in the gym for hours when I first played. Everything was so natural. I did not have coaching, bowling-wise, I was a batsman growing up and I did not have any pressure growing up as a bowler.

What about the Lord’s hundred in 2002? Raj Singh Dungarpur urged you to go for it?

Yes, Raj Singh had flown in that morning only and told me near the members’ pavilion, “Beta, get a hundred and become a batsman.” Apparently, he ran into the dressing room when I got a hundred; he was not allowed to enter the dressing room. This is what Rahul told me: He (Raj Singh) came running into dressing room and said: “I told him, I told him.”

Perhaps you could have done a little more as a batsman?

This is what hurts me. I was crucified for not scoring runs. It was unfair. I never came into the team as an all-rounder. I was picked as a bowler. Just because I got a few runs here and there, they were after me. Bowling took so much out of me and batting took the back seat. I accept the argument that I could have done a bit more with the bat, but not as a specialist batsman. But it was difficult to focus on batting and if I did not bowl well, I was going to be out of the team. The first priority was to get my bowling right.

You were at most times on top of your fielding?

I enjoyed fielding. Ramakant Achrekar sir gave us fielding practice on Sundays at the Shivaji Park ground…and he really smashed it (ball). We were scared of the ball on the bumpy outfield. Suddenly it clicked and I enjoyed it. I am glad I did. I always had a decent arm. I took a catch off Kambli in the first Challenger; it’s probably one of the toughest catches I have held. It was right on the line on the long on boundary. It’s some of these things you do that brings in the confidence.

You have had an exceptional time with Mumbai, especially against Delhi?

We grew up knowing them as a grudge matches. Sanjay (Manjrekar) was the biggest influence in my career. The things that I learnt from him in the first couple of years, the way one played in international cricket, the way one led the team and approached a game, it just rubbed off on me. To win a Ranji Trophy title in your first season was a great feeling. There were so many top performers in the team. Jatin (Paranjape) had a massive season that year; there was Paras (Mhambrey), Abey (Kuruvilla), Amol (Muzumdar) and Sairaj (Bahutule). We were stuck in so many games and Sairaj rescued us. It just rubbed off on us after seeing guys do it day in and day out. It’s such fun to be in a Mumbai dressing room.

How much has the game changed from 1998…Mumbai cricket and Indian?

The change has been massive. Cricket is played differently because of the amount of one-day and Twenty20 cricket that’s come into the picture. The mindset has completely changed. I played a Times of India Shield match some time back and one could see everyone coming smashing. This used to happen before, but batsmen also cared to get a hundred and a double. They don’t care for it anymore. It does not bother people getting out at 85; maybe it has to do with the fearless attitude or Twenty20 cricket or whatever. But what great shot making ability? Even a bowler shows that kind of ability…today all of them smash the ball anyway. It’s a good thing. Someone like me who grew up playing the game in a traditional and conventional manner, I can see how it has changed. You don’t see the double and 250s any more. Maybe Cheteshwar Pujara is the exception. I think we in Mumbai should hang on to that traditional cricket; it’s still there. I won’t blame anyone, the generation of cricketers have changed.

So what will be the dressing room like, Mumbai and Indian, without Sachin Tendulkar?

Sachin played the first Ranji match and three knock-out matches last season. It would remain as a nice memory. Well, I have happy memories of sharing the dressing room with him. He has been a great friend. We have spent so much time when we were playing for India. Last year it was a bonus that he turned out for all three knock-out matches. I actually asked him if he was serious about playing at the Palam ground (against Services) and he said he would indeed come and play at Palam. He got a fifty and tried to slog the left-arm spinner and got out. Well, for cricketers like Surya Yadav and Vishal Dabholkar... it must have been a terrific feeling to be part of the same dressing room. One game with Tendulkar before he finishes would be great for any youngster. I think he will put his feet up for a while; he has so much pains and aches in spite of being a batsman. I don’t think there is a part in his body that does not hurt.