'It's very frustrating'

S. DINAKAR

HE is the finest wicket-keeper in the land - by a distance. Is a competent batsman too, and if merit alone is the yardstick, should walk into this Indian side.

-N. BALAJI

Yet, Nayan Mongia finds himself in the cold during the hot Indian summer. The Sportstar caught up with the Baroda stumper during the West-South Duleep Trophy encounter in Chennai.

Question: How much does it bother a player mentally, when he knows he's the best, but still gets overlooked by the selectors time and again?

Answer: It's very frustrating. I have been 'keeping well, making runs with the bat, yet it doesn't appear to be enough. What can I do. I have to keep performing. The selectors are the best judges.

Is motivating yourself in the often unrewarding domestic circuit a problem?

Yes, it's tough but I am willing to put in the hard work. I have fought several battles in my career. This is another one of them. One thing I have learnt is never to give up.

This suggests you see light at the end of the tunnel.

I do. The only reason I am playing cricket now is for my son Mohit. He is two and a half years old, and already understands a bit of cricket. I want him to see me wear the India cap again. I want to do it for him.

You must have been hopeful after India's series against England and Zimbabwe, where the quality of 'keeping for India was awful.

I was. I was myself in such good form with the gloves and the bat. I was looking forward to playing in the West Indies. To be frank with you, I was shattered when I got the news about me not being picked again. These are very difficult moments in a cricketer's career. The last two years have been bad for me. I want to forget them and get on with my life and career.

Nayan, which cricketer has been your inspiration during this demanding period?

Jimmy Amarnath. He made so many comebacks in his career, yet the fact was he should never have been dropped at any stage of his career. He was an exceptional batsman. I look at his career and I get inspired. I think there is a message for every cricketer in his career.

Your name figured in the match-fixing scandal and you were subsequently cleared. How was it emotionally when your integrity as a cricketer was questioned?

I was always confident that I would be cleared. I have done no wrong. My conscience is clean. Always gave my best for India, even when I 'kept with broken fingers. I think it was more difficult for my family members. They were under a lot of strain and stress for they really care for me. It was a mental torture for them. When you are a prominent India cricketer, when you are in the public glare, there is little you can do when allegations are made. My house was never raided, but it was wrongly reported that my house was raided. The damage was done though people learnt the truth later on.

What did the episode teach you?

It has made me stronger as an individual. I have come through the worst. I have learnt to judge people better. I want to thank my family for their support. They have been a pillar of strength for me. I can lean on them. I am also a great believer in God.

What is the most important lesson you have learnt from life?

I have learnt the hard way that it is very hard to find a true friend. Someone you can trust. I have also realised that your family members are the only ones you can depend on.

There is a feeling that some senior members of the Indian team do not want you in the side.

It's absolutely baseless. I have spoken to them on a personal basis and they have no problems with me. These malicious lies have been spread deliberately to harm my career. I never had any enemies in the Indian cricket team. I was liked, not disliked.

Your attitude was questioned in some quarters. The fact you wore a yellow helmet in the series against Australia and not the blue Indian one was cited as an example.

Again, it's absurd. I had played in the John Major benefit match in England and it was there that I first wore this yellow helmet. It fitted me perfectly. When I played in the series against Australia, I was on a comeback and the helmet that was given to me did not fit me properly. By the time of the third Test it was ready, but I couldn't play.

You missed the series decider at Chennai, and there are quite a few speculations about you not playing the game. Some say you passed the buck to the selectors - about your fitness - when it came to your selection in the eleven.

It's common knowledge that I was badly injured in the nose at Kolkata. I desperately wanted to play in Chennai, but I wasn't fit. Why should I not want to play when I was on a comeback? It just doesn't make sense. These things become issues in Nayan Mongia's case alone. What have I done to deserve this?

The chairman of the selection panel Chandu Borde has held your age against you.

From my side I can say that I am extremely fit. I train hard. At 31, I am not too old either. I have at least four more years of top-level cricket left in me. I don't want to question what Mr. Borde said. As a senior selector he has every right to air his views. I am only trying to clear doubts about my fitness if there are any. I can assure the selection panel that I will be as fit if not fitter than anybody else in the side. Fitness is what matters.

What's the secret of good 'keeping?

A lot of people talk about catches being taken or dropped. It's not just that. It's more about how you actually collect a ball. At the end of the day we must see how many deliveries a 'keeper has gathered cleanly. His movement, his anticipation, his reflexes can be judged through this.

Syed Kirmani said some time ago, that 'keepers are born, not made.

I agree with him completely. It is a specialist job and calls for some very specific qualities. Yes, good 'keepers are born.

Your 'keeping to the spinners, the true test for any 'keeper, has invariably been impeccable. Kumble and Harbhajan can be a challenge for any 'keeper.

It is a challenge, but I understand them so well that I can predict correctly what their next delivery would be. Kumble is quicker in the air, and the ball hurries after pitching, and on pitches of uneven bounce, a 'keeper has to be technically good to 'keep wickets to him. Harbhajan has a high-arm action, has the variations, and achieves good bounce. Actually, I enjoy 'keeping to them.

Any particular dismissal you would like to remember Nayan?

Azhar Mahmood in the '99 World Cup. The ball was really travelling and I took a reflex catch. It was voted the Catch of the World Cup. I was 'keeping with a broken finger in the tournament.

Such memories should act as a tonic during your comeback bid.

They sure do. I am confident. There are ups and downs in a cricketer's career. God willing, I will be back again.