Sitanshu Kotak retires

Sitanshu Kotak, the stonewalling genius of the Saurashtra Ranji team, has called it a day at the age of 41. Haresh Pandya takes a look at the unusual career of this southpaw.

Bowlers across the country will heave a sigh of relief now that Sitanshu Kotak has called it a day. At last! No, he did not bludgeon them into submission with explosive batting. Rather he frustrated them for nearly two decades with a rare kind of stoicism at the wicket in first-class cricket in India.

“I know I’m still fit and capable of playing at first-class level for a couple of years more. But I’ve had enough and now is the time to make room for youngsters,” said Kotak, who turned 41 on October 19.

In a marathon first-class career that began in 1992-1993, the Rajkot-born southpaw was the mainstay of the lowly Saurashtra’s fragile batting until the advent of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja. Kotak, who often had to rescue his team after the fall of a couple of early wickets, excelled in the role of a sheet anchor.

Art, elegance and a bit of flamboyance are usually associated with accomplished left-hand batsmen. Kotak was endowed with none of these qualities and his repertoire of shots was also very limited. But he compensated magnificently with other virtues not many possess. Kotak’s concentration was strong, confidence fiery, resolve steely and appetite for runs insatiable.

No bowlers, fast or spin, could perturb Kotak when he was determined to grind them into the dust. Spectators often felt as if being subjected to a Chinese torture when he was in such a mood. Kotak, who would put a dead bat to everything hurled at him, tended to give the impression of being somewhere between Geoffrey Boycott and Chris Tavare.

This approach was commendable, particularly when Saurashtra needed such tactics, like his famous tour de force, a monumental 168 not out in 796 minutes and 543 balls, which “killed” Mumbai, according to Amol Muzumdar, in a crucial Super League match in 2007-08. But Kotak’s stonewalling acts had become so frequent, even on wickets tailor-made for batting and against spineless bowling, that sometimes it smacked of a bit of selfishness.

“I wasn’t unaware of how people reacted to my batting. But I was never bothered about it. In a team sport like cricket, you’ve to play according to the situation, not according to how the people or some critics want you to play,” he defended himself. “I had to drop anchor against Mumbai because I knew that even a draw would take Saurashtra to the final.”

The left-hander, who said he was “hardly off colour in any first-class or one-day match” against Mumbai almost throughout his career, was expected to essay a typical, long and big Kotak innings against his “favourite opponent” in the last Ranji Trophy final, especially when both Pujara and Jadeja were with Team India. But all he managed were 14 (128 minutes, 66 balls) and 0 (2 minutes, 3 balls) and Saurashtra lost by 125 runs within three days.

Kotak idolises Sachin Tendulkar.-

“It was the biggest match of my life as I had never played in any Ranji Trophy final. I was very confident and determined to play a big innings and try to win the final for Saurashtra. But I let my team down by failing in both the innings. I still feel that we squandered a golden opportunity,” he lamented.

Kotak, who had played a string of important innings, not only for Saurashtra but also for the West Zone in Duleep, Deodhar and other major tournaments, singled out his 118 (384 minutes, 302 balls) in his only Irani Cup match, for the Rest of India versus Karnataka in Bangalore in 1999, as the “best ever” of his career. “I was personally very happy and satisfied playing that innings. The wicket was green and the Karnataka attack was in the capable hands of Javagal Srinath, Dodda Ganesh and Anil Kumble,” he said.

Surprisingly, the national selectors never considered Kotak good enough to represent India. The closest he came to it was in 1999, when the India ‘A’ team was being selected for the West Indies tour. At a press conference in Ahmedabad, the then chairman of selectors Chandu Borde said, in response to this correspondent’s question about the southpaw’s omission: “I’m told Kotak is 32 and we’re looking for youngsters.” The fact was Kotak was only 27 at the time. He was later sent to the Caribbean as a replacement for an injured player; but it was too late by then.

“I’ve absolutely no complaints, no regrets. The selectors must have their own game plans and strategies and might have found me unfit in their scheme of things. Maybe there was no place for someone like me in the Indian team, which was packed with batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman in the middle-order,” he said a bit diplomatically.

The one player Kotak continues to admire since his own early days in cricket is Tendulkar. “What can I say about him? Not only his game but his whole career and overall conduct are a lesson to all young cricketers, not just budding ones. One can learn so much by observing him, by talking to him, or rather by listening to him, and following his advice and tips,” said the veteran Saurashtra bat.

“In 2010, my English club Kenilworth Wardens was marking my 15th year and wanted my photograph with him for the benefit brochure. So I just sent an SMS to him with a request. To my surprise, he reverted and asked me where I was. On being told I was in Chembur, he suggested I wait for him under the Chembur Bridge as he was on his way to Pune. Not only did he come there, he took a photograph with me and also gave me his autographed T-shirt, cap and a pair of gloves for the benefit auction. And to think we’ve just been fellow cricketers, not even friends!”