“Jab tak balla chal raha ha thaat hai, jab balla nahi chalega to…..” (As long as you are performing you are king, the day your performance declines you’re forgotten). These are the words uttered by an emotional Yuvraj Singh in a TV advert signifying the importance of consistency and the challenges of being a cricketer, which is a tough profession, especially in India. The game can rocket you up to great heights but it can also thump you down with almost double the amount of force.
After experiencing the latter, many give up and few survive. Warriors possess nerves of steel, and the few survivors are the intrepid warriors who march on irrespective of the hurdles in their paths. One such name in the Warriors’ list is Ajit Balchandra Agarkar.
On 28th January, 2013, the moment Dhawal Kulkarni scalped Dharmendra Jadeja caught behind, a happy but relieved Agarkar raced from mid off and uprooted the stumps in jubilation. Naturally a calm and composed personality, these were surprising scenes as he let his emotions flow after the fantastic win. There was a palpable sense of joy and relief as he led Mumbai to a record 40th Ranji title in his debut season as captain, his 18th year in first-class cricket. The victory was all the more sweet as he led from the front and was instrumental in powering Mumbai to the title with his ambidextrous all-round efforts at crucial junctures. He was the one who started off the demolition process in the second innings in the final and along with Dhawal Kulkarni bundled out Saurashtra for a paltry 82 courtesy of some spectacular piece of swing bowling.
If you step into Agarkar’s shoes for a moment, you will feel a tinge of pain but also immense satisfaction. The man has borne it all, from being the heart of Indian pace bowling attack to being consistently in and out of the team and finally ignored for national team selection since six years now. From being labeled with funny nicknames to being dropped from the Mumbai side for no reason. From constantly hogging the limelight to being completely lost in oblivion. Agarkar has seen it all but that hasn’t deterred his passion and commitment for cricket any bit.
The metamorphosis of Agarkar from a 20-year old cat-eyed, lanky fast bowler who stormed onto the international scene and rode the crest of wave as he snapped the opposition batsmen’s spine with the 90 mph swinging rockets to a mature captain who led Mumbai to its 40th Ranji title has been fascinating. There is no shortage of commitment at any stage of his career. He has fought at each and every step. He leapfrogged Dennis Lillee as the fastest to 50 wickets in ODIs, was one of the best outfielders in the world, became the heart of the Indian bowling line-up and was soon termed the next Kapil Dev following his heroics with the bat too. But in a dramatic turn of events there was a sudden loss of confidence. Five ducks in a row against Australia on the 1999 tour earned him the sobriquet of “Bombay Duck.” Another two ducks against the same opposition at home after two years and he seemed to have lost it all. But he rose from the ashes and answered his critics in a blistering fashion.
Mention Adelaide to any Indian fan and he will quickly pounce upon the name Ajit Agarkar and the figures 6/41. Well, who can forget that windy morning in Adelaide when Agarkar wreaked havoc to bundle out Australia for 196 and set up a historic win for the visitors, their first on the Australian soil in 22 years. Mention Lord’s and suddenly an eternal trivia question pops up: “What does Agarkar possess that Tendulkar doesn’t in international cricket?” A surprising but splendid 109 in the 1st Test at Lord’s in 2002 coming in at no. 8 brought about some respectability to the loss after India were struggling at 170/6 chasing 568. He bravely raised his bat acknowledging the sarcastic cheers from the Brisbane crowd as he completed a run against Australia following the horrific seven-consecutive-ducks episode. A scintillating 95 against the Windies coming in as a pinch-hitter at no. 3 at Jamshedpur and a career best 6/42 against Australia in the Melbourne ODI had just about completed the resurrection process.
Sadly, inconsistency turned out to be his biggest enemy. Apart from the two long-hops/ half-trackers per over, he was a no nonsense personality. He was capable of producing moments of brilliance from nowhere but not consistently.
Beaten, well left, beaten, beauty (possibly a wicket), FOUR (thumped), FOUR( punished) the ball by ball commentary read, probably with random sequencing of the deliveries in every over. He was a part of the World Cup winning T20 squad in 2007 but thereafter, he fell out of favour. His international career came to a standstill.
It’s been six years since he last made an appearance in the international arena. But unlike many others, he has refused to quit. In arduous conditions where it is difficult to survive as a fast bowler on the Indian domestic circuit, especially with the placid wickets on display, he has roared like a lion and given his 100% to the Mumbai side every time he has stepped onto the field. He might not have been prolific but he has been consistent throughout so far. For a champion side like Mumbai, anything less than a title is a failure and after a two-year barren run, Agarkar was instrumental in helping them clinch the 40th title. A magnificent 145 against Services at Palam dragged Mumbai out of inertia in the semi-finals and set the tone for the finals where he scalped four wickets at his home ground to demolish Saurashtra. Mumbai last won the Ranji title in 2009/10 and it was none other than Agarkar who was again instrumental in helping them win the title with a crucial spell of 5/81 in the second innings against Karnataka at Mysore in a gripping finale, a game which Mumbai won by a narrow margin of 6 runs.
After last year’s debacle where he staged a walkout halfway through the campaign in Cuttack after being informed just the previous night that he wouldn’t be a part of the team against Orissa, Agarkar hit back in the best possible manner and silenced his detractors by helping Mumbai break the two-year trophy drought. Tendulkar was quick to applaud Agarkar’s efforts after the Ranji final, “I feel especially happy for Ajit Agarkar, who had a rough season last year, it was fairly difficult for him, all the more reason to be excited. He has led from the front, and led beautifully, performed when it mattered.” And Aakash Chopra’s tweet summed it up nicely
People in Mumbai who had mistreated Agarkar last season must have had their mouth and stomach full…by eating their words
— Aakash Chopra (@cricketaakash) January 29, 2013
It’s been one helluva ride for Agarkar, 288 wickets for India in ODIs (third-highest for India, even above Zaheer Khan), 7 Ranji titles, name etched on the Lord’s honour board, fastest half-century by an Indian in ODIs and so on.
Every time I see Agarkar step onto the field, my mind wriggles between transcendence and heartbreak. A very good talent that went half-utilized. He is still hopeful of a comeback to the Indian team but at the age of 35, even he knows it’s only a pipe-dream at the back of his mind. Despite his absence from the international arena for the past six years he still has a special place in the hearts of every Indian fan. His charm and commitment makes you gravitate towards this champ. A childhood hero of many, a slim, lanky, cat-eyed bowler whom we all used to imitate in our early days. It’s his 19th year in domestic cricket, the chances of a comeback might have diminished, the hopes might have died, but our Warrior marches on and the passion, dedication and determination has just sky-rocketed one notch further.