Since last two decades the one name that has consistently appeared on Saurashtra’s scorecard is Shitanshu Kotak. With more than 8,000 First-Class runs, he has been a workhorse for the team. Despite missing an India cap, Kotak has gone ahead to play the game with determination. The veteran cricketer is set to retire after the first game against Rajasthan in the Ranji season. The gritty cricketer speaks to CricketCountry’s Abhijit Banare on his retirement, the long career and experience as a coach.
CricketCountry (CC): You took the decision ahead of the season. Was it something you had planned after the Saurashtra final or assessed the situation ahead of the season?
Shitanshu Kotak (SK): I was thinking last year also. I felt personally final was too big a game. And if I start thinking about retirement the focus would have been diverted. I had already discussed it with my family and Niranjan Shah last year. I was thinking anyway that it is time now. Two-three matches here and there wouldn’t have made a huge difference. It was nice of the Saurashtra board and Niranjan Shah to discuss with me regarding my plans. We decided that I will play a game. It is all as per we discussed. It was no point to go on and let people say ‘yeh kab chodega’ (When will he leave).
CC: With such a long career, how did you maintain your fitness and how did you recover from injuries?
SK: I get lot of time during off-season when I go to England and work on fitness. We play two games a week in the evening, some T20 games and use rest of the time for keeping the body tuned. It helps when you come back to in India as well. Because here you don’t get much time as you are playing continuously. We do try to spend some time with fitness here but there’s not much time to work on strengthening. As the game changed we know importance of fitness.
I have been literally playing throughout the year since past two decades. Only once I stopped somewhere around 2001 due to a knee injury, and that is the only time I missed three-four matches. Even in that year I travelled to England. Playing in England for four months worked out well for my schedule. The environment is much better there. As the game changed we understood how important fitness was. There was a lot to learn from players around you, meeting physios. The knee injury was a wake-up call in my career. I think upto certain age natural fitness helps, but after that due to wear & tear in the schedule we have injuries are prone to come.
In fact there are two things which I feel helped me a lot a) Playing for Bharat petroleum b) The experience in England. For BPCL we had to travel a lot throughout India for competitive games, and that kept me on my toes. Obviously in England, the wickets are different and the time spent there for few months since last 19 years made a huge difference in such a long career.
CC: As far as your style of batting is concerned, it’s best suited for the longest format of the game which requires you to stick to your wicket with patience and determination. How did this style and approach towards the game evolve?
SK: Early on in my career I wasn’t that aggressive but I used to go for my shots more often as I wanted to get established in First-Class cricket. Eventually I realised I can’t be the same, the batting needs to be according to needs of the situation. Yet my approach to a One-Day game has been structured differently than my four-day game.
In terms of aggressiveness there is one thing in people’s mind; if you hit a six and play out the rest of the balls for no runs people will consider you aggressive. Yet if you score six singles in an over and strike-rate is 100 people will say you are not a stroke player. I am used to play a game where if you need 30 from 40 balls, I will use 30 balls to get to the target and win with just about two overs to spare. I will ensure that there is no twist or turn by giving a wicket with a rash shot. In my one-day career I have still been good averaging around 42. The year we won the Ranji All India Championship I averaged around 70. I am more calculative and will prefer to play according to the situation than go for my strokes.
CC: So how do you look at the contrasting batting style that Twenty20 cricket has brought in to the mix? What do you say to youngsters in the team if they start chasing aggressiveness?
SK: Definitely. The mindset and the way players set their innings have changed a lot. Everybody now tries and plays their shots. They love to be perceived as aggressive so that the Indian Premier League (IPL) opportunities open up. They are at a high risk of ruining their career. I don’t blame them. Considering the money involved, they are bound to get attracted. But a good player will still have immense focus to understand the nature of the game and balance his game differently for a one-day game, T20 and a Test.
I do speak to teammates about planning an innings but I prefer not to suggest any change in the batting style because there some instincts involved in every batsman’s mind, there is a game plan which should not be altered. Unless you are a coach, I think you should only try and help them than try to bring a change in them. There is a thin line between talking to them and bringing a change. As a batsman you just share your experience and let them decide what the best balance is for them.
CC: Looking back about your cricketing career, when did you take up the game and how did the early stages come about? Who were you coaches and whom did you look up to then?
SK: I started playing when I was 13. Though I loved the game, I was not a natural cricketer. I worked hard and only thing I thought then was to play for India. Since I started practicing we trained under Mahendra Rajdev who himself was a Ranji Player. He is the one who taught me to keep my wicket intact. (Mahendra Rajdev played 46 First-Class games for Saurashtra from 1966-1980)
During my career ever since I came in contact with Niranjan Shah, he has been a supportive person as well. When I was young I loved watching Mohinder Amarnath and Kapil Dev bat. During my Under 19’s Amarnath was an inspiration. And since the First-Class career progressed, Sachin Tendulkar was a great example to learn from. The way he reads and understands the game, the way he keeps improving, you realise there is a lot to learn.
CC: How did your stint with England club Kenilworth Warden begin?
SK: The first time I went to England was in 1994 with a touring team from Bhavnagar during my Under-19 days which included few Saurashtra players. That was my first experience with Kenilworth Wardens and since then I haven’t changed my club. Since then I have not changed my club. It’s a tough condition for batsmen, but I learnt how to deal with swing bowlers. I learnt to take responsibility because they expect professional players to perform well. I stayed back for longer time when I first played. I stayed with an Indian family who introduced me to the club, thanks to them I could manage for so long.
CC: As your career progressed you were close to earning the India cap. Can you take us through how those years unfolded?
SK: It was in 1998-99. I was only 27 and it was my prime time. I had scored over 800 in Ranji, a century in Deodhar and Duleep Trophy. I came back from England in September and in the first week of October I was selected for Rest of India team and even scored a ton under seaming conditions. The team for India’s tour to Australia was about to be selected. Hence they had kept a green wicket for the Irani Trophy match. T Kumaran got nine wickets in two innings then and was selected. But I didn’t get much neither for India nor for India A series against West Indies. But in my two decades of career it was my best season in terms of performance.
CC: So how did you continue from there? What kept you motivated?
SK: By the time I was 30, they stopped picking me for Zonals. And then I realised that the India chances are slowly fading. I was trying every year and performing, they gave chance to younger players. But I had pride to play the game and always wanted Saurashtra to win. Hence I though you may not pick me but I can still perform. I kept working hard. Not playing for India wasn’t going to end my cricketing career. Just because few people think at the age of 30 I can’t play anymore, it didn’t matter, I was determined to go on. Luckily after 2003-04 it was financially better as well.
CC: Do you feel that India is not receptive to the idea of drafting experienced players unlike an Australia where Michael Hussey could make a mark despite starting after 30?
SK: We have that kind of a mentality. I can’t understand why somebody is 28-30-years old who is fit enough and experienced can’t be selected in the team. Since we have younger talent they tend to focus a lot on them. That’s the way the outlook has been shaped over the years. Because there are many players like Laxman, Tendulkar who have continued to play well beyond 30. So once you are established that is not a problem but it is not the same when a player is looking to secure an opportunity in his 30s. The experience is always helpful.
CC: Can you recount the gritty innings you played against Mumbai where scored a career-best 168 in the 2005 semi-finals?
SK: We needed a draw to progress to the knockouts in the last league game. They had kept a green wicket at Wankhede. I was confident that if I settle down, I would kill the game completely. I wasn’t planning to bat as long as possible but not like 13 hours and all which I eventually did. In the process I got settled down for first couple of hours and next morning I kept going till stumps. It was helpful for seamers yet I went on. I think it was my longest innings. The motive behind that innings was not to score runs but progress to knockouts.
(Mumbai were close to overhauling Saurashtra’s 484 but ended 21 runs short. Saurashtra bagged three points and proceeded ahead.)
CC: How important was the Ranji final against Mumbai. Would the presence of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja have made a difference?
SK: It was an ordinary game for us on a lively wicket. Yes it would have made a difference but even Mumbai could have got back Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma. Ultimately it was board’s decision and maybe even the players would have loved to play for India. Niranjan Shah then had a point that if they were not going to be used at least they could come back and play. I don’t know the reason why they were not allowed.
CC: You have had a fair experience with coaching too. How did that come about?
SK: I have done level 2 coaching with National Cricket Academy (NCA) and also with England & Wales (ECB) Cricket Board. Here, apart from playing we talk to players and try to sort out the problem. I do coach in England. Initially I thought that since I play a lot and I am a thinking cricketer I can coach as well. When I did level 1, I realised coaching is a completely different ball game altogether. I learnt so many things I wish I could have done much earlier around 20 years old. The NCA coaching course is fantastic. Since I had time later I completed level 2 as well. In England if you are coming as a professional cricketer from overseas, you need to be a qualified coach. I completed level 2 in ECB too.
All this I did in last five years. If somebody asks ‘Why this?’, only a qualified coach can explain convincingly. It is amazing how many things you perceive to know but can’t really explain. As a coach you need to understand each player’s strength and bring about improvement in different way.
CC: Having done the course while playing how did that change your mindset while batting?
SK: Yeah, I had issues in my career about falling over, balance issues in stance and head position. I worked hard on it. I tried to sort out but the comfort level was not there. I didn’t know how to rectify then, but today if I see any player struggling like that I can rectify it in a week’s time in comparison to a year I took to solve myself.
CC: What do these coaching levels involve?
SK: I think there is one more level beyond this, but NCA does level 3 once in four years. Level 1 was five days and level 2 was nine days long. Even after that you have to submit a case study, you give a progress report on a player. It took me three months to complete level 2.
There is so much science involved in cricket. Not that you pick and place it on the cricket field, but in your mind you are clear about various fundamental things which cannot be challenged. In India if at the age of 20 if you go into coaching people will ridicule you. In Australia everybody does level 1 and 2 before 25 years of age. So they know their strengths and weakness. If you have knowledge you become your best judge.
CC: How has domestic cricket around you changed over the years?
SK: The infrastructure is improving and money has increased. The two important things that have changed is a) Finance b) Media coverage. The finance improved since 2003-04. Due to good media coverage players are getting an opportunity as their efforts are recognised. That is why many of them could grow and proceed to the Indian team.
CC: How much has the money made a difference in making a domestic cricketer self-sufficient?
SK: I was lucky because my father had a business and I never had to struggle for money. But it is not the same for everybody. I even had a job with Bharat Petroleum. But for someone who doesn’t have a job I think he can survive today by playing domestic cricket. It was not possible 10 years ago. Today they can look after their family with the money earned and I am happy that there has been a change. If they play good 10-15 years of cricket and if they miss the opportunity for a national berth, somewhere they can still settle. And IPL too has made a difference.
CC: Coming to the contribution of Saurashtra cricket, the number of players coming into the Indian team has been increasing. There’s Cheteshwar Pujara, Jaydev Unadkat and Ravindra Jadeja. Your thoughts on these three players?
SK: I must admit that these players who have played for India are very clever. The knowledge of the game I have at 35, they are there about at the age of 25. At such young age they are mature and think cricket so much. It is much easier to have a discussion with them about the game and understand.
CC: Who are the other cricketers you feel can make a mark from Saurashtra?
SK: Though it is early days, I feel Arpit Vasavda and Sheldon Jackson are good. But there’s a long way to go. Because today everyone knows your strengths and weaknesses and in domestic matches other teams can target you. So they have to play consistently for next two-three years at least.
CC: With Sachin Tendulkar retiring, can you recall meeting with the little master?
SK: I met him twice in last three years. We met recently in Chennai in 2008 when we played our semi-final against Mumbai and when we played the final earlier this year. The way he talks things, the only thing he talks is cricket. He often asked what I do and what I did for so long in cricket. He was really helpful.
Some three years back when I went for my benefit year at my club in England, one senior guy wanted a picture of me with Tendulkar and I realised that I had no picture with him then. Hence in the end of April I just texted him to find out whether I could get a picture with him. There was just a three-four day’s time at hand. In the first week of May I was heading to England. He replied back asking how much time I had. I said I am in Mumbai now and will be leaving to Rajkot with the departure to England scheduled in three days. He was about to leave to Pune then and inquired where I was staying in Mumbai. I was staying in Chembur at that time. He asked me to come to the new flyover nearby as he will be heading to Pune via Chembur. I was standing under the bridge and he promised to come for ten minutes. He kept his word and arrived there. We clicked a photograph; he also gifted me his Mumbai Indians jersey that he wore in the final for auction.
He just wanted to support someone who has been in cricket for that long. He is not really a close friend and he doesn’t need to do all that. But that’s how humble he is despite all the glories he has achieved.
CC: What do you like to do when you are away from the cricket field?
SK: I love doing fitness and gym. I like listening to Hindi songs a lot. But I do try and spend time with family a lot even though my wife keeps complaining that I spend too much time on the phone. And in the last five-six years as my son Hetvik is enjoying the game of cricket, whenever I have time, I do give him some practice. I even take him to England. Though I end up giving him throwdowns and not the other way round.
CC: Where does the journey continue after retirement?
SK: I would definitely like to stay connected with cricket and coaching is something I will definitely consider as I love it. I will actually wait and see what are the things that come up. I can’t say I want this or that. At the moment I am completely open and free. If I get a chance to give something back to Saurashtra cricket as well, will be more than happy to serve.
(Abhijit Banare is a reporter at CricketCountry. He is an avid quizzer and loves to analyse and dig out interesting facts which allows him to learn something new every day. Apart from cricket he also likes to keep a sharp eye on Indian politics, and can be followed on Twitter and blog)