Mohammad Kaif © Getty Images
Mohammad Kaif was a mainstay in India’s ODI team in the early 2000s © Getty Images


Born on December 1, 1980, Mohammad Kaif was earmarked for success at the highest level ever since he marshalled the Indian team to a famous win in the Under-19 World Cup held in Sri Lanka in 2000. Unfortunately, he has had his fair share of downs as well at the top echelons of the game. Bharath Ramaraj looks back at the career of the Uttar Pradesh batsman.


In the Under-19 World Cup played in South Africa in 1998, South Africa’s promising pacers Victor Mipitsang and Murray Creed were smelling blood against the Indian Under-19 team at Wanderers. When the 17-year old from Uttar Pradesh, Mohammad Kaif walked into the crease, he knew it was going to be a titanic battle for him.


Every-time, the 17-year old from Allahabad faced up to the exciting South African pace-duo, he was made to wince with pain by rising deliveries on a trampoline wicket. Yet, Kaif with sheer equanimity and poise was able to pass the baptism-by-fire. Just having a glance at the scorecard, he only made 31 runs, but Kaif’s unequivocal self-belief and dogged determination gave an inkling that here was a cricketer who won’t shy away from an intense gladiatorial battle.


Kaif, born on December 1, 1980 wasn’t bestowed with heavy dollops of God-gifted talent. However, with sheer commitment to team’s cause and unbridled enthusiasm, he carved a niche for himself in the abridged version of the game.


If we jog back our memory, Kaif came into the limelight in the Under-19 World Cup held in Sri Lanka in 2000, where as the captain of the side, he marshalled his troupes to a famous World Cup triumph. Those few who followed the semi-final of that tournament, remember fondly how he showcased tactical acumen as a skipper to help India crush a fine Australian Under-19 team that consisted of names like Shane Watson, Ed Cowan, Andrew McDonald, Nathan Hauritz and Mitchell Johnson. In the final of the tournament, India went onto beat Sri Lanka.


In fact, by the time India won the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, selectors were already looking at him as one of the future glowing lights of Indian cricket. It could be seen by the fact that he was picked to play for Board President’s XI against Pakistan in 1999.


Finally, the reality-altering experience of his career arrived in 2000 when he was picked to play a Test match against the might of the South African team at Bangalore. He couldn’t make the chance count, but at the tender age of 19, it must have been a great experience for him to face the likes of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and company.


In 2002, he made his One-Day International (ODI) debut in the series against England at home. Little could have anyone envisaged that a few months later, Kaif would be the toast of the entire nation for helping India to script a famous win against England at the well-manicured lawns of Lord’s in the final of the NatWest Trophy.


While chasing a mammoth total of 326, India was tottering at 156 for five when Kaif joined Yuvraj Singh in the middle. But with a tunnel-visioned-focus to win the match at any cost, both of them engineered a remarkable turnaround to take India to a glorious triumph. Interestingly, a few days later after Kaif’s coup de theatre act in England, he proved his mettle once again by launching another rescue-mission in the Champions Trophy game played against Zimbabwe.


India’s then captain, Sourav Ganguly wrote in his column for NDTV about the awe-inspiring partnership Kaif and Yuraj stitched together in the final of NatWest Trophy in 2002. He said, “When you chase a total of that magnitude, it’s crucial to start well. Virender Sehwag and I provided a solid base but we slumped a bit in the middle before the two youngsters came to the fore. Kaif and Yuvi started to put things together once half the side was back in the pavilion with less than 150 on the board, and what stood out for me was the maturity, intelligence and common sense with which the two of them, just 21 and 20 then, batted.”


Other than a rock-solid innings of 68 against New Zealand, Kaif didn’t exactly set the 2003 World Cup held in South Africa on fire. However, he was always an asset in the side with his tiger-like fielding. It also has to be said that in ODI cricket, it is tough to do consistently well by batting at No 6 or 7.


Despite some sterling efforts in the shorter version of the game, Kaif struggled to leave his indelible mark in Test cricket. While facing up-to Australia’s ruthless bowling machinery in 2004, Kaif did reasonably well. His innings of 91 at Ahmedabad against England in 2006 took India from turbulent waters to respectability. Yet, that one career-defining knock was missing from his resume.


It finally came at Beausejour Cricket Ground in St. Lucia when he notched up his first Test hundred. West Indies only had a modest attack, but contrary to what some cricket pundits believe, the Test match played at St. Lucia did offer help for both quickies and spinners. Sadly, the series against the West Indies turned out to be the last time Kaif donned the Test cap for India in Test matches. It can be put down to nothing short of haphazard selection policies that saw Kaif being shown the exit door. He also played his last ODI in 2006.


Recently when selectors finally seemed to remember that a player by the name of Kaif was still playing in the lonely world of wilderness in domestic cricket and selected him to play for India A against the West Indies, Kaif told Times of India, “At this stage in my career I am looking to play as many matches as possible. I am 32 now and I need to score as many runs as I can because there are a lot of talented players who are coming through the ranks and some of them have established themselves. Earlier if there was a bunch of 30 now there are 60 to 70 players. What will hold me in good stead, other than the runs I make, is my experience of being in tough-match situations before.


He continued, “I have stopped thinking about whether there are spectators watching me or selectors watching me. My next match is at Dharamsala for Air India. I have played in the Times Shield, the hot weather tournaments, in the Buchi Babu Invitational Tournament and in club matches. I don’t want to take a break because I fear it will upset my rhythm and that is something I can do without.”


These days, Kaif has a lot more to think about than just cricket, as his mother is suffering from cancer. Yet, Kaif with a willingness to bleed to his bones continues to serve his state team Uttar Pradesh with utmost diligence.


Lest we forget that Kaif is a brilliant athletic fielder in his own right. Even now, the superman-like leap with which he effected the run-out in 2003 World Cup to send Nick Knight packing back to the pavilion is talked about by the cricket fandom. The mind-blowing run-out he effected while fielding at short-leg to dismiss Paul Collingwood at Lord’s in 2004 and the heart-stirring catch he took off Nick Knight at Lord’s in 2002 Natwest Trophy are few other sterling efforts that one can fondly reminisce.


At the age of 33, Kaif maybe a largely forgotten man of Indian cricket. Yet, Kaif is one cricketer who doesn’t believe that he is on a career-ending path. With indomitable spirit and an unflinching desire to succeed, he will look to work his way up the ladder again.


(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)