Munaf Patel: Life after glory

The countdown for the World Cup has begun and India head to the tournament as the defending champions. The World Cup win in 2011 was one of the greatest moments for the country and when the captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni hit that six to seal it off; the instant reactions were cries of joy and the flood of happy tears. The nation went berserk.


One of the key architects of that win, which gave the nation uncountable joy, was pacer Munaf Patel, who picked up 11 wickets in the tournament. India’s bowling coach Eric Simmons hailed him as the “unsung hero of the 2011 World Cup win.”


Four years later, Munaf missed out on being part of another contingent that heads for the World Cup, which will be played in Australia and New Zealand, starting next month.


When not playing cricket, the pacer spends time relaxing in his village Ikhar, which is in the Bharuch district of Gujarat. It’s the village where people take care of each other and is Munaf’s fort and that’s why he doesn’t see himself leaving it. “Shaanti hai idhar, peaceful. Why will I go anywhere else?” said Munaf.


Indian Express met the pacer in his village, where he recalled his journey the rags to riches story.


Coming to Ikhar’s importance in Munaf’s life: In 2007, when India had been crashed out of the World Cup, fans went furious. Effigies were burnt. Sachin Tendulkar’s and Sourav Ganguly’s restaurants had been attacked, Zaheer Khan’s house stoned, a wall of Dhoni’s house broken. The players in West Indies were reading the horrors on internet when Tendulkar asked Munaf, “Something or other is happening at everyone’s house. What’s on at your home, Munna?”


“Paaji, jahan main rahta hoon na, udhar aath hazaar log hai and 8,000 mera security hai! (There are 8,000 people where I stay, and those are my security.)”


Tendulkar laughed, “We might all have to come to your home from here.”


India made up for the 2007 disappointment with a World Cup win in 2011, but after the tournament, things changed for Munaf.


“After the 2011 World Cup, I was injured for five-six months and by then, the selection approach had changed. They wanted to look beyond me and Nehra and give youngsters a chance. Which is fine. I will probably play for Baroda for two more years. Let’s see how long the body holds,” said Munaf, who has played 13 Tests and 70 One-Day Internationals.


His popularity may have faded among the fans but Patel continues to be a hero at Ikhar and the Patels never turn away anyone who comes to their house, looking for help. It could be a request for money for wedding or treatment expenses, Munaf’s family, who now live in a big house, is always there for his village.


“If I ask any question to anyone who comes to home, my father will say, ‘Why are you asking questions? That won’t feed him. Just give him the money’.”


Living in the same village, where people are the support of each other, Munaf, earlier in his life has seen many hardships.


Munaf recalled his journey:


By the time, Patel was in ninth standard, he was already the fastest bowler but he did not want to play cricket anymore. There was enough poverty and his father worked on someone else’s farm, children got new clothes only on Eid, that too in a good year.


During vacations, Munaf worked at a tile factory for Rs 35 for an eight-hour shift.


Munaf recalled, “Dukh hi dukh tha lekin jhelne ki aadat ho gayi thi. Kisi ko sunaon toh lagega kya din tha but when you are used to it, and there is no other option, then you feel kya yaar, yeh to roz ka kaam hai. Paisey nahi hai to kya kar sakte hain? Father akela kaam raha hai and we were in school. (It was a hard life, but it had become a habit. There wasn’t enough money, but what could we do? Father was the only one earning, and we were in school).”


A well-connected fellow villager, Yusuf Bhai, helped him take his cricketing quest to the next level. “He bought me Rs 400-worth shoes, and introduced me to a cricket club. Ehsaan rahega zindagi bhar.”


Munaf’s father wasn’t happy with his son’s ambition and asked him to quit playing the sport and join his at work. Doesn’t that sound like the Nagesh Kukinoor’s much acclaimed Iqbal?


“I would just stay silent; my mother would tell him to let me play.”


Ikhar is a village of poor cotton farmers and for them going to Australia is the way out of poverty. Patel had an uncle in Zambia and it seemed Munaf’s destiny too was decided.


But his talent was spotted and several individuals got out of their way to help the youngster.


“(Kiran More) who hasn’t taken a single paisa from me and even bought me my first branded cricket shoes (Gunn & Moore).” The former wicket-keeper also trained him at his academy in Baroda and also sent him to the MRF pace school in Chennai.


The academy was visited by Steve Waugh and he was impressed with Munaf and told as much to Tendulkar, who convinced the bowler to join the Mumbai Ranji side.


“I lived there for five-six months. I learnt how to wear good clothes, how to speak, kuch bhi nahi aata tha (didn’t know anything). Dennis Lillee would say something and I used to look at someone else’s face! Kya bol raha hai? (What’s he saying?) Lillee Sir always used to laugh, and ask someone to translate.”


Munaf’s path to stardom began. Mumbai was a big city and he was invited to parties but the village simpleton wasn’t ready. Only during a foreign tour, Munaf went to club.


“I thought I had to drink if I go there. Only after Gautam Gambhir (Patel’s closest cricketing friend) told me that there is no need to drink, and that even he doesn’t drink, did I go. I still don’t drink to this day.”


In his playing tenure for India, Patel was often criticised for his attitude. Sunil Gavaskar was once livid over him not tucking in his shirt on the field and criticised him on air. Rahul Dravid, the captain, suggested he tuck in his shirt to end the controversy. “Voh ekdum sincere, padhe-likhe type (educated man) ” On the other side, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj said, ‘Chodna yaar, hum bhi tuck in nahin karenge kal sey! ( We also won’t tuck our shirts in)’. I was not doing it on purpose. I hadn’t come from a school where kids wear white shoes, and tuck in their shirts!”


Any national side will have players playing from all over the country and with India; it’s an even more pluralistic environment. He is a no-nonsense straight talking simpleton from village, who reached ultimate heights but remained rooted to the ground.