The greatest batsman India never had

The Proteas’ batting coach for their disastrous Indian tour was a man who’d been looking forward to playing Test cricket for his country, even though it didn’t play out that way for Amol Muzumdar.

When Amol Muzumdar was first announced as the interim Test batting coach for South Africa, the obligatory murmurs about another “nobody” at the helm came from certain cynical corners of the cricketing system.

Blunt truth be told, he is a regular contributor for visiting international teams and franchises in Indian conditions. He and his methods are highly rated and internationally respected. To put that into sharper perspective, two international superstars worked with him just before the start of the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL).

Both of those players needed to clear the cricketing clutter from their heads, ahead of an almighty summer in the United Kingdom. By the end of the English season, they were the toast of the cricketing world.

Steve Smith of Australia and Ben Stokes of England went on and dominated an unforgettable English summer with their brilliance and their clarity of thought, but it is most revealing that they started their preparations with a few, intense days with Muzumdar, who is a batting consultant at the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL.

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“I played 21 years of first-class cricket, and since then I have worked extensively with quite a few players, giving them small bits of information on batting,” the Mumbai native says with little ceremony.

Muzumdar knows what he is doing, even if people outside India don’t know who he is. To know who he is, however, you have to go back and recall what he was and, more to the point, what he could have been. Muzumdar has been in the international departures waiting lounge for 32 long years.

South Africa’s batting coach for the three-Test series in which they were humiliated and whitewashed by India was born in the “wrong generation”, according to those who have followed his career from his base in Mumbai. The story is famous in Indian circles, but it is worth retelling for the wider audience that is only beginning to fully appreciate his talents.

In the shadow of giants 

Muzumdar was the kid who stayed padded up forever as Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli made their world-record, schoolboy partnership of 664 runs and, with it, set their careers on the fast track to success.

That early experience was to be a brutal metaphor for Muzumdar’s international aspirations, even though he piled on the runs for his state of Mumbai, including a 260 to introduce himself on first-class debut. 

In a sense, Muzumdar has been padded up and waiting forever, eternally marked as the next man in but never quite making it on to the park .

There was a small window when South Africa toured India in 1996 and played a warm-up match against India in Baroda. Locals maintain that if he had scored at least a half-century in that fixture, he would have forced the selectors’ hands. As it was, he made scores of 23 and 13, Fanie de Villiers and Brian McMillan accounting for him respectively.

That was the closest he got to playing international cricket. Soon after, one VVS Laxman made his debut in Ahmedabad and registered a 51 that showed he had the tools to craft the magnificent career he went on to enjoy. Despite an avalanche of runs in the domestic Ranji Trophy, Muzumdar never got his chance in the tricolours of India.

He never got his shot. 

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For all the painstaking hours at the crease and the relentless run-getting, he never got a look into an Indian middle order that was taking its first steps towards becoming Indian cricket’s version of The Beatles. Rahul Dravid. Laxman. Sourav Ganguly and, of course, the incomparable Tendulkar.

That was the cast list that assembled itself at the very peak of Muzumdar’s powers and, while the famous four played to international sellout crowds, he had to content himself with headlining domestic gigs for more than a decade. So, when an old friend who was the new interim coach of a major team came knocking and asking for help, Muzumdar didn’t hesitate. 

“I have been playing competitive cricket since I was 15. I have been dreaming of international cricket for 32 long years,” he admitted after being involved in his first Test with South Africa, against India, at Visakhapatnam. 

Influence in the Proteas

“He’s said things that have really stuck with me,” said first Test centurion Dean Elgar. “In India, if you want to hit a six over the bowler’s head, you must commit to it. Hit it over the stands and don’t leave anything behind. 

“That ‘commit to it’ stayed with me, and I have made a really conscious effort to do that. It’s nice to hear that from someone familiar with these conditions and has had success here. So I’ve gone with it.”

Muzumdar reiterated that there is no place for fence-sitting in India. There are very definitive modes of operation, and you see these daily as a visitor. Driving on these streets doesn’t accommodate hesitation. In a country with well over a billion people, it is only when someone stutters that the heaving mass of metal and the working class comes to a grinding halt.

Otherwise, you take the turn blind, with a bip of the hooter, unfailingly trusting that your decisiveness will let whoever is around the corner know what is coming. It is an exhilarating, yet consistent method. Accelerate into the madness, and trust your instincts that have been honed by doing and seeing the same thing over and over and over again.

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It is thus with batting in India, and that element of the philosophy has been borne out in the unforgiving manner in which the home side tore into any sort of weakness or uncertainty in the South African bowlers.

“Commitment is the most important thing, especially when you’re batting in these conditions. You must commit fully,” Muzumdar maintained. 

“Forward or back, defence or attack. It cannot be half. Get that clear, and you’re on the right track. Committing in defence is something we have been stressing on. A defensive shot with strong body language sends a message to the bowlers. I think in the first innings [in Visakhapatnam] we carried that out. From 39 for three, getting to 431 wasn’t easy. It needed full commitment. But it is belief that takes you there.”

Timid bowling attack 

Of course, after the steps taken forward in the first Test, there were several in the wrong direction in Pune and Ranchi where the Proteas were comprehensively thumped. 

Some of the batting problems on this trip have been exacerbated by a bowling unit that hasn’t performed, but that is only mitigation. Previous touring sides from South Africa could chuck the ball to a Dale Steyn or a Makhaya Ntini or a Shaun Pollock to squeeze the run-scoring. However, the control hasn’t been there with the ball and South Africa have had a few “blow-out sessions”, as skipper Faf du Plessis described them.

But it is always a batting collapse that sticks in the memory far longer. It was compelling, depressing viewing, as batter after batter came and then departed. The tourists’ body language at the crease wasn’t pretty in the second and third Tests. There was uncertainty, alarm – and India jumped all over them.

It is still very clear that South Africa are still looking for their cement men in their batting order, the Ashwell Prince-like characters who can tough it out for hours and not be led into temptation. Despite the obvious teething problems, Muzumdar is excited about the journey that this new-look South African team is embarking on. He doesn’t lament the fact that they were handed the toughest assignment to start this new chapter.

In love with Test cricket 

“India has been a tough, tough country to tour. Even at the height of their powers, Australia always felt that it was the toughest tour,” he pointed out. “So, if you can come through this with some sort of success, you’re on the right track. This team have got terrific potential. I think we have seen in Vizag one to 11 can bat. So, they are not short on talent, it is just about getting a feel of international cricket.”

Muzumdar has one of those ageless faces, but his eyes and salt-and-pepper crop of hair betray a wealth of experience.

“I’ve been dreaming of getting a taste of international for 32 long years. I don’t know what other people think of this appointment, but this was an opportunity, and I took it.”

And what of his long-awaited first taste of the highest level of the game?

“So, this is Test cricket?” he smiled at the end of his first Test, sun glistening behind him and both teams absolutely sapped from a taxing five days. “I love it.” 

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