The irony is difficult to miss. Just as there is only a single queen bee in a colony of more than 50,000 bees – sport too has a multitude of soldiers to the one shining hero. Even as all the attention is centred around Rohtak for the grand departure of Sachin Tendulkar from the domestic circuit, further West is an understated soldier who is preparing for a quiet journey into the shade. He is unsung and unheralded, but he probably does not even care anymore. When Shitanshu Kotak walks off the ground for one last time at the Khandheri Cricket Stadium, it is worth remembering though that for one Tendulkar in the lights there are 10,000 Kotaks who spend a lifetime in the shade.
Kotak is a pertinacious batsman, whose twenty year career around the grinding grounds of Indian cricket traces the transformation of Saurashtra from a weakling on the domestic circuit into a force to reckon with in the Ranji trophy. Last season, the 41 year old came perilously close to losing a dubious detail that defined his existence as a cricketer.
Kotak has the highest number of runs, over 8,000 of them, for a Ranji player who has never won the coveted domestic tournament. Having helped Saurashtra into the finals of last years event, Kotak and his team had to live without the services of their best players for the biggest final in national cricket. As expected the first time finalists proved no match for the mighty Mumbaikars, who ran away with their 40th championship.
Long used to the vagaries of cricket in India, Kotak presented a sporting face but deep down it must have hurt that his team was without the services of its best men, just when they needed them the most. Sadly though, money drives cricket in India. The BCCI dictated that Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, both potential match winners, be present in Dharmashala for a meaningless one day match even though India had already wrapped up the series victory.
With his dreams dumped in the hollow can of domestic competition, Kotak decided to have one final outing before waving goodbye to his mates. Thankfully, he at least has the opportunity to do just that in front of his home fans against Rajasthan. But then there shall be no thunderous applause, since that has been reserved for the next few weeks to the orchestrated departure of Tendulkar.
Instead, Kotak will hang his boots and quietly return to the boundary for a few throw downs at a young Hetwik Kotak. Such is the passion of these men towards the game they love, that despite a largely fruitless existence, Kotak is only too delighted to pass on the secrets of perseverance to his eager thirteen year old boy.
Kotak knows everything there is to know about persistence. He has shaped a career out of wearing down bowlers before picking them out for runs. And he built a legend around domestic cricket that will last a lot longer than his playing days. A decade ago, Kotak played a winning hand to rescue Saurashtra from what appeared certain relegation into the plate division. Not once, but twice over – first in the 2003-04 season and then again in 2005-06.
Kotak has long been the steady hand around which the team has evolved from being an easy picking into a opponent worthy of its flannels. The arrival of talents such as Pujara, Jadeja and Jayadev Unadkat have helped forge a formidable team. But the young men have a busy calendar and it often falls to the resolute commitment of men such as Kotak to keep the fort together in their regular absence.
While most Indian fans may not know about Shitanshu, his legend is rampant among his rivals on the domestic grind. One knock that is mentioned with special fondness is the undefeated 168, his highest first class score, against Mumbai in the 2007-08 season. It is no secret that players across different state teams harbour a grudging envy about the success of Mumbai.
Six years ago it fell upon Shitanshu and his motley crew to stand in the way of yet another Ranji trophy semi-final for the prolific team from the corporate capital of the country. In a show of dour endurance, Kotak battled the wily Mumbai attack for 796 minutes – the ninth longest first class innings ever played. Shitanshu’s innings reduced the imposing Mumbai team into a state of reluctant submission as their hopes of a semi-final evaporated under the Sun inside their own Wankhede stadium.
But one of the things that has kept the tireless warrior on the sidelines forever was his inability to convert his starts into something more meaningful on a consistent basis. Shitanshu has only 15 hundreds from his 211 innings in first class cricket, barely any justice to his immense reserves of patience and a reputation for being hard to dismiss.
He might have wished many times that he could have translated some of the 54 other scores of fifty plus into a weightier contribution. But then Kotak was constantly stretching the envelopes of his limited repertoire to accomplish a steady flow of runs that kept him at the forefront of his fledgling team for the most part of two decades.
The closest he came to stake a claim to international cricket came in the 1998-99 season. After a successful run in Ranji and Duleep trophies, Shitanshu was picked to play the Irani trophy against Karnataka. In his only outing in the Irani cup, Kotak impressed Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath with a composed hundred on a pacy strip at Bangalore.
But even that effort wasn’t enough to register in the minds of the Indian selectors. When many expected him to be picked for the India A tour to West Indies, Chandu Borde, the chairman of selectors at the time excluded the tireless man with a bizarre excuse. When asked to reason his omission, Borde said, “Kotak hasn’t been picked since he was in his 30s.” Sadly, the young man was only 27 then and the vagaries of selection left him clinging to slim hope yet again.
Another anecdote that summarises the spirit of this seasoned cricketer comes from a game against the visiting South Africans which was to start during the middle of the week. Kotak was playing for his employers BPCL in a league game in Udaipur at the time. After the game finished on Monday, Kotak drove the 250kms to Ahmedabad from where he caught a train to Mumbai to play the game.
After claiming a handy 2-49 and making 82 runs, Kotak repeated the trick by catching a train back to Ahmedabad and then driving himself in the reverse direction to rejoin his corporate team. Such was unflinching dedication of a man who knew little else besides cricket in a long and weary journey that lasted over twenty years.
In a country used to celebrating overnight T20 stars, the career of Shitanshu is a reminder that a loyal endeavour has its own shining place in the skewed corridors of cricketing glory. If we remember him or not, Rajkot and Saurashtra will long celebrate the efforts of a man who knew nothing about being tired.