Confessions of a veteran stone-waller

Saurashtra’s Shitanshu Kotak on his 20-year journey grinding domestic attacks.

Shitanshu Kotak — "If I had done the NCA coaching course as a player, I would have played for India"When one watches Shitanshu Kotak bat, it is clear that he is a batsman who is not in a hurry. Bow-legged, and with an on-field gait that sees his shoulders move up and down. Kotak shows the bowler his stumps as he runs in, before shuffling in, back foot moving to cover off, middle and leg. Front foot moving in the direction of the ball.

By his own admission, he is better when he plays down the ground, and on the leg-side. The off-side is neither a strength nor a weakness. He does whatever it takes to stay at the wicket, and will stay there at any cost. His idea is simple, the longer he stays at the crease, the more he frustrates the bowler. You heard it from the grinder.

That’s his style, and he doesn’t care about what other people think.

After 20 years in First Class cricket, the 40-year-old opening batsman Kotak has seen the Ranji Trophy format change, has travelled around the country and the world, thanks to the game of cricket, which in his own words, means everything to him. He owes it his life.

***

THE MAN is 40 years old, and when he made his First Class debut against Bombay, some of Saurashtra’s current crop of cricketers were probably small enough to fit in his kit bag. In this period, his approach to cricket has turned philosophical, and he was keen on sharing the lessons and experiences that he had learnt from the gentlemen’s game.

So we decided to start from the very start.

Kotak’s father, Hargovindbhai, a drawing teacher, loved the game. When he saw his son’s obsession with tennis-ball cricket, he told him that there was no way he could become a cricketer by playing on the street.  The lad, who was just entering his teens, was sent to Anil Pavilion in Rajkot, to learn the sport, the proper way. Mahendra Rajdev, and old-style coach who insisted on throw-downs, taught the budding left-hander whatever he knew, and never claimed credit. What about his education?

“Brilliant”, he says. Kotak studied till class X at Swaminarayan Gurukul, going on to finish the last two years of school at Lal Bahadur Shastri Vidyalaya. He adds that they were very helpful with the timings, allowing him to come late after practice. Dhamsania College, where he finished his B.Com, also made sure that attendance wasn’t a problem. With this degree of comfort, it was clear that the young southpaw could focus on cricket.

It was going to take him places.

***

HE TALKS about the time he earned his Saurashtra colours as an U-17 cricketer, going on to represent West Zone, and recalls a trip to Kanpur.  After being called as a probable for the India U-19 camp, he talks about the month he spent with VVS Laxman and Gagan Khoda. Cricketers who went on to play for India.

Kotak wasn’t picked.

But he went on to do well in district-level cricket. We ask him about his first cricketing weapon. His first proper bat. He takes his time, to extract the memory. As calls continue to pour in, congratulating him on Saurashtra’s entry into the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy final, he breaks off. Like he does when he sees people walking in front of the sight screen, or when he is distracted by the bowler’s shades. But once he says thank you, we are back on course.

Kotak thinks hard, when asked about the bat that he used during that time. It was worth 600 rupees, just got it from a shop, he says, and we move on.

***

Saurashtra after beating Punjab in the Ranji semifinal.

"I AM NOT
stylish, nor graceful.  I am much better now, than when I was earlier. I used to think that style doesn’t matter. But I changed my mind now. People were questioning me, kee yaar yeh kya run banayega (how will this guy ever score runs). I showed them.”

He remembers playing against Raju Kulkarni and Salil Ankola in his first, First Class match against Bombay (now Mumbai) in Rajkot. He made 76, playing 18 games at No.6.

In his second year of Ranji Trophy cricket, he got picked to play for West Zone in the Duleep Trophy, but never played in the XI.

In 1997-98, the late Ashok Mankad, for whom Kotak has a lot of respect, showed faith in him. Thank you Sir, came in the form of a ton against East Zone. One year later, he was scoring a lot of runs in the Deodhar Trophy, and was selected to play for the Rest of India side against Karnataka. He feels that at this point in his life, was perhaps, the best opportunity that he had to play for India. At least, on personal form.

It didn’t happen.

“I have no regrets. One has to respect the competition. We are talking about people like Dravid and Laxman. People feel that I should have played for India. I feel that God has given me enough.”

Around this time, he got a job with Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited. The man captains the team, and has played the Times shield and also the Mahindra Memorial shield. Kotak is grateful to his employers. And, why not, they allowed him to play cricket.

In England. Saurashtra is a small place, one needs to go out.

Kotak went with a team from Bhavnagar to the old blighty. He batted and bowled for a month and a half, and stayed back to play for Falkland CC in Scotland for another two months. Once done, he went to Coventry, and played a game for Kenilworth Wardens Cricket Club, replacing Brij Dutta, a former Saurashtra player, who was injured at that point. What Kotak didn’t know, was the English language, and that he would play in the UK for the next 18 years.

“I went to a Gujarati medium school. I didn’t understand English, so whenever they spoke to me I just smiled.”

The bat must have done the talking. Kotak enjoyed the seaming conditions and loved the concept of league cricket. Pointing to a clock that tells us the time in both Rajkot and Kenilworth in his home, recalling vividly, that since they played cricket only for two days, he could do all the right things for the next five days. Like work on his fitness.

The reason he adds, that he has had only one knee injury so far. We then ask him, if there is any secret to his cricketing longevity.

“One has to be determined. You must work hard and develop your skills. Then nobody can stop you.”

***

KOTAK IS the only cricketer who shines the ball on the cricket field, when Saurashtra is playing. He claims nobody else is willing to do it. It must be for luck, for the ball must be turning into a talisman in the man’s hands. With all that experience, those good vibes must be rubbing off on the ball.

“Experience is not good enough. I realised it when I did the NCA Level A & B courses spread over two years in Jaipur and Ahmedabad. I thought I knew a lot about cricket, but I was wrong. But I am 100% convinced that without doing this course, you cannot become a coach. If I had all this knowledge as a player, I would have played for India”.

He has great respect and regard for the NCA staff, and feels that cricket is a scientific sport. To get better, he says that one must analyse and improve their standard of cricket with the help of technology. Kotak feels that he would have changed his bat swing, bat speed and his general fluency if he had this knowledge 20 years ago.

“The standard of First Class cricket has come down”, Kotak insists that we write this down. He likes the current format, because it gives everyone an equal chance. But he feels that a longer domestic season is needed, with each side playing as many as 12-15 matches. For the simple reason, that it gives them more exposure.

A religious man, the 40-year old believes that a greater power is always watching, and that what goes around the ground, comes around as well. Barefooted as we speak, his size 10 boots have seen him squaring off against Wasim Akram, who he calls a magician. Lara and Tendulkar are his favourite cricketers, and he has a picture and an autograph from the latter.

As we sign off, I ask him if he remembers who gave him his first cap.

“Nobody. It wasn’t a trend then”.

It should have been.

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