When things are put up in a carton box, it is only memories that the objects leave behind. Be it a letter from your ex-girlfriend or that pencil your best friend left behind before moving to a new city, memories are everything we cherish for life. For Faiz Fazal, it has been the ultimate thing.
A man of calm and gentle disposition, Faiz is a hero I don’t want to be. It must not be easy being among the top run-scorers year by year, yet see someone else take the cake. It is difficult not to see any of your teammates, a group that you nurtured, failing to make a cut to the national team despite the team being the Ranji champions for two back-to-back years.
Being Faiz Fazal is extremely painful. But as far as the lesson in leadership goes, I would probably go to any extent in speaking on his behalf, applauding each time he is ready to take the bullet for his team, and how brilliantly he handles pressure when bogging down would have been the most human thing to do. Faiz Fazal has led Vidarbha in the calmest way possible, and when I sat down with him for a chat in this plush hotel in Bangalore, it ended up being one of the most immersive experiences of my life.
“I liked a statement from Wasim Jaffer that I read somewhere,” Fazal started. “A few journalists asked him about his setbacks in his career. So he said see, we are all God's children and to feel 'why is it happening to me,' it's not a great thing to ask every time. It's a very negative thing because I'm very lucky to play for Vidarbha.
"I see how many players in the state want to come and play for Vidarbha but they're not able to. I'm fortunate to lead Vidarbha to Ranji Trophy titles, two Irani Cups. So I am fortunate in many ways. I've played for India and ultimately I can say to my kids that I have played for India,” Fazal told SportsCafe in a tone full of gratitude for everything that happened to his life.
“Although I've played only one game but still. See, ultimately the aim is there, if you want to play higher and I think it's definitely in my blood, that I want to play Test cricket. That's my ultimate aim. And that's why I'm competing and training hard throughout the off-season. Even people ask me what do you think the age is gone but I feel much fitter, much stronger than when I was very young.
"Much fitter than many of the youngsters I know. So I feel the age is just a number. Who cares about it? So definitely the aim is to play Test cricket, and I'm working hard. With God's grace, you never know. You never know. Things can turn around.”
It is this assertion that strikes an emotional chord. He had accumulated 1001 and 942 first-class runs in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons and has always been one of India’s tallest run-makers in domestic cricket. Yet, an elusive Test cap evaded him, with his only appearance for India being that game in Zimbabwe where his 55 helped India win by a canter.
Does the fact that he is not talked about in the same vein as someone like an Abhimanyu Easwaran or a Priyank Panchal hurt him? Well, for Fazal, it certainly doesn’t as he has come to accept the beauty of good deeds and karma that if he stays humble, he’ll have everything that he ever aspires to have.
“I'm very religious. I'm not a fanatic but I believe in God, I believe in good deeds, I believe in karma. So I think we should be nice, we shouldn't fake, there's no point. I also feel being humble and being simple is very nice. There's no point having your collar up every time and then behaving like you are ahead than others.
"See, as a journalist, if you reach you at your top course, and if you want to interview someone, you won't back down that ‘no, no, I won't interview him or even a big doctor, he won't say that no, no I won't treat a patient, he's below my standards’. As a sportsman also, we are lucky to play for India or play for our states. And we're representing our sides, our states and our countries so that's a great thing, isn't it? So, there's no point showing off and not being humble or taking anything for granted.”
While Fazal has been at the fulcrum of Vidarbha’s success through a kind of batting display that is as rare as anything, the base had actually been laid out over a decade ago when Shashank Manohar was elected as the BCCI president. Manohar, a lawyer by profession and the president of Vidarbha Cricket Association, started working towards the establishment of a residential academy in Nagpur and found a perfect ally in the form of Prashant Vaidya, the only player from Vidarbha to have represented the country until then, having played four ODIs in 1995 and 1996.
Vaidya was a decent domestic cricketer, averaging over 28 in his 56-match-long first-class career, but he had a clear vision in mind and once he got a free-hand from Manohar, he started working towards making Vidarbha a competent domestic unit. The first thing that was on his list was to hire Neil D'Costa, the man who made Mitchell Starc the tearaway quick that he is from a wicket-keeper before working with Michael Clarke from a very tender age.
Vaidya made D’Costa the chief coach of the academy while appointing Sulakshan Kulkarni as the head coach of the senior team and former Indian pacer Subroto Banerjee as the bowling coach of the academy. The troika of Fazal, Wasim Jaffer and Mumbai’s celebrated coach Chandrakant Pandit worked towards a dream that saw Vidarbha doing what they did in the last two years.
“I got goosebumps when you said that. So it is a very happy, a great thing and a great compliment from your side,” Fazal said with a smile before going on to add, “There should be an aim for the administration that yes, we want our boys to win the championships and we want Vidarbha to go higher. That's when Shashank Sir and all these people are very much responsible for this setup.
“They had this aim, that was a dream for them and we are fulfilling it. So it's a great thing, isn't it? Their effort is the big thing. They've put a lot of it. I see Sir working so hard. Going out of the way and giving all the facilities to the cricketers. And they want our players to play higher. That's an incredible thing.”
Working hard they did but that all fell short as there has been literally no representation from the Vidarbha side in the Indian representative sides. Sure enough, Umesh Yadav is an India regular, but the team’s success story was not built around him. There have been a lot of individual performances which came together to script history for the team based out of Nagpur, and not having players from the state side in India-A sides is something that doesn’t sit well with their inspirational skipper.
“It’s actually very controversial to talk about, in a country like ours,” Fazal said. “It's not good to speak a lot. But still, if you win Ranji Trophies and Irani Cups back-to-back, definitely as individuals, as teams, you expect the players to play higher on in the national teams. Unfortunately, that’s not happening.
"Even I don't know what the reason is. Because performance-wise, we are right up there. The only thing that is in our hands is again come in domestic cricket and play harder, play stronger and keep getting good performances again. That's what they are expecting this year as well, we have trained as a team, we have trained a lot.”
“Vidarbha performs as a collective unit. See, somehow what happens is that, even you as a journalist, you will be looking at the scores, isn't it? He has scored 300 runs in this innings, he has scored a double hundred. But no one realizes that that is on a flat track. We have been winning on the very difficult tracks as well.
“Like, you must have seen the semi-final game against Kerala that we played last year. We finished that game in a day and a half. The wicket, if you had seen that wicket, I mean we finished the game in one and a half days, that says it all, doesn't it? So nobody got a hundred there but a few performances were very crucial. I got some 70-odd runs. I feel that's one of the most courageous innings in my career. You got my point?
“I mean, yeah, the scorecard doesn't say it all. And even bowlers getting wickets, like Aditya Sarwate getting 55 wickets and a few wickets on which we played in Nagpur were flat decks. He got a ten-for in a couple of games. He got 55 wickets, scored more than 400 runs in a year. It's a big amount of performance. There will be disappointments because ultimately, you as an individual want to play higher. Only thing in our hand is to perform and we'll be doing it again and again, hopefully. I'm sure the selectors do watch everything.”
Another edition of Ranji Trophy is out. Both Faiz and Vidarbha are on it with a lot of expectations - something that was never the case earlier. As he admitted, it was “controversial” to talk about the selection, the players would only have hope going forward; it is living up to the expectations and breaking the door. Only knocking has not really worked.