“The Indian team at that time was full of big players like Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag. So I and Yuvraj could not play many Tests, even though Yuvraj got more chances than me. I got a chance to play against England in Nagpur (in 2006) when someone got injured and I scored 91. Then that guy got fit and I was dropped again. So that team was so strong that I didn’t get many chances to play. They were the greats of the game, legends, players like Sachin, Dravid, inspired us,” Kaif told TimesofIndia.com in an exclusive interview.
India so far have won four ICC U-19 World Cups and Kaif was the first Indian captain to win the Under-19 World Cup title, defeating Sri Lanka in the final in Colombo on January 28, 2000.
Recalling that title win , Kaif said, “The way we played the whole tournament was special, we did not lose a single game, we dominated the league phase. We met Australia in the semi-final, they had a good side, but we beat them by 170 runs. We had a slow start and had to promote Yuvraj Singh, who went and smashed a 25-ball 58, so we reached 284. Then our seniors, especially Anup Dave of Rajasthan, bowled well. In the final also, we were against the home team Sri Lanka. These two matches I remember quite well. There was another good match against New Zealand, but this was the semi-final and the final. Overall, we dominated the whole tournament.”
Following the Under-19 World Cup triumph, Kaif got a Test call-up to the Indian side and made his debut against South Africa in Bengaluru in March 2000.
Recalling his Test debut, Kaif said, “I was surprised at the Test call-up. Since it was India’s first Under-19 World Cup title victory, there was a lot of media hype. There was a Challenger tournament in which most of the Under-19 players got a chance to play. I had two scores in the 90s in back-to-back matches that I played, then I was named in the Indian Test side. But I think I was hurried into Test cricket, I was just 20 and to face someone like Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Nantie Hayward, they had some serious pace. It was a learning experience for me, just like a new swimmer is thrown into the deep and asked to help himself. So to be honest, I think I was not ready to face that kind of pace, which I had never faced (before). They were bowling a lot of bouncers and here in domestic cricket the ball hardly bounces and we can drive easily. That was a big difference. Then I got dropped and then I worked very hard and made my ODI debut against England at my home ground Kanpur. Those two years gave me time to learn how to play at the international level. I came back hard, I came back prepared after playing some domestic matches. I think sometimes selectors tend to rush with young players based on the name and the hype and seeing the Indian team losing, a new player is thrown into international cricket and sometimes it does more harm than good.” Kaif told TimesofIndia.com.
Recalling his U-19 days Kaif also singled out the 2000 U-19 Indian team coach Roger Binny for special praise, saying, “Most of the coaches feel that since these are Under-19 kids, they had to take control as a coach, but Roger Binny gave us full freedom and backed me and my decisions. Even though Roger Binny himself has been such a big player and a World Cup winner, he was quite cool and calm and that benefitted us a lot. His coaching style was such that no player felt under pressure and he gave us full freedom to play. We had the right kind of coach who asked me, the captain, to take the team along and lead from the front. This doesn’t happen nowadays and the younger teams now like Under-15, Under-19 or even Ranji teams are dominated by the coach. But that wasn’t the case with us then.” Kaif told TimesofIndia.com.
Overall in his senior international career, Mohammad Kaif, widely regarded as one of the best fielders to have ever played the game, played 13 Tests and 125 ODIs, scoring over 3300 international runs, with 1 Test and 2 ODI centuries.