All pitches in India were paata those days. But I didn’t care. I used to think that the pitch didn’t matter, says Zaidi. © Ashish Winston Zaidi

All pitches in India were paata those days. But I didn’t care. I used to think that the pitch didn’t matter, says Zaidi. © Ashish Winston Zaidi

In most lists of Indian cricketers who should, or at least could, have played for India but didn’t, the name of Ashish Winston Zaidi crops up almost without exception. A swinger of excellent ability, Zaidi played Ranji Trophy cricket from 1988-89 to 2006-07 – that’s 18 years – without missing a single season, and ended with 348 wickets from 93 matches, and 378 wickets from 110 first-class matches overall. And remember that this was on dusty, brown pitches that were characteristic of the era, mostly tracks with little or no help for pacers.

Memories of his Ranji Trophy debut
It was in 1988. I had already played Under-17s for Uttar Pradesh but not Under-19s. They used to have open trials in Kanpur those days, and I got selected. In fact, I played Under-19 cricket for UP after playing my first Ranji Trophy game, in 1988 against Railways. It was at Kamla Club ground in Kanpur. I opened the bowling with RP Singh Sr. and got the first wicket of the match, Prakash Karkera, their captain. It was a matting wicket, I remember. Gopal Sharma was there; he was our main bowler. Those days we played on zonal basis, so only three-four matches; and I got to play only one game the first season.

I was only 17, so a lot of people felt I was too young. But then I went with the Indian Under-19 team for a ‘Test’ series in Pakistan and picked up ten wickets in two matches. Ajay Jadeja, Ashish Kapoor and Nayan Mongia were in our team, and they had Inzamam-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed. Then I went to MRF Pace Academy, with Venkatesh Prasad, Subroto Banerjee and Vivek Razdan. And then, gradually, I became a regular in the UP Ranji team.

Favourite Ranji Trophy moment
Everyone talks about the 9 for 45 I got against Vidarbha in 1999. It was at Modi Stadium and it was a slow pitch, but I got a lot of swing. They were bowled out for 98. I bowled 20 (19.4) overs straight. (Mohammad) Saif got a wicket, the eighth. So I picked up seven and then the last two. Only two wickets were caught, the rest were all bowled or lbw. So that was great. But I got seven-eight wickets in an innings many times. Dus reh gaya (I missed the ten-for).

Turning point of his career
In 1999-2000 I got 49 wickets in the Ranji Trophy. So that was good. But there were no turning points, because I never got to play for India. I tried my best. Rusi Jeejeebhoy (the Bengal cricketer who later became a selector) once told me that no Central Zone selector ever brought up my name. So what could I do?

I kept thinking that this year I will get a call, I should get a call, and I waited. The call never came. But I never lost my hunger for wickets. If I didn’t get wickets and others did, I used to feel awful. At lunch or tea or at the end, if I didn’t have wickets, I would feel ashamed, I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. I had to pick up wickets.

"Some people said that I should retire and let a youngster play, but I said if a youngster is better than me, drop me. I used to compete with everyone – we used to count wickets, and I usually won." © Ashish Winston Zaidi

“Some people said that I should retire and let a youngster play, but I said if a youngster is better than me, drop me. I used to compete with everyone – we used to count wickets, and I usually won.” © Ashish Winston Zaidi

My wife also played a role. I would call her after the day’s play and she would ask me how many wickets I got. If I told her two or three, she would say, ‘Us se kya hota hai (what’s that worth)?’ She used to be happy only if I got five wickets.

I didn’t miss a single season even though I used to bowl long spells, even when I was older. I got injuries, of course, but I HAD to play. I would take painkillers and massage myself and then in the morning I would put ice packs on my injuries and go out to play. I didn’t want to miss a single match, a single opportunity to pick up wickets.

The most cherished win of his career
Every cricketer wants to play for India. When they can’t, they want to win the Ranji Trophy. We won the Ranji Trophy in 2005-06. I really wanted that before I retired, so that was a dream come true. It was against Bengal in Lucknow. I got only one wicket in the first innings, but it was wonderful.

Actually, what I remember most is when I planned a batsman’s dismissal and it came off. I remember I got Amol (Muzumdar) once. It was at Wankhede (Stadium in January 2006). I was getting reverse swing and he was letting the ball go. So I went wide of the crease and got the ball to hold its line and bowled him. Then when I got 300 wickets in the Ranji Trophy – it was against Punjab in Meerut.

I loved picking up wickets. I would have quit ten years before I did if it was only about playing for India. I wanted to, but it didn’t happen. But I wanted to keep bowling. Some people said that I should retire and let a youngster play, but I said if a youngster is better than me, drop me. I used to compete with everyone – we used to count wickets, and I usually won.

The biggest characters (fun team-mates, pranksters) he played with
We were all friends – Gyanendra (Pandey), Rizwan (Shamshad), Manoj (Mudgal) … we played Under-19s together and then Gyanendra and I got in the UP team together. We were all the same age, we stayed together, and had fun. We didn’t have much money, but we would finish a day’s play and, wherever we were, we would take a bath, get dressed up, and have a good time in the town. We never felt tired, I don’t know why.

"At lunch or tea or at the end, if I didn’t have wickets, I would feel ashamed, I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. I had to pick up wickets." © Ashish Winston Zaidi

“At lunch or tea or at the end, if I didn’t have wickets, I would feel ashamed, I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. I had to pick up wickets.” © Ashish Winston Zaidi

The toughest conditions he has played a game in
I’d say it was the final match against Karnataka in Bangalore in 1997-98. They had (Javagal) Srinath, Dodda Ganesh and Sunil Joshi and bowled us out for 140 (134), and Rahul (Dravid) scored a double-century (215). We drew the match but they won the title. We didn’t bat well, but it was a dead pitch, a paata wicket. Nothing new. All pitches in India were paata those days. But I didn’t care. I used to think that the pitch didn’t matter.

Much later, when I was the UP manager and we were in Mumbai, and I went to look at a pitch, Sachin (Tendulkar) was sitting there. He looked at me and said, ‘Phir aa gaya tu (you’re back)?’ We had a laugh. ‘Nahin, bhai, mera to ho gaya,’ I told him.

The toughest opponents
Has to be Bombay – Sachin, Amol, Wasim (Jaffer), Vinod Kambli … toughest from the batting point of view. They only won on first-innings leads. It was very tough against them. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were tough too, especially in their grounds.

Life after retirement
Well, for ten years I was the manager and the bowling coach of UP, till last year. I thoroughly enjoyed doing the job, but I had a heart problem last year. There was a heart blockage. It’s all right now, and I have started working out. But I left the position with the team. I work in Food Corporation of India, where I was recently promoted to assistant general manager. So it’s all going pretty well. I do follow cricket; the 500th Test was played in Kanpur, so that was a matter of great pride for me. It would be nice to return to the team.

Ashish. Winston. Zaidi. What’s in the name?
My friends used to call me ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ [after the popular film]. My paternal grandfather was Mohammedan, and my grandmother was Christian, and then when they were all naming me, they added a Hindu name. People used to joke that I should add ‘Singh’ in the end too.