The only time he has batted for India so far, Faiz Fazal made an unbeaten 55 in an One-Day International against Zimbabwe in 2016. Back then Fazal’s consistency for Vidarbha was known, but he was hardly rated because he mostly played in front of empty stands and in non-televised games. Even though Umesh Yadav had impressed with his pace at the highest level, Vidarbha did not have enough spice to excite the broadcasters or even the national selectors. Fazal, who was playing league cricket in England when he got to know about his India selection, understood the limitations within which he operated.
“I don’t look much further, and love to be in the present. The thing that was in my control was to give my 100 percent when I got my chance, and I did that,” Fazal, then nearing 31, had told this correspondent on returning from Zimbabwe. “I surely want to play Test cricket, but being selected to any team is not in my control. I have been faithful and loyal to cricket, and I really feel connected with it. All I can do is respect the game and keep working hard or else it’s a cruel game, it can backfire on you anytime.”
Such measured and thoughtful words can only come from someone who is unconditionally in love with the game and finds solace by spending time on the ground. Someone who is invested in it for the pure joy that the sport delivers and is not driven just by rewards.
Fazal's overall outlook towards life and gratitude towards the game has made him a wonderful leader of men. He is now one of the most recognised faces in the domestic circuit after leading Vidarbha to Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup titles in 2017-18 and successfully defending them this season. They are only the third team, after Mumbai and Karnataka, to achieve this remarkable feat.
Appointed captain of the Ranji team after his India debut, Fazal has separated his personal ambitions from team goals to extend Vidarbha’s undefeated streak to 25 First-class matches. The last time they tasted defeat was when they went down by an innings to Maharashtra in November 2016.
Enough has been written about the influence that Chandrakant Pandit, the coach, and Wasim Jaffer, the professional, have had in the dressing room since they joined hands last season, but no success is possible without a focussed captain who is totally committed to the team’s cause. He is the bridge between the Mumbai school of Pandit and Jaffer and the local players.
Having played under Shane Warne at Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League, Fazal understands the value of a competitive streak. Similarly, having grown up in a small city like Nagpur, where the attitude towards life is laid back compared to metropolitans, he recognises the criticality of being considerate towards players. Fazal marries empathy with hardcore fighting spirit.
Depending on the match situation, he is either a companion or a headmaster or a mentor. In every public interaction, he deviates the attention towards the team. This basic understanding of human psychology and his stature as a batsman has earned him the trust and respect of the players.
He has innate faith in the team’s strong character, and unsurprisingly spoke about it after prevailing over Rest of India in the Irani Cup on the basis of first-innings lead.
Vidarbha were without the injured pair of Jaffer and Umesh for this clash, and that changed the equation completely. Yet the way they fought at different stages of the game showed their depth and clarity in approach. Asked to field first on a pitch that became difficult to bat on towards the end, they reduced Rest of India from 171/1 to 330 all out on the first day. Struggling at 168/5, they found a hero in Akshay Karnewar, who made his maiden century from No 8 to give Vidarbha a decisive lead of 95 runs. Set a target of 280 after Hanuma Vihari and Ajinkya Rahane put on 229, they lost Fazal in the first over. But teenager Atharva Taide, who replaced Jaffer, and Ganesh scored gritty half-centuries, and R Sanjay made 42 to take Vidarbha 11 runs close to target before the skipper opted to call off the proceedings.
“The target they had set was a sporting total, but the way we played, the way we approached the innings was credible. The boys showed their character. It was important to show the character because such a target in such wickets is not easy,” Fazal said at the post-match press conference even as he explained that they did not go for an outright win because the pitch was tricky and it was not worth taking and exposing a new batsman after Ganesh fell for 87. “The way we approached the game was very good. The way the youngsters adapted around Ganesh, who played a really nice innings, Sanjay played nicely as did Taide. They played very matured innings. We need players in the team who show character. That’s how you build teams. That’s the reason why we are so consistent for last two years.”
Even in celebration, Fazal stressed on the need to learn from the opposition and fill up the gaps. “Hats off to (Ajinkya and Hanuma). To be 30-40 for 2 (46 for 2) and then the way they made a comeback and the kind of innings they played was like a school for us. It was a learning process for us. The technique with which they batted, they played very straight – no risk. I think we learnt a lot and that showed in our (second) innings,” he said. “I think there are a lot of areas to work, and we will be working on it. That’s the good sign of a team when you still want to learn and still want to improve. Those are very good signs to be consistent next season.”
Rahane, the RoI captain, possibly paid the biggest compliment to Vidarbha. “They have been magnificent. It’s not easy to win back to back Ranji Trophy and Irani Trophy,” he said at the presentation ceremony. “We all need to learn from them. Every domestic team needs to learn from them – their consistency throughout the year.”
He does not have a batting average in international cricket close to three years after his debut, but Fazal's unconditional loyalty towards the game has made Vidarbha a success model in Indian domestic circuit.