Last week, when the cricketing world was busy between making sense of the ball-tampering scandal and preparing for the 11th edition of the Indian Premier League, Devendra Bundela, a giant of India’s domestic cricket, quietly announced his retirement.
In a career which spanned almost 22 years, Bundela scored 10,004 first-class runs – most of them for Madhya Pradesh – at an average of 43.68 from 164 games. With 145 Ranji Trophy appearances, he is the most capped player in the tournament history, while his tally of 9201 runs is the third-most in Ranji Trophy, behind Wasim Jaffer (10,738) and Amol Muzumdar (9202).
However, his best years clashed with the time when India fielded arguably their best ever middle order in Test cricket in the form of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and VVS Laxman. As a result, Bundela never got an opportunity to represent the country.
In a free-wheeling chat with Wisden India, Bundela, 41, revealed that he had made up his mind to retire before the start of the 2017-18 season.
“Before the 2017-18 season, I had decided that it would be my last season,” said Bundela. “I had told people that it was on my mind. There comes a stage when you realise it’s enough now. I consider myself very lucky that I was able to pursue what I wanted to. Very few people get to do that.
“I feel privileged to have played along with Narendra Hirwani, Rajesh Chauhan, Amay Khurasiya, Sanjay Pandey, JP Yadav, Abbas Ali. And then with Naman Ojha, Ishwar Pandey. The current team also, I really enjoyed playing with them. When I was young, I played with Hiru (Hirwani) bhai and now I played with his son Mihir. I don’t think it has happened with many players.”
Such a long career is bound to have memories which are hard to erase. For Bundela, his most memorable yet the most painful memory is from the Ranji final in 1998-99. Playing against Karnataka, MP got the first-innings lead but were bowled out for 150 in the second dig while chasing a 247-run target. Incidentally, that remains MP’s only final appearance till date in the Ranji Trophy.
“There are many good memories,” Bundela reflected. “We won the Wills Trophy in 1999. And then played the Ranji Trophy final the same year. The most painful memory is also from that final as we lost the match. Even today, I wish somehow the time rolls back and we win that final.”
Apart from that, Bundela says he doesn’t have any regrets. “It happens with every player, in fact with every human being, that when you look back, you realise you made a lot of mistakes. But that’s life. You learn only with experience. The difference is who makes fewer mistakes, progresses faster. I enjoyed my cricket thoroughly; I have no regrets. In future also, I would like to stay connected with the game, most likely as a coach.”
Bundela first came into limelight when he scored 1008 runs at an average of 77.53 in 1998-99, but couldn’t cross even 500 runs in any of the next three seasons. He bounced back by scoring 2026 runs at 54.76 from 2003-04 to 2005-06, but by that time, there was no vacancy in the Indian side.
“In 1999, when we played the final, I had made more than 1000 runs in the season,” he recalled. “I had a good chance then (to represent India). At that time, I played India A as well, was a contender for two-three years. I tried my best, but it didn’t happen.
“In 2007-08 when I turned 30, I realised it is difficult now. But then I motivated myself by saying that I had to give something back. It’s not like you have to play just for your own career and if you don’t play for India, it’s over. The state for which I played, which gave me so much love, I had to do something for it.”
And when Hrishikesh Kanitkar left MP after the 2009-10 season, Bundela was handed over the captaincy. At that time, MP were in the Plate group. Under Bundela’s leadership in 2010-11, the team not only graduated to the Elite group but also impressed everyone with their performance there.
“Captaincy was a big challenge because MP was playing in the Plate group,” recalls Bundela. “As soon as I became captain, my aim was to take the team to Elite group. That challenge really motivated me. We worked really hard that year. Naman Ojha, Ishwar Pandey, everybody performed really well. I also made three hundreds. As a result, we were able to qualify for the Elite league. That was a big achievement. The next year, when we entered the Elite league, it was a different challenge that we had to perform there as well, which we did.
“When you are a captain, your responsibilities also increase. Sometimes when responsibilities increase, you tend to perform better as you tend to stay focused. I had to perform well myself and also had to build a team as a captain. So as a captain, I improved a lot as a batsman as well.”
But just when it started to look like things were going smooth for MP, a spot-fixing scandal surfaced in 2012. Two of MP’s players – TP Sudhindra and Mohnish Mishra – were found guilty and were handed a life ban and one-year suspension respectively. In 2016-17, Jalaj Saxena decided to quit the side and play for Kerala as a professional.
“It was a big challenge as we lost two players,” Bundela said, reflecting on those tough times. “We all accepted that challenge. I told the team that we have to make up for their performance as well. Jalaj Saxena also left two years ago. We are now used to face challenges. In fact, we have become stronger because of those challenges. It gave a lot of motivation to the team in a way that if a key player is not there, we have to step up.
“When I was made captain, my aim was to help youngsters, bring the best out of them, and build a strong team for MP. Obviously, everyone wants to win. We played semifinal (in 2015-16), have been playing quarterfinal for last three-fours. I am happy for the fact that MP has emerged as a strong team. You can say, MP’s team is there in the top six at the moment and you will see that MP cricket would soar to new heights and achieve great things in coming future. My wish is that MP win the Ranji Trophy one day.”
Time to time, life has thrown several challenges at Bundela. But he kept himself motivated throughout to overcome them. It has been a learning curve, from shifting from Ujjain to Indore in search of better opportunities, to playing for MP and then captaining them through thick and thin.
Two persons who had a significant impact on Bundela’s journey are Sanjay Jagdale, his coach, and Chandrakant Pandit, his first captain. Jagdale, whom he met after shifting to Indore, helped him strengthen his basics, while Pandit took him under his wings once he debuted for MP.
“I started my initial cricket in Ujjain, playing club cricket,” said Bundela. “Then for three years, I was a standby in under-15. At that time, I felt that to improve further, I had to move to Indore. There was no other option. I was in class X when I came to Indore. I rented a room here and continued playing cricket. I met Jagdale sir here. He helped me a lot. His is the most important role in my life.
“When I started paying Ranji Trophy, Chandrakant Pandit ji was captain. He was a bit strict but helped me a lot. He taught me a lot of nuances of first-class cricket, like how to manage things on the field, how to read the situation and play accordingly. I learnt a lot from him regarding captaincy also which later on helped me when I became captain. He was a really good captain and understood youngsters well. I still enjoy a really good relationship with him. Even now, he’s really successful as a coach. He has an idea how to produce good players. He knows what the capabilities of a player are which is very important. All this I learnt from him.”
Over the years, cricket has taught many lessons to Bundela. The most important one he says is to stay humble and grounded irrespective of the situation. “You learn so many things about life through cricket,” he offered. “Cricket is a great leveller. You become zero from hero in one day. One thing I learnt is that you must stay balanced whether you perform or not. If you perform, you should take motivation from it. And if you don’t, then you work harder to improve. Ups and downs happen but one has to keep moving forward and keep on learning.
“The game has taught me to remain humble because if you are at the top today, you will come down tomorrow. One has to follow the same thing in life as well. I would like to be remembered as a team-man but more importantly a good human being. Because for me, being a good human being is more important than being a good cricketer.”