If there is one phase in Indian cricket, which can go down as ‘memorable’, it is the time period between 2000 and 2005, when Sourav Ganguly and John Wright held the captain and coach’s positions.
During this phase, India put in some absolutely superb performances, both at home and overseas and the period gave a generation of cricket fanatics some great role models to look up to.
While some players in this era became legends of the game, others faded away. Among those in the latter list is Ajay Ratra, who played six Tests for India in 2002 before an injury forced him out of the side and subsequently also put an end to his international career.
Like any other kid in the neighborhood, Ratra’s career also began early as he made his way up the school system, then to domestic cricket before eventually playing for India.
“I was interested in cricket from my childhood. There was a park behind my house in Faridabad where we would go and play. But when I was 10 or 11, I slowly started to take it to the next level. I played for my school team and then started to go for proper practice in the stadium at Faridabad,” he told Sportskeeda in an interview.
“As a keeper, I followed Ian Healy from Australia. And then, of course, Sachin Tendulkar was someone I very much liked to watch. The manner in which batted, his love for the game, the sacrifices he made and many other things was quite inspiring for me,” he added.
Ratra began his journey in domestic cricket in the 1998/99 season and was part of the India Under-19 squad that won the World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000.After four years of hard toil, he got his chance in 2002, when he made both his Test and ODI debut.
Both those games turned out to be memorable experiences for the wicket-keeper as India went on to win the matches and he also had a special memory in his Test debut, which he would surely remember for the rest of his life.
“My ODI debut happened at the Eden Gardens. Sourav Ganguly was our captain at the time. It was a big moment in my life and the debut turned out well. I got the chance to play alongside cricketers who we grew up watching. The likes of Ganguly, Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath.
“That was a very big moment for me. My Test debut happened in Trinidad against the West Indies. Ganguly presented me with the cap. We won that Test match. It was also a matter of pride for me that Brian Lara was my first dismissal as a wicket-keeper of the bowling of Ashish Nehra,” he said.
Both Ganguly and Wright took over the reigns of Indian cricket at a time when Indian cricket was still coming out of the whole match-fixing saga and Ratra credited the former’s leadership qualities, especially praising the manner in which he backed the upcoming group of players.
“Basically, the team was going through a different phase. A lot of new players had come in, the like of Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Harbhajan Singh etc. Full credit to Ganguly for having faith in these youngsters and they repaid the trust shown by their captain on them very well.
“I believe that had Sehwag played under a skipper who didn't appreciate his style of batting, then maybe he would not have become the player that he did. He had a very clear mindset. If there was a ball to be hit, he would go for it. Whichever players Ganguly picked, he backed them a lot and they repaid him. We also began winning overseas under him. We won that Test in the West Indies, we won a Test in England as well.
“John Wright was a decent coach and a sensible man. He knew how to handle the senior players and credit to him for the way he pepped up the team before a game. After a point, you don’t need a lot of coaching, but time management and other important issues, he was very good at that,” he said.
During the series when Ratra made his Test debut, he also scored his first hundred in the longer-format in the fourth Test at Antigua and he recalled the century, along with the incident when Anil Kumble was hit on the jaw by a rising delivery from Mervyn Dillon.
“We batted on the first day and scored about 200 runs. On the second day, we lost three quick wickets and Kumble had got hit as well, prior to that. I don't know about the rest, but I was a bit scared. I was batting at Number 8 in that game after Kumble. When I went to the wicket, I could still see blood on the pitch. Laxman was at the other end. I began slowly and took my time at the start.
“I suffered a few knocks on the way as well, lost a nail on my finger when I was 99, Andrew Leipus rushed in to help me out and taped it and I carried on and got to that hundred, which was a great moment for me,” he said.
Later that season, Ratra played a part in India’s long tour to England and little did he know at that stage that it was to be his final tour with the national side. However, despite not getting enough chances, Ratra chose to look at his career in a different manner.
“Overall, I played six tests, got a hundred in my third Test and then played three more. I got injured after that and was out of the team after that. But I see things from a different perspective now. I don’t hold any grudges.
“I see it from the point of view of what I got in my life. I made some useful contributions for India lower down the order when I played. I enjoyed my time when I played for India and had a satisfactory time in First Class cricket as well,” he said.
At present, India have got two wicket-keepers in Wriddhiman Saha for Tests and MS Dhoni for ODIs and the former gloveman felt that the former was doing a fine job and named a couple of youngsters who could carry the mantle in the future.
“Wriddhiman Saha has been India’s keeper in Tests for a while and has done well. I am very happy for him. He didn’t get a lot of chances when Dhoni had cemented his place. In the new lot, Rishabh Pant seems a good talent. His batting has been very impressive, but unfortunately, I have not had a chance to see his wicket-keeping.
“Ishan Kishan is another one who could take over the mantle in the future. My only wish is any wicket-keeper should not be judged for only his batting but should be judged also on how good he is with the gloves,” he said.
Lastly, when asked about what his future goals were, now that he has retired from the game, Ratra has just one wish for the future
“My future goal is to give back to this wonderful sport what it has given me,” he concluded.