"During the match, I thought I'd collapse anytime": UP's Mohammad Saif opens up about his fight with tuberculosis
Riding on now-captain Mahesh Rawat's first innings 146, the hosts, Railways had posted 345 runs on the board at the Karnail Singh Stadium, Delhi in February 2015. A disastrous start then saw Praveen Kumar-led UP struggling on 49 for four when an 18-year-old debutant joined hands with the skipper, who had promoted himself, on the crease.
A 316-minute 86-run vigil followed, which not only helped UP cut down the deficit but gave them a shot at winning the match, despite conceding the first innings lead. Piyush Chawla's fifer and Eklavya Dwivedi's century, in the second innings, completed what the debutant had started and the visitors walked away with all six points.
The left-handed middle-order batsman Mohammad Saif, with his grit and composure, had given a glimpse of what was to come in the following seasons. The former under-16 cricketer of the year then took his game up by another notch and played a 198-run innings in just his second Ranji match. Though he missed his double century by a couple of runs, his 287-run partnership with another teenager, Sarfaraz Khan, had caught everyone's attention.
Having already played for the Indian under-19 side, there was only one way his career could have gone from there - selection for an IPL franchise in a year or two with a possibility of national call-up on the horizon, right?
Things started panning out quite differently for the then-19-years-old. With matches coming thick and fast, at venues spread across the nation, a bout of viral fever disrupted Saif's flow. Doctor's advice to stay away from the sport for a brief period was ignored and the batsman went on to play three more matches despite the sickness.
It was when UP were up against Gujarat in Valsad that Saif realised he might collapse on the field. Three blood tests, an X-ray and a trip to Mumbai later, doctors found out that the cricketer has tuberculosis infection in his lungs. Turned out Saif played three full-fledged four-day matches, all of them while suffering from a disease which accounts for 10.1% of the deaths in India every year.
"After my first two Ranji matches, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. But I played a couple more matches with TB despite doctor's warnings that I might collapse during the match itself," Saif revealed in an interview with Sportskeeda.
Sounds naive, I know, but the now 21-year-old then described the series of events in chronological order and all of it started making much more sense.
"We didn't know if it was actually TB or just a bout of viral fever before my third match. And because we were travelling so much, everyone thought this was just because of excessive travelling. Then I had a blood test after the third match, two tests in fact, but nothing substantial came out of it.
"Then during the fifth match, I thought I'd collapse anytime. After the match, when we came into the dressing room, I was taken to the doctor and my physio adviced that I get an X-ray done but still nothing conclusive enough came out. Then I went to Mumbai and the doctor there told me that I have 99% tuberculosis infection."
It is never easy for a player, especially a budding one, to take some time off the game knowing very well that there are others waiting in the ranks to take his place. More so for Saif, as he had started playing the game quite late, and to let go of everything he had achieved in eight years of hard work and perseverance and start from scratch was a tough ask.
"I had to take nine months off the game. After I returned, I scored some 90 odd runs for the under 23 team and though I wasn't picked for the one-dayers, I made it to the Ranji squad for this year and finally played in Delhi."
Back to Delhi...
More than two years after making his first-class debut, Saif was back in the Indian capital recently, representing UP against an Ishant Sharma-led Delhi side. However, this time, his 169-ball-83 in the first innings and two wickets in the second were not enough to see his side through.
Saif, though, with the toughest years of his career already behind him is optimistic and feels the team, made up of most of his UP under-19 teammates with whom he has 'won everything there is to in age-group cricket', is destined to do good in the near future.
"Raina bhai keeps motivating us and though he isn't in the best of form and we've lost a couple of close matches this season, the atmosphere of the team is good. We have won all the trophies in age-group cricket, with Kuldeep, Akshdeep, Rinku et al and we can definitely do it in the Ranji Trophy as well."
Where it all started...
It was the left-hander's upbringing and the hard-work his father had put in to make him the player he is today which has kept him going, despite all the hardships.
"I was 11 years old when I started playing the sport. My father, who played cricket as well but didn't have the monetary support to play at the highest level, never wanted me to become a cricketer because I was good at studies, and there's a lot of competition in the sport as well. But once he saw me in the backyard, playing cricket, he realised that I'm good at it and asked me whether I'd want to become a professional as it will my affect studies.
"Then he put in a lot of hard-work, supported me a lot, bought a land, made a cement pitch for me to practice and even used to give me throwdowns. Then I went to the sports college, was named the U-16 cricketer of the year after back to back centuries in four matches - three 100s and a double century and then I was selected for India under-19."
"The exposure is way more in U19 cricket now"
During Saif's days in the age-group circuit, matches weren't played around the year and opportunities were few and far between. On the contrary, today, the age-group cricketers are being provided with the best possible facilities and the 21-year-old feels that it will help the current crop of U-19 cricketers make it big.
"There were not many matches, 3-4 a year. Now there are more than 6-7 league matches a year, so there are much more opportunities for the current generation. The exposure is way more than what it was back in my time. Now the one-dayers are also played with the white ball, we used to play with the red balls then."
'Selection for an IPL franchise in a year or two?'
"Almost all of my former under 19 teammates have played in the IPL. But I was forced to miss two years due to the TB, so yeah I definitely want to play in the competition. I'll perform at my best in the domestic games and then we'll see where it takes me."
Saif's next assignment is the Ranji Trophy match against Assam starting on Thursday 9th November, where he'd hope to add on to his impressive first-class numbers so far and become a permanent fixture for the UP team in the long run.