It could so easily have been the start of a wonderful run in international cricket. That it continues to be, and will almost certainly remain, the highpoint of Mohammad Kaif's career is a sad reflection not merely of unfulfilled promise, but also of selectorial quirks that are an integral part of the sport.
When all appeared lost for India at Lord's on July 13, 2002, two young men as different in character as chalk is from cheese but who were singularly comfortable in each other's company joined hands to fashion a victory that was to catalyse India's campaign at the 2003 World Cup. Kaif and Yuvraj Singh, young guns who had been an integral part of India's Under-19 triumph in 2000, showed that senior cricket wasn't a bridge too far at the home of cricket, their stirring association with the established guns back in the pavilion the stuff of dreams.
To chase down 325 is an arduous task, no matter what. To have to do it in a cup final where runs on the board is gold dust is even more demanding. To have to do it from 146 for five, with Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar all dismissed, calls for not just talent and ability, but also character, temperament and a strong mind.
Yuvraj and Kaif, then 20 and 21, provided all that and more during an intelligent 121-run sixth-wicket partnership, dashing England’s hopes and providing new fillip to India's limited-overs approach. Kaif stayed till the end and got the job done with an undefeated 87. The seven-batsman theory took deep root, a combination that served the team brilliantly until the final of the World Cup against Australia but most importantly, that final suggested that two young gems had come of age.
Remarkably, Yuvraj and Kaif have since gone in different directions. Despite his unsuccessful forays in Test cricket, Yuvraj remains a massive figure in Indian cricket. His contributions to India's triumph at the inaugural World T20 in South Africa in 2007, and to the 50-over World Cup triumph at home in 2011, are too well chronicled to be repeated here. Having successfully battled a rare form of cancer, Yuvraj should return to international duty not too long from now, though the same can’t be said of Kaif.
Where Yuvraj is flashy, flamboyant and outgoing, Kaif is the exact opposite – composed, obsessed with cricket and a bit of an introvert. Cricket has always been his top, and only, priority. Few men are as fit in contemporary cricket as Kaif is, fewer still can claim to possess his electric fielding skills or his commitment to his team's cause and to the sport itself. Despite that, at 31, his international career is all but over.
For a while after his heroics in the NatWest final, Kaif batted like the real deal, especially in the one-day game, and did enough in the Test arena without setting the stage afire. Until 2006, that is.
On a dismal one-day series in the West Indies which India lost 1-4, Kaif made three half-centuries in five games. In the subsequent four-Test series, he made an unbeaten 148 in the second Test, but played just three more Test innings after that. Scores of 8, 10 and 10 in three ODIs in South Africa in late 2006 strangely cost him his Test place; since then, he has been so superfluous to the scheme of things that he has never even been picked in a Test or ODI squad, let alone a playing XI.
Kaif hasn't sat back and moped. He has gone out and made big runs in domestic cricket – the year after he was dropped, he amassed 993 first-class runs at 58.41, in 2009-10, he had 684 runs at 45.60 and last season, he aggregated 711 runs at 54.69 – unmindful of the fact that the selectors seem to have permanently slammed the door shut on him.
Anil Kumble, who has seen Kaif's development as a cricketer and person from close quarters, is as mystified as anyone else at his fall from grace. "I really am at a loss to figure out where and why he missed out," Kumble told Wisden India. "I think that was the time when a lot of flamboyant cricketers came to the fore – the likes of Raina, Rohit and, a little later, Kohli. Kaif has always been a solid, disciplined performer, and perhaps in the clamour for flamboyance, the selectors lost track of him.
"I still believe he can add a lot of value to the Test team, especially with Rahul having retired and a few other seniors not far away from retirement," Kumble said. "Kaif is only 31, and I believe this is the time when, as a batsman, you are nearing the peak of your powers. He has been consistent in domestic cricket, had a good last season, and he continues to be a brilliant fielder. As much as anything else, he has great attitude, so I don't see why they should not look at him in the Test level. He has been there, done that in the Test match arena, he has the experience and the technique to do well as he has shown in the past. I can understand the selectors wanting to look ahead when it comes to the one-day game, but as far as Test cricket is concerned, Kaif is still a very good bat – he is solid, has good technique, so why not give him another go?"