Friday, November 20, 2009

The prodigy who shook the game By Pradeep Vijaykar

The prodigy who shook the game By Pradeep Vijaykar

Much before he became a legend, the young sensation was reinventing the art of batting on Mumbai’s maidans. PRADEEP VIJAYAKAR recalls...

Whenever talk veers towards the early excitement around Sachin Tendulkar’s talent, I remember the words of Kapil Dev. I had broken the news to the Indian team in the dressing room about Sachin making a hundred on Ranji Trophy debut. The first to respond was Kapil, who immediately told his teammates,‘‘Please don’t go overboard over this performance. We have also had our prodigies in Haryana. There was Rajdeep Kalsi. But he flattered to deceive.''

Kapil’s Mumbai teammates, like Dilip Vengsarkar and Sanjay Manjrekar, sniggered. They had been following Sachin’s performances since he was 12. They had played with and against him. They knew the buzz. They knew what happened with Kalsi would never happen with Sachin. Mumbai cricket has its system of checks and balances and people with the right priorities usually let a talented young one sail through to the top seamlessly.

Also, word spreads around Mumbai’s cricket maidans very fast. When Sachin scored his first fifty for Shardashram against Don Bosco he was barely 11, but umpire DS Gondhalekar immediately told Sachin’s coach Ramakant Achrekar that his ward would one day play for India.

In Achrekar’s own words, Sachin was a ‘‘natural”. He says: ‘‘By the time he was 12 or 13 I knew he would reach the top. I had to tell him one thing just once, and he would stick to it.”'

Still, there were people not willing to get carried away. Like for the semifinal of a suburban tournament, Sachin was left out of the XI by the Hind Sevak skipper. When the skipper got a scolding from Achrekar, Sachin was picked for the two-day final against Prabhu Jolly Young. In the first innings he was out first ball, for a duck off the back of his bat. The bowler was a little known legspinner, yours truly!

The members of the team cursed this bowler for denying them the pleasure of watching the prodigy from close quarters. In the second innings, Sachin hit three boundaries in a row off Ajit Pai, former India seamer, before being run out by his skipper. He went back crying to the pavilion.

This is the ‘check-and-balance' system. There were a few Doubting Thomases. The city had seen many young talents. Budhi Kunderan played for India before he played for Mumbai. Madhav Apte claimed all ten wickets in the Giles Shield and played for India as opening batsman. Ravi Shastri had been catapulted into Test cricket within a year of his firstclass debut.

Nadeem Memon was among the senior players when Sachin played for John Bright in the F Division of the Monsoon tournament Kanga League, which is a test of batsmanship because the deliveries rise off the drying pitches. Says Nadeem, ‘‘Achrekar Sir asked me to include Sachin, who was about 12. There were some who thought he might get hurt but he got 16 not out. Vinod Kambli, Samir Dighe, Iqbal Khan, Dattaram Pandit were also there in the side.”

Two teammates who saw him from close quarters at that raw age were Amol Muzumdar and Sairaj Bahutule. Amol Muzumdar was waiting for his turn during the world record 664-run stand with Vinod Kambli, while Sairaj Bahutule was in the opposition, in the St. Xavier’s High School bowling lineup. Amol recalls,‘‘We knew he would play Test cricket but not for 20 years. I was not in Achrekar’s stable initially but with coach Anna Vaidya.

“But at Shivaji Park this buzz was there. I remember once I was travelling in a bus with my mother. Sachin was in the same bus. I didn’t know him then. I told my mom when we saw Sachin get off, ‘That’s Sachin Tendulkar, he will play for India.’”

Amol adds, ‘‘He had special talent. At that time the stress was more on correct technique and temperament, less on flamboyance. But Sachin had this terrific ability to hit the ball which we never saw in others. When one knows that one can hit any bowler it is a big plus point.”

Sairaj Bahutule is all praise for Sachin’s consistency, right from the U-15 level. ‘‘He hit big runs off me in that world-record stand but he played the bowling on merit even at that young age, which is remarkable.”'

Naresh Churi was another Achrekar chela like Amol Muzumdar, who missed the international bus in spite of having performed and taken the route that Pravin Amre did — Ranji trophy for Railways and Duleep for Central Zone. He says,‘‘I had passed out of school when Sachin joined but when in town I would go to the nets and see him. Sir had a special net for the extra-talented. Once I saw Sachin hitting in the air and asked him, ‘You told us to keep the ball along the ground but Sachin is doing the opposite.’ Achrekar told me, ‘When he hits, he not only middles the ball but he clears the ground. Plus he doesn’t get out when he lifts the ball.’ I appreciated the logic and I knew then that Sachin was special.”

Churi says at the same time there were many who were pointing out that Vinod Kambli was the greater player. ‘‘Once I took our Railways coach Vinod Sharma to watch a Shardasharam game. After Sachin got out with some 250 runs still needed to chase down Anjuman’s 500-plus score at Azad maidan, it was Vinod who scored over 250 and earned us victory. Sharma was impressed more by Vinod. But I insisted that Sachin would be the one.” Soon after, when we were in Delhi for a Ranji game, Sharma knocked on my door in the morning saying,‘‘Your Sachin has been picked for Mumbai.”

When the late Raj Singh Dungarpur saw Sachin play at the Brabourne Stadium in the schools final, he remarked about his maturity. About how when the field was spread out, Sachin would turn his boundary-bound drives to longon and long-off for twos.

How he didn’t hit the ball in the air for nearly two days. No wonder it took little persuasion for Raj Singh, as chairman of the national selection committee, to pick Sachin for India ahead of the likes of Gursharan Singh and Praveen Amre. The rest, as they say, is history.

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