Sunday, September 19, 2010

Schoolboy Prodigy || Gulu Ezekiel - 1

'He was a natural cricketer' - Ramakant Achrekar

If the Kanga League is the heart and soul of Mumbai cricket, the Harris and Giles Shield inter-school tournaments are its grassroots. The schools scene was dominated by the likes of Sharadashram, Balamohan, St. Mary's, Don Bosco, St. Xavier's and Anjuman-E-Islam.

Sharadashram has produced four Test cricketers - Chandrakant Pandit, Pravin Amre, Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. By the 1980s it had overtaken Anjuman-E-Islam as the winner of most inter-school tournament titles.

Pandit (a wicket-keeper batsman) and Rajput (opening batsman) were in Ruia College with Ajit Tendulkar and were coached by Ramakant Achrekar, the official Sharadashram coach. He also ran a few cricket clubs, including the Sassanian Cricket Club and Kamat Memorial CC for whom he kept wickets in Kanga League matches well into his 40s.

Achrekar never reached first-class level. But for many years he was the wicket-keeper batsman for the strong State Bank of India team in the Times Shield which had in its ranks a future India captain and coach, Ajit Wadekar.

'We used to call him the Bradman of tennis ball cricket, such was his technique,' Wadekar told me in Bombay in September 2001.

For those who may scoff at the thought of playing cricket with a tennis ball, try it sometime. Keeping the ball on the ground is devilishly difficult and reaching 20 runs is considered quite a feat.

Ajit Tendulkar felt this was the ideal man to guide the early career of his little brother, who he was convinced had the spark in him to make the big-time. According to Ajit, Achrekar's biggest asset was the equal emphasis he laid on both net practice and match practice. The coach ensured most of his boys were busy playing in one tournament or the other right through the year.

Ajit duly approached Achrekar Sir (as he is respectfully referred to) and asked him if he could bring his brother along for the net practice which he held for Kamat club and Sharadashram schoolboys at Shivaji Park. The coach, already well known in Mumbai cricket circles, and soon to become a legend around the cricket world, agreed after first confirming that 11-year-old Sachin had never played with a hard cricket ball. Till then it had been rubber-ball cricket for the little boy.

On the first day, Achrekar told Sachin to watch in order to get a feel of what playing with the 'big boys' would be like. 'For the first and so far perhaps the only time in his cricket career, Sachin just stood and watched the others play,' remembers Ajit.

Once the batting was over Sachin did, however, get a chance to be part of the fielding drill. For the first time he got the feel of a hard cricket ball. But Ajit, at least, was impressed. 'I realized once more he had natural talent which should be nurtured.'

I met Achrekar at his modest Dadar flat in September 2001 to get his first impressions of the boy who would be king. Achrekar, now in his 60s, has slowed down somewhat after a stroke a couple of years ago. But he was still rushing off to Shivaji Park for the daily coaching sessions. His eyes lit up when I asked him about his most famous product. 'Everything was just right. He was a natural cricketer. I did not have to change much. By the time he was 12-13 I knew he would make the big time. If I told him something, he would be diligent and persevering. I would have to tell him something only once and he would stick to it.' Achrekar also emphasized that it was the Tendulkar family structure that provided the bedrock for Sachin's career. 'His father was always behind him and his brother Ajit would accompany him to the nets. This was essential for the youngster.'

On the way home from that first session, he told his brother with the same confidence with which he would handle the world's best bowlers, 'I can bat better than any of them.'

The next day was the first batting session at the nets and though Achrekar did not express any opinion, he did invite him to continue his practice sessions. Playing with a rubber ball meant Sachin resorted to cross-bat shots to cope with the exaggerated bounce. This led to an over-emphasis on leg side play in the initial nets. Ajit noticed his 'uncanny ability' to judge the length of the ball and middle it.

Like all good coaches, Achrekar was loath to change the natural style of the youngster. He did, however, have a problem with Sachin's batting grip, something he had acquired as a five-year-old when he would play around with Ajit's bat. In order to grip a bat that was obviously too big for him, Sachin clutched it at the bottom of the handle and the habit stuck. The bottom-handed grip enabled him to hit strokes with great power. But Achrekar felt it was all wrong as it affected his stance and would cause problems as he grew taller. He tried to persuade Sachin to use the orthodox grip, holding the bat in the middle of the handle with both hands together. But Sachin felt uncomfortable with this new grip and wanted to go back to the original. Achrekar relented and it has stayed with Sachin all these years.

Two weeks at the nets and Achrekar invited the youngster to play his first organized match, a 50-overs match between two teams made up of his wards.

The first two matches produced ducks. So would his first two One-Day Internationals in 1989. But those early failures did not faze Sachin one bit. Sure enough, soon the runs began to flow. Ajit remembers scores of 51, 38 and 45 (a batsman had to retire after reaching 50), though the diary in which Sachin noted his scores has since been lost. Achrekar had fixed his place as number four in the batting lineup. The coach was impressed enough to include him in his own Kamat Memorial side.

It is said in Mumbai that if a boy wants to play cricket seriously, he should study in Sharadashram English with its champion cricket team. 'Boys joined the school for cricket. If they wanted to study they could have gone somewhere else,' says Ranji Trophy player Amol Muzumdar who studied with Sachin in Sharadashram. (Outlook, January 4, 1999).

Sachin was studying in the Indian Education Society's New English School, close to the family home in Bandra (East) where most of his friends also studied. But the school lacked a good cricket ground and coach. On Achrekar's suggestion, the switch was made and purely for the sake of cricket. Professor Ramesh Tendulkar was first approached by Achrekar with the suggestion, since the coach was by now convinced the boy had potential. But the father turned to Ajit for his opinion because Ajit had cricketing experience and had been guiding Sachin's entry into serious cricket. Till now Sachin played cricket only during the school vacations. Now he would have to combine studies and cricket. But the final decision was left to Sachin himself - a tough one for someone so young who would miss his school friends. Commuting every day from his home in Bandra (East) to the new school meant a one-hour journey and he would have to change buses. However, it did not take him very long to reach a decision. Cricket was more important than fun and games in the backyard. Sharadashram it would be. It is remarkable that a family so steeped in middle-class values with education coming above all, had the courage and foresight to take such a far-reaching decision.

First though came the task of buying him a complete kit, under the guidance of his coach. Ajit remembers that Sachin in his child-like excitement picked out the first bat he saw, one that appeared too big and heavy for his size. Both Ajit and Achrekar tried to dissuade him. But he was firm in his choice and it has always been heavy bats from then on. Today he wields one of the heaviest in the world. (up to 3lbs 2 ounces).

By now Sachin's life revolved round cricket and cricket alone. Studies had begun to take a backseat. But there was a four-month hiatus during the monsoon months when the only cricket being played in Mumbai was the Kanga League. Achrekar did not want to risk his star ward on the treacherous pitches where the ball would get up to all kinds of tricks, mostly of the dangerous variety. But those four months helped him to forge what would become one of his closest friendships: with Vinod Kambli. Before long they would find themselves in the record books.

Sachin made his debut in late 1984 in the Giles under-15 tournament for Sharadashram English (he was a reserve in the Harris under-17) against Khoja Khan High School at the Navroze Cricket Club ground on Azad Maidan.

His first big match knock produced 24 runs. This included three stylish boundaries - a square cut, a cover drive and a straight drive. Ajit was struck by the power in his kid brother's hands since most cricketers of that age did not have the strength to hit boundaries, getting their runs mainly in singles and two's. But Sachin's timing was so good that he was able to find the gaps in the field, allowing the ball to race to the boundary.

The first person to predict the big time for Sachin was an umpire by the name of Gondhalekar. He was umpiring the quarterfinals against Don Bosco at Cross Maiden in which Sachin smashed 10 fours in a knock of 50. The umpire called Achrekar and predicted the lad would one day play for the country - a prediction Achrekar brushed aside since this was the boy's first year in competitive cricket. But Gondhalekar insisted. Sadly, he would not be around to see his uncanny prediction come true just five years after it had been made.

Achrekar was keen that Sachin get a place in the Bombay Cricket Association (BCA) nets for under-19 boys which were spread across the city and usually conducted by an ex-Test cricketer. These were very popular during the summer vacations and there used to be a huge rush for the limited slots.

Ajit took Sachin to the MIG (Middle Income Group) Cricket Club ground, a short walk from their home in Bandra to meet the coach in charge, a man named Dandekar. But Dandekar was shocked when he heard Sachin was just 12 and bluntly told Ajit his kid brother was too young to get into the under-19 nets.

So the summer was spent instead in practice sessions with Achrekar, both in the mornings and afternoons. Sessions intense enough for Sachin to say goodbye to a normal childhood with summer vacations filled with childhood pranks and fun and games. This was when he decided to stay on with his uncle and aunt to avoid the journey back and forth as they lived just across the road from Achrekar's 'nets'. (Years later, Sachin would list their names along with those of Ajit and his father as his greatest influences).

All through this year of 1985, it was cricket, cricket, and more cricket. The phrase 'eat cricket, drink cricket, sleep cricket' began to ring true for Sachin. Even after he broke into international cricket, Sachin was known to talk - cricket, of course! - and walk in his sleep. And the phrase he uttered most often in his sleep? 'Take two!' (In Marathi - 'Don-ge').

The grind would begin at seven in the morning, a quick breakfast and then at the ground at 7.30. A batting session would be followed by tips from Achrekar who was always on hand to guide his favourite student. Bowling was a fascination with Sachin from the early days and even then he bowled an assortment of medium pace and leg spin. Fielding was also taken seriously. The morning session would be till ten, and the afternoon would begin at three and continue till seven. But there was no shortage of practice games either. If he got out early, Achrekar would take him across town on his scooter to the Azad Maidan where his Sassanian Cricket Club was playing and Sachin would get the chance to bat twice during the day. Thus were his summer months spent engrossed in the game. Just 12, Sachin also played his first match in the Kanga League, scoring five for Young Parsee Cricket Club in the 'F' division.

That was during the monsoon. The season began in right earnest in October and this time Sachin played for another of Achrekar's clubs: Hind Sevak CC in the Gordhandas Shield, open only to clubs in the suburbs of Mumbai. The team won the tournament with Sachin scoring 30 in his first game and 43 in the semifinals, against experienced bowlers with 'A' division experience. A special batting prize was presented to the precocious youngster, still one year short of his teens. By now he had made quite a name for himself and his school fielded him in both the Giles and Harris Shield tournaments. In fact, his maiden century came in the Harris, the senior of the two.

That landmark came against Don Bosco School, Matunga at the Bharat CC ground at Shivaji Park. He was unbeaten on 96 at the end of the first day of the three-day match, coming in after the loss of two wickets. To get over the tension, Sachin decided to spend the night at his parents' home instead of his uncle's. But it was a sleepless night. Early on the second day, one of the rival team's pace bowlers was square cut to the boundary and Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar's first century entered the record books.

Sachin was chosen for the Mumbai under-15 team for the Vijay Merchant inter-zonal tournament to be played in Pune. Joining him in the side was school chum Kambli.

He was run out for one in a tournament marred by rain and did not make it to the West Zone under-15 team.

By this time, the big names of Mumbai cricket were beginning to take notice of this wonder boy. Former Ranji Trophy captain Milind Rege who was also a junior selector assured Ajit that Sachin had the potential to go all the way. The 1985-86 season had turned out to be a notable one for Sachin. A maiden century and a recommendation from one of Mumbai cricket's old guards!

Sachin played a full season of Kanga League cricket in 1986-87 for the 'F' division team of John Bright CC. He scored 121 runs for an average of nearly 20 when teams were struggling to reach 100 on the treacherous pitches. Scores of 36 and 83 for the Shivaji Park Gymkhana team against PJ Hindu Gymkhana and Dadar Union CC in the GR Vishwanath Trophy for under-15 boys saw him secure a berth in the Mumbai under-15 team for the Vijay Merchant Trophy.

It has happened countless times since in newspapers and magazines around the world. But the very first time Sachin's photograph appeared in the papers was when he scored 123 against Maharashtra in just 140 minutes in the opening game at Baroda. That got him into the West Zone under-15 team as he continued to scale the ladder of success at bewildering speed. West Zone lost to holders South Zone with Sachin's 74 run out the highest score.

Now it was back to do duty for Sharadashram in the Harris Shield. In the very first match he registered an amazing score for a boy barely into his teens: 276 against BPM High School, that too in a single day against boys three to four years older than him. Just one rung lower, in the Giles Shield, Sachin had been appointed captain. The first match was against the powerful Balamohan, Ajit's former team. Sachin confidently predicted he would win not only that match, but the title as well.

Sharadashram were struggling at 40 for three in reply to Balamohan's 250 when the captain came in and smashed 159 not out in two hours. The team was on its way. And so was Sachin. Centuries were coming thick and fast by now as he switched back-and-forth from the under-17 to the under-15 grade. Against St. Xavier's Fort in the Harris, he hit 123 for his third consecutive inter-school ton. Then came 33 not out against the same school in the Giles and 156 against Barfiwala High School in the same tournament. In the final of the Harris Shield Sharadashram English faced their sister institution, Sharadashram Marathi. Sachin scored 42 and 150 not out in his side's victory and finished his Harris season with 596 runs in five innings. Captaining his school in the Giles, Sachin smashed 197 in the semi-finals and then it was the final against Don Bosco, Matunga. His knocks of 67 and 53 were the top scores in a low-scoring game. And true to his word, he had led his school to victory, scoring 665 runs with three centuries in the Giles Shield. For the first time, Sharadashram English achieved the Harris/Giles double, largely due to Sachin's huge scores.

Mumbai's local newspapers have always devoted plenty of space on their sports pages to local cricket, from the Kanga League to schools tournaments. It was the late Sharad Kotnis who first mentioned the name of Sachin Tendulkar in an article in the Afternoon Despatch and Courier.

But the distinction of being the first journalist to interview the prodigy right after the 'double' had been bagged fell to Sunil Warrier of Mid-Day. Warrier, now with The Times of India, sent me a copy of that first interview (published in December 1986). He has vivid memories of the meeting, claiming with a laugh: 'I made Sachin famous and then he made me famous.'

'Sachin was making runs by the tons. I went to Shivaji Park in Dadar and met him just around lunch. I told him that since he was fielding I would come later in the evening to chat with him,' Warrier told me. 'I was quite surprised to see his brother too with him in the evening. I was wondering how he had found the time to call his brother to the ground. I suggested we go to a restaurant and have a cup of tea. They agreed and we walked a short distance from the ground to a small Irani restaurant. It is one of the oldest in that area. As we started chatting I realized that Sachin was keeping mum and Ajit was doing all the talking. Every time I asked a question, Sachin would prompt his brother in Marathi, 'Tu sang na' (You tell him). So I told him, since you go to an English medium school you should speak to me in English and not in Marathi. He politely smiled. We had tea and bun maska and the session must have lasted about 25 minutes or so. I did meet Sachin subsequently when he scored debut hundreds in the Ranji Trophy and Irani Trophy, for chats. But I was weaned away from cricket to hockey and football and I have never met Sachin again.'

Warrier's interview mentioned that Sunil Gavaskar and Vivian Richards were Sachin's favourite batsmen, something he maintains to this day. 'The square-cut and the off-drive are his favourite strokes. He loves to play one-day cricket more than a four-day match. His natural instincts are to attack from the word go.' The interview reveals that 'he thrives on Michael Jackson songs' and concludes with 'Sachin is also a good singer.'

There were so many tournaments to play and Sachin did not want to miss any of them - the Cosmopolitan Shield, the Bombay Junior Cricket tournament, the Mahim-Dadar Shield and the Gordhandas Shield, as well as a few matches for the BCA Colts. He scored his second double-century of the season, 216 in a day, against IES High School in the Matunga Shield. (Incidentally, it would take him a decade to score his maiden first-class double century and the same number of years to score his first Test double ton).

But the fantastic season was destined to have a disappointing end. Sachin had scored twice as many runs as any other school cricketer and was the only batsman to have scored a hundred for Mumbai in the Vijay Merchant Trophy. He was top scorer for the West Zone in the zonal competition for the same tournament. He was prolific in club cricket against senior bowlers. And yet he was bypassed for the BCA's Best Junior Cricketer of the Year award. It was a strange decision.

There was consolation, however, in the form of a letter from Sunil Gavaskar dated 3 August 1987 which contained encouraging words and a postscript: 'Don't be disappointed at not getting the Best Junior Cricketer award from BCA. If you look at the best award winners you will find one name missing and that person has not done badly in Test cricket!!'

Even while scoring a mountain of runs, Sachin did not neglect his bowling and picked up quite a few wickets with his medium pacers. In October of that year, he was part of the selection trials at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai (then known as Madras), overseen by Australian fast bowling legend Dennis Lillee. But Lillee was not impressed with his bowling and told him to concentrate on batting. Sachin was not selected for the Academy.

The 1987-88 season would be a turning point in Sachin's fledgling career.

Even while he was making his mark in every junior tournament in the city, both he and Ajit felt at the start of the season that there was a chance to make it to first-class cricket. Sure enough, at the age of 14 Sachin became the youngest player ever selected for Mumbai in the West Zone Ranji Trophy league.

After useful scores in the Kanga League - where he had now leapfrogged to the 'B' division - he was selected for the Sportstar Trophy for boys under17. His scores of 158, 97 and 75 also won him the Man of the Series award and took his team (Dattu Phadkar XI) to victory.

On 14 November 1987, the Bombay Ranji Trophy selection panel of Ajit Wadekar, Sudhir Naik, Bapu Nadkarni and Sandeep Patil announced the names of 36 probables. Sachin's name was on the list. It was just seven months after his 14th birthday.

The name of Sunil Gavaskar also figured in the list. But Gavaskar had announced his retirement during the MCC Bicentenary match at Lord's in August and thus the two just missed playing in the same team.

Sachin was in the reserves for the opening West Zone league tie against Baroda on December 19. Though he had the chance to field as a substitute in some of the games, he was not selected in the playing eleven that season.

Runs continued to flow in junior tournaments. But he failed to gain selection to the Indian team for the under-19 World Cup in Australia. In the Giles and Harris shield he had a fantastic run: 21 not out, 125, 207 not out, 326 not out, 172 not out, 346 not out, 0 and 14. The 'failures' of 172 not out, 0 and 14 were scored in the Giles Shield. His Harris Shield total of 1, 025 runs came to the staggering average of 1, 025!

The two triple centuries had come in the Harris Shield, in the semifinals against St. Xavier's, Fort (326 not out) and in the final against Anjuman-E-Islam (346 not out). It was in the course of the former (February 23-25 1988) that he was involved in the world record partnership of 664 (unbroken) for the third wicket with Kambli.

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