Sunday, September 19, 2010

Group Captain Sachin Tendulkar

New Delhi: The Air Force has conferred the honorary rank of Indan Air Force Group Captain on Sachin in recognition of his achievements as an Indian and a cricketer.

Accepting the Air Force's honour, Sachin described it as "the greatest honour being bestowed on me...we all want to at some stage touch the sky. "

He also said he liked wearing aviator glasses after watching Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

"As a teenager, I was fond of fighter planes, super bikes. But I had the privilege of getting into a fighter plane in 1996 in South Africa...I have never revealed this before but I was really scared."

In June, a formal statement from Rashtrapati Bhawan said "as the supreme commander of the armed forces of India", President Pratibha Patil had decided to include Sachin "under the provision of grant of honorary rank by armed forces to eminent personalities acknowledging their contribution towards the nation."

Tendulkar will function like a brand ambassador, and is expected to inspire many young men and women to join the air force.

The big scores || Gulu Ezekiel - 3

Exclusive pre-publication extracts

Researching and writing on the life of the "greatest living Indian" has been a long and wondrous journey. I am delighted that my publishers, Penguin India have been with me all the way. Sachin Tendulkar is not only the world's greatest batsman. He is also a very special person.

To be so high profile in a sport which comes under such intense scrutiny in India and yet remain a role model is perhaps his greatest achievement.

I am delighted that, India's leading cricket portal is carrying exclusive excerpts from my book. I hope you, the reader enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Select chapters from the book will appear till May 20. So keep tuned in. The book published by Penguin India is scheduled to be on the stands by June 15.

''I always wanted this double very badly"

By October 1999 Sachin Tendulkar was back in the team after his enforced break. His first Test series was at home against New Zealand, a relatively soft start to his second innings as captain-or should one say, follow on? Tendulkar was joined in his first Test back in charge by a new coach, Kapil Dev who had taken over from Anshuman Gaekwad.

Kapil Dev had been with Tendulkar in his debut series, in Pakistan in 1989 and the two were known to be pretty close. It was hoped this would open a new chapter in Indian cricket and that the dynamic Kapil could transfer his magic as a player into his new role as coach.

Their first day in office was a shocker however. On a slightly damp pitch at Mohali, Stephen Fleming won the toss, put India into bat and they were shot out for a shocking 83 in a mere 27 overs. Tendulkar (18) was one of only three batsmen to reach double figures. New Zealand's lead was 132 and that was wiped off by new openers Devang Gandhi and S. Ramesh in the second innings.

This time the top five all crossed 50 and two reached double figures, Rahul Dravid and the captain himself. At times it appeared he was batting from memory. Indeed, the very first ball from Nathan Astle he survived a huge appeal for lbw that was turned down by Sri Lankan umpire Peter Manuel.

Eventually India declared at 505 for three wickets-the first time in Tests that a side dismissed for under 100 in their first innings had crossed 500 in the second. His 20th century was a sketchy one, understandable perhaps due to his lack of batting practice. He hung around for than six and a half hours and got the benefit of numerous lbw appeals.

It took a stubborn 73 by captain Stephen Fleming in the second innings to stave off defeat as the visitors struggled to 251 for seven.

The Indian victory was duly delivered by her spin bowlers in the next Test at Kanpur. India coasted to victory by eight wickets with the captain himself rattling off 44 not out from 39 balls in the second innings of 83 for two. The third and final Test at Ahmedabad should have been a triumph for both Tendulkar and the team. Instead, after scoring his first Test double century in a decade, Tendulkar confounded one and all and courted controversy by his refusal to enforce the follow-on after leading by 275 runs.

The match petered out into a draw and India took the series 1-0. The question of why the follow-on was not enforced was later taken up by the CBI in their investigation into match-fixing and corruption in Indian cricket (see Chapter 29).

The coach and captain would eventually be exonerated of all wrongdoing late in 2001.

It was not till 1998 that Sachin recorded his first double-century in first-class cricket. That was for Mumbai against the touring Australians. It had taken him five years to score his maiden ODI century and now after 10 years came his first Test double ton. The New Zealand attack may not have been the most potent in international cricket. But after all the pain and trauma resulting from the back injury, this was indeed a sweet way to announce to the world of cricket that he was back at his best.

India were 311 for three on the first day at Ahmedabad with S. Ramesh out for 110 and Tendulkar batting on 104. He had been dropped at short third man by Astle on 93. Fleming said that his team might pay a price for that lapse and that is precisely what happened. The runs continued to pile up with Ganguly joining in the fun with 125. The stand with Tendulkar for the fourth wicket was an Indian record 281 and the total 583 for seven declared.

There had been much talk that Tendulkar neither had the stamina nor the application to convert his bagful of Test tons into double centuries.

Now he answered his critics with his longest innings yet, 494 minutes in all during which he scored 217 from 343 balls. It was another psychological breakthrough, overtaking his previous highest of 179 against the West Indies at Nagpur in 1994. Sunil Gavaskar's Indian record of 236 not out was in sights when he was dismissed by a brilliant catch shortly after tea on the second day. It was a full-blooded pull off left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori which was held inches off the ground at mid-wicket by Nash. The batsman lingered and waited for the umpire's decision as he was not sure the ball had carried to the fielder.

The 200 was reached when he placed Vettori to mid-on for a single. Non-striker Ajay Jadeja raced back to congratulate his captain. Sachin looked heavenwards in thanks. The Motera Stadium was once again witness to a milestone.

This was the same ground where Sunil Gavaskar became the first to reach 10,000 runs and where Kapil Dev broke Sir Richard Hadlee's world Test wicket record. Sachin dedicated the double ton to his brother Ajit. "He has been there for me for the past 10 years of international cricket." He said it was only when he crossed 170 did the thought of the 200 enter his mind. "I always wanted this double very badly."

Sadly, the sheen of his achievement soon wore off. New Zealand were dismissed for 308. But India batted again in the second innings, finally declaring on 148 for five. Set 424 to win in a possible 103 overs, New Zealand had no trouble saving the Test and finished on 252 for two.

So why was the follow-on not enforced? The captain and coach's explanation was the four specialist bowlers wanted a rest after toiling in the blazing heat for nearly 10 hours in New Zealand's first innings. Not everyone was convinced. "No captain of an international team wanting to win a Test convincingly would have wished away such a fine chance" (by not enforcing the follow-on) wrote G. Viswanath in The Hindu (November 2, 1999). Ravi Shastri, one of Tendulkar's close friends and business associate admitted he was "befuddled" by the tactics.

Former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe was more scathing in his column dated November 3, 1999 in "The last thing Test cricket needs is this approach by the Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar. It was a disgrace that the tactical attitude to dismiss the opposition was not as positive as that of the batting."

The delayed declaration in the second innings was also condemned. "It really shocked me that Tendulkar appeared to have to be cajoled by Kapil Dev before he did finally declare." Inexplicably, one of the bowlers who had apparently demanded a break, Javagal Srinath (who bowled 35 overs in the first innings) came out to bat in the second innings and hung around for nearly half an hour to score 19 not out. Both he and the other not out batsman, Jadeja were constantly looking in the direction of the pavilion for the captain to call them in. He did eventually after the second innings had consumed 32 overs, leaving the Indians with only 13 overs to have a go at their opponents on the fourth evening.

Tendulkar justified the tactics in an interview with Vijay Lokapally (The Sportstar, November 20, 1999): " Just spare a thought for the bowlers. They were tired. In the playing XI, we had a couple of players with health problems. There were a couple of others who also carried on despite some health problems. It was extremely hot that day (42 degrees) and they had bowled about 140 overs. Asking them to bowl another 160 at that stage would have meant someone might have had a breakdown. We didn't want that kind of situation and that is why we gave the bowlers a break. They tried their best I would say. Tendulkar finished the series with a 100-plus average and got another chance to gorge himself of the mediocre Kiwi attack in the one-day series that followed. It was a high-scoring series and India were run close. They sealed a 3-2 verdict by winning the final game in New Delhi by seven wickets. It was a pretty mixed bag for the skipper.

In the second match at Hyderabad Tendulkar recorded the highest score by an Indian in ODIs and the fourth highest of all time, 186. But in the other four matches he had scores of 32, 1, 2 and 0. New Zealand had thrashed the Indian bowlers to the tune of a huge 349 for 9 in the first match at Rajkot, the highest ODI total on Indian soil. That record lasted just three days. India's 376 for two was the second highest ODI total of all time and the stand of 331 for the second wicket in 46 overs between Ganguly and Tendulkar the biggest-ever partnership.

Ganguly missed out on the run-riot when bowler Shayne O'Connor deflected Tendulkar's firm push onto the non-striker's stumps with the batsman out of his ground in the second over. Tendulkar carried his bat, in the process erasing Ganguly's previous Indian highest of 183 against Sri Lanka in the 1999 World Cup. There were 20 fours and three sixes from the 150 balls he faced.

He was on 182 when Chris Cairns bowled the last over and there was a huge buzz round the ground. Could he score the 13 needed to surpass Saeed Anwar's world record? It was not to be, though the Indian record was his. The innings was marked by a number of innovative shots behind square leg. He agreed after the innings that his shot selection had changed.

"Your style of batting should not become too predictable and should not be based on some set pattern," he explained. "This change in shot selection has come gradually as far as I am concerned." "The 186 was satisfying not because I set an individual mark. It was satisfying because we won the match. Tomorrow, someone may break the record but people would remember me for the contribution I made in winning the match for India." (The Sportstar, November 20, 1999)

The New Zealanders had acquitted themselves admirably. It was no shame to lose the three-Test series 1-0 and the five-match ODI series 3-2. For Tendulkar and his men the real test was round the corner in Australia where the world Test and ODI champions were lurking.


‘He’s a god in India and people believe luck shines in his hand . . . It is beyond chaos—It is a frantic appeal by a nation to one man.’— Matthew Hayden on Sachin Tendulkar

In the twenty years that he has been in the public eye, Sachin Tendulkar has been explosive on the cricket field and just as reticent off it. He was barely fifteen years old when he first wrote his name into record books with a stupendous 664-run partnership with his childhood friend Vinod Kambli. A few months later, he struck his first century in first-class cricket. At seventeen he became the second youngest man to make a hundred in international cricket, and after that there was no looking back. Today, Sachin is widely regarded as the world’s finest Batsman, with impeccable technique, an incredible array of strokes, and maturity far beyond his years.

In this biography of the hero of Indian cricket, sports writer Gulu Ezekiel mines interviews, press reports and conversations over the last two decades and more to create an accurate and sympathetic account of the man and his first passion: cricket. He tracks Sachin from his childhood when he first caught the bug of cricket, through his early performances in the Ranji Trophy and other domestic tournaments, and follows him on his meteoric rise to international stardom. With unfailing attention to detail, he reconstructs the crucial matches and events that marked Sachin’s career and unravels for us the magic of the charismatic cricketer whom Wisden Cricket Monthly once dubbed ‘bigger than Jesus’.

Tragedy and Tears || Gulu Ezekiel - 2

"It was my mother who prompted me to go and attend the nation's call"

The World Cup returned to England in 1999 after 16 years. It was in 1983 that the Indian team led by Kapil Dev stunned the world by lifting the Prudential World Cup.

The media and the advertising world's hype in India in the run up to world cricket's biggest event was simply mind-boggling. It seemed that every company worth its salt from televisions to soft drinks and everything else in between had spent their annual ad budgets in one massive splurge on cricket. The sum being tossed around was a staggering Rs 250 crores.

Expectations were sky-high and the whole atmosphere surrounding the Indians was one of hysteria and hype that inevitably got the better of reality and logic. This was not a great team and their recent performances at home and at Sharjah were pretty dismal.

The stars of 1983 who had never got the financial rewards which today's players were reaping also had their day in the sun once again. There were re-unions galore and even a match pitting the team of '83 against the team of '99 at Mumbai. Needless to say Sachin Tendulkar was the star with a century. That only confirmed what he said a few years earlier-that he took his batting seriously even in exhibition matches.

Once again Azharuddin lead the team as he had done in 1992 and 1996. There was no doubt in any cricket follower's mind though on whom the team's chances rested.

Tendulkar even made it to the cover of the May 17, 1999 edition of the American news magazine, Time (the Asian edition). Inside the players expected to dominate were profiled.

"The Bombay Bomber's blazing batting performances have earned him comparisons with Diego Maradona-it helps that they are both short, stocky and curly-haired. But unlike the Argentine ace, Tendulkar is a levelheaded, even bland professional who does all his hell-raising at the wicket.

He wields the heaviest bat in the game, both literally and figuratively and is a quick reader of bowlers and wicket conditions. Ask Shane Warne: regarded by most batsmen as unplayable, the leg spinner was brutalized by Tendulkar throughout the 1998 Australian tour of India. Later, Warne said he had nightmares about Tendulkar's flashing blade.

It's difficult to single out a standout Tendulkar performance, as there as so many-and so many to come. He already owns the record for most ODI centuries, and he has at least 10 years ahead of him. Gulp!"

India were in Group A with hosts England, Kenya, South Africa, holders Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Group B consisted of Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, Pakistan, Scotland and Bangladesh.

The top three teams from each group would advance to the Super Six stage under a complex system of points and the top four would then go onto the semifinals.

India's opening match at Hove on May 15 was against South Africa, one of the favourites.

India started well after electing to bat first as Tendulkar and Ganguly (97) put on 67 runs. Tendulkar was caught behind off Lance Klusener for 28 just after striking a delightful cover driven boundary and the final total of 253 for five was a challenging one.

Openers Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs were both claimed by Srinath with the score at 22 before Jacques Kallis took over. When he was run out for 96, South Africa needed 27 from 26 balls. Klusener promptly struck his first three deliveries for four and his team were home by four wickets with 2.4 overs to spare.

This was a disappointing start to the Indian campaign. But then South Africa were undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in the tournament. The next match four days later at Leicester was against Zimbabwe and the Indian camp was confident it would earn its first points.

That was not to be. Not only did the African team stun India in a last over thriller, there was an even more shocking piece of news for the Indians the night before the game.

Sachin's father, Dr. Ramesh Tendulkar had died in Mumbai of a heart attack in his home in Bandra late on May 18 at the age of 66. He had been ailing for some time.

My first thought on hearing the news was an instinctive one that must have crossed the minds of millions of Indian cricket fans-would Sachin continue at the World Cup or return home? I immediately felt a pang of guilt and I am sure I was not alone in that either.

Sachin did indeed return to Mumbai to attend his father's funeral and miss the match against Zimbabwe.

He left in the early hours of May 19 with tears in his eyes. Few in the team were aware of this shattering blow. It was coach Anshuman Gaekwad who took the call from Mumbai at 10.30 p.m. local time and was asked to convey the tragic news to Sachin. But he did not have the heart to do so and requested Anjali to perform the difficult task. Both Anjali and daughter Sara were in London at the time. The three took the first available flight home from London early on the morning of the Zimbabwe match.

Ironically it was at Leicester (which has a large Indian population) where Dr. Tendulkar 10 years before had given a lecture on Marathi literature. He had retired six years earlier from Kirti College where he taught Marathi. He had also taught at Sidharth College.

Brothers Ajit and Nitin had been with the team at Hove. They were in Chicago when they received the news.

Even as the demoralised Indians were self-destructing against Zimbabwe, the talk on the street centred round the tragedy. It was as if the nation was in collective grieving for their favourite son.

The players had woken on the morning of May 19, stunned to hear the news and learn of their teammate's distress and departure.

Understandably, Gaekwad was in no mood to ask Sachin if and when he planned to return. There was no pressure from the Board either.

"I know how close he was to his father. We have to wait for the funeral before we can even think of asking him. I shall keep in touch with him", the coach told the reporters from India.

A minute's silence was observed before the match at the Grace Road ground. S. Ramesh had the unenviable task of being asked to replace Tendulkar at the top of the order and did a pretty competent job as he top scored with 55.

All through the flight from London to Mumbai, Sachin's mind was on the progress of his team. One of the flight pursers kept coming to him with the latest score.

"Through him I came to know that we lost closely. I was sorry I could not do anything under the circumstances."

Chasing Zimbabwe's 252 for 9, India who had been docked four overs for a slow over-rate by their old nemesis, match referee 'Cammie' Smith, lost by three runs with their last three wickets thrown away in the final over bowled by Henry Olongo.

Back in Mumbai, the funeral of Prof. Tendulkar was a family affair with just a few close friends (Vinod Kambli and Amol Muzumdar) and Mumbai cricket officials in attendance. The time had been brought forward to dawn to avoid the media scramble. A sign was put outside the family residence of Sahitya Sahawas requesting people not to pay their condolences.

Eldest son Nitin performed the last rites at the Shivaji Park electric crematorium in Central Mumbai. The mourners were personally thanked by Sachin who stood at the exit along with Ajit.

In a touching tribute under the headline: 'God rewarded Prof. Tendulkar' (The Times of India, May 28, 1999), Sunil Gavaskar wrote: "The late Ramesh Tendulkar did not watch too many of his son, Sachin's innings at a cricket ground. Even at home he used to watch the highlights rather that the live coverage on TV.

Now he would have seen how not only millions and millions of Indians but even the Gods stop everything to watch his son play. He now has a special place to see his youngest son go on to become the greatest batsman the world has ever seen."

Gavaskar recalled how Prof Tendulkar (when he was teaching at Sidharth College in the 60s and 70s) helped the cricketers of Bombay University. "He would take extra classes and tuition to these cricketers (who were playing in the inter-varsity Vizzy Trophy) to ensure that they were able to catch up with their studies and get through and not lose a year. So when young Tendulkar started to bat the way he does, plenty of people who knew about the senior Tendulkar's contribution were sure it was God's way of rewarding him with a son as talented as Sachin."

Prof. Tendulkar had last been seen in public with Sachin and Anjali at a cricket awards function in Mumbai a month before his passing.

A low-profile man, he stayed out of the spotlight even as he watched his son grow up to become a national icon.

Someone who knew Prof. Tendulkar for many decades was Atmaram 'Bapu' Bhende, the doyen of Marathi theatre. Mr. Bhende is married to my father's sister, Dr. Asha Bhende and I asked him to share with me his memories.

(In September 2001 when I met Ajit Tendulkar in Mumbai and told him of the relationship his reaction was: "Bapu? He is a great legend")

Mr. Bhende recalled in a letter sent to me in November, 2001 how he first met Ramesh Tendulkar when he invited him to attend a kavi sammelan (poets' meet) organised by the Indian National Theatre (of which he was Secretary of the Marathi section) in the mid-50s.

"I was charmed by his gentle, soft spoken and cordial manner. A true gentleman, ever ready to extend a helping hand to anyone who needed it. I was particularly impressed by his frank but without malice opinions of the work of other poets. I was particularly interested in bringing together budding poets with the specific intention of bringing them into the limelight. Ramesh Tendulkar was helpful in identifying such poets and contacting them…Those who knew Ramesh Tendulkar intimately, know that Sachin's modesty is a gift from his father."

"I met Ramesh quite accidentally just a few days before his untimely death. We were both invited to a suburban college literary function. The car organised by them first picked up Ramesh and then arrived at my residence. Ramesh rushed into my living room and we met like two long lost friends. Certainly, a moment to cherish. And remember, Ramesh had not changed-the same handsome face, winsome smile, the same warmth, the same genuine friendliness. The long years in between just melted away.

"One seldom comes across such a straightforward and unassuming person, who in reality had so much to boast of! His death was not only a great loss to his family and the Marathi literary world, but also to his large circle of friends, admirers and well wishers."

Since his death, his children have brought out his Marathi poems in book form. The eldest, Nitin's poetry writing was obviously inspired by his father.

The Indian World Cup campaign appeared to be heading for an early and inglorious end after two defeats in the first two matches.

In India there were strident calls for Azharuddin to be axed before the next game against Kenya on May 23. Passions were running high and the phone calls from viewers to the morning television show I was hosting were getting increasingly irate and abusive.

I realised just how ugly things were becoming when a furious fan at a petrol station near the studios accosted me. He was demanding to know why I was calling for the Indian captain to be retained. It was all getting out of control.

Back in Mumbai, Sachin had made the decision to fly back to England. It came as a huge relief no doubt for the team and its followers. For 24 hours after his father's funeral it seemed no one could talk of anything else.

At the Times of India office in the heart of New Delhi, traffic came to a standstill.

'Sachin flying back' was the headline on the giant electronic bulletin board. Buses and cars screeched to a halt, people stood and stared as if they could not believe their eyes. Salvation for the beleaguered Indians was on its way.

"It was my mother who prompted me to go and attend the nation's call. She said even my father would have liked me to go and do my duty," Tendulkar told reporters at Heathrow Airport on his arrival back in England the morning before the crucial game against Kenya. "I realise this match is important and we are keen to make a winning impression. We have to win all three matches and keep the hopes of our supporters high. It's not going to be easy to put behind the tragedy and concentrate on the job at hand."

Tendulkar added: "The entire country wanted me to play. The World Cup is very important to India. I therefore completed all formalities and took the first available flight to be here with the team.

Gaekwad marveled at Sachin's composure and said he had no words to describe his star player's gesture. "We will do everything to keep Sachin's mind occupied. In any case, he is a restless person."

"I thought he might make it for the match against Sri Lanka on May 26. Even in this hour of grief Sachin could not resist coming to the rescue of the team which, as has been proved, cannot do without this man."

Ten days into the World Cup and the first century had been recorded. That it was scored by a man who had attended his father's funeral just a few days earlier was a monumental tribute to the skills, the discipline and the mental strength of the world's best batsman.

India won by 94 runs to breath fresh life into her campaign to reach the next stage. A full house at Bristol (8,508) gave Tendulkar three standing ovations-first when he walked to the crease, then when he reached his 22nd century and finally when he walked off with fellow-centurion Rahul Dravid at the end of India's innings of 329 for two-Tendulkar on 140 and Dravid on 104. The stand of 237 unbroken in 29 overs was the highest ever in the World Cup (till India's next match against Sri Lanka).

This was his first ODI century that had not come as an opener. After his half-century against Zimbabwe it was decided to retain Ramesh as Ganguly's opening partner.

The first 50 came in 54 balls, the second took 30. A look heavenwards in silent tribute to his father marked the completion of the masterly century. "I just looked up. It's very difficult to explain what I felt." The last ball of the innings was flicked disdainfully over mid-wicket for six, just as Viv Richards had done in the 1979 World Cup final.

The century was dedicated to his father. Chocking with emotion at the post-match awards ceremony-even Tony Greig appeared overcome when interviewing him---he said he had been motivated by his mother's words when he reached Mumbai for the funeral.

"The first question my mother asked me was whey did I come back. She said even your father would have wanted you stay on. I had gone home because I was committed to my family. Similarly, I also have commitment towards my country and countrymen."

He admitted it had not been his best hundred. "But under the circumstances it was special."

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sent a congratulatory fax to the Man of the Match.

"Not only did you not let the deep personal loss caused by your father's sudden demise deter you but you actually used it as an inspiration to scale another summit in cricketing excellence. The whole of India is proud of you."

Less than three years later, another tragedy would cast its shadow across Tendulkar's life.

India duly won their next two matches against Sri Lanka and England to make it to the Super Six.

They were joined by Zimbabwe and South Africa from Group A and Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand from Group B.

Australia simply blew away India in the first of the match in the Super Stage game. The big breakthrough came when Glenn McGrath had Tendulkar caught behind for his fist duck in 22 innings with just one run on the board. His three previous innings against Australia had produced centuries.

Australia had piled up 282 for six. No team had scored 283 to win an ODI in England and now with his first four overs McGrath ensured it would not happen at The Oval either. India were staggering at 17 for four and were all out for 205.

India's chances of qualifying for the semifinals were now all but dead. But their next match against Pakistan took on an extra edge. The conflict in Kargil was still raging back home and the Old Trafford authorities were concerned over a flare-up between rival spectators.

It never happened and India won a tense match by 47 runs. It was the third time India and Pakistan had met in the World Cup and each time India had come out on top. Tendulkar was back in the opener's slot and blazed briefly for 45.

Despite the win, India were playing only for pride in their final match against New Zealand who had to win to reach the last four. That is just what they did.

Australia would go onto win the World Cup for the second time, beating Pakistan in a lop-sided final.

The Indian campaign had started and ended with a whimper. In between there were some wonderful moments, notably Tendulkar's century against Kenya and the victories over England and Pakistan. But overall their cricket was disappointing and lacked consistency, as always. All that pre-tournament hysteria rapidly fizzled out.

Tendulkar's form too was patchy. He had 253 runs at 42.17. But under the circumstances, it was a huge credit to him that he made it back at all after his father's loss.

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.