Master blaster Sachin Tendulkar with his mentor Ramakant Achrekar during the screening of 'Sachin: A Billion Dreams' film at PVR on May 24, 2017 in Mumbai, India. British director James Erskine has directed the movie which will be highlighting the life of the living legend of Indian cricket
Image: Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Ramakant Achrekar folded his hands with utmost humility after I bent down to touch his feet and sought his blessings almost seven years ago. At his modest 1 BHK apartment at Shivaji Park, a stone’s throw away from the ground where he honed the skills of several budding cricketers, he was watching the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Kabhi Kabhie. The television was switched off once I told him I was writing his biography. Though he could not speak, he smiled at the mention of incidents from his prominent years as coach. Cricket meant everything to him. Even when a paralysis attack left him immobile and confined him to a wheelchair, he would insist on visiting the ground.
It was, after all, on the maidans of Mumbai that Achrekar made his mark as one of the finest cricket coaches in the world. At his humble academy, he shaped the lives and careers of several youngsters. Many of them were spotted by him while they played tennis ball cricket or matches against his own teams. In cricketing terms, he was a visionary. If he believed a player had it in him to play top-level cricket, he would back him completely.
When Chandrakant Pandit’s family refused to allow him to switch schools so that he could play cricket, Achrekar went to his house past midnight and offered his father Rs1,000 as monthly salary. Similarly, there was a hurdle in Praveen Amre joining Shardashram Vidyamandir as his previous school was in the same locality. The coach then met the principal and requested him to treat it as a special case.
Achrekar was as strict a coach as he was a compassionate human being. On the field, he expected his students to put in their best and rebuked them if they crossed the line. Vinod Kambli was often at his receiving end for his antics. Once he came for a schools match, wearing an outfit that Bachchan wore in the movie Toofan and insisted on batting in the same attire. It was only after Achrekar came to the ground and slapped him did the left-handed batsman change into his whites. On another occasion, he slapped Kambli for flying a kite while he was batting at the crease. The coach had a habit of writing his observations on pieces of paper, including on the back of bus tickets. During the post-match analysis that day, his note read: 'Vinod-kite'. Kambli wept inconsolably in front of the team; his best friend Sachin Tendulkar calls it the funniest moment of his life.
Tendulkar and Kambli were two of the finest schoolboy cricketers when they were being trained by Achrekar. Yet, the coach was aware of how different they were as individuals. While the former was focused on his game and had a solid support system, the latter came from a poor family and needed assurance at every step. Achrekar treated Kambli like a son and ensured that his game flourished under his guidance. In the case of Tendulkar, he foresaw that the schoolboy prodigy would play for India. Hence, he insisted that he play for the Cricket Club of India (CCI) so that he gets to play on proper wickets (Brabourne Stadium which has hosted international games was its home ground) and gets accustomed to a dressing room setting.
Such was Achrekar’s dedication to his job that even the death of his newborn son did not stop him from visiting the ground. Hours after completing the last rites, he was at Shivaji Park, ensuring the young ones meet the ball in the middle of the bat. When Suresh Shastri, Achrekar’s first ‘official’ student, asked him why he was there, the coach did not bat an eyelid and said: “I lost one son, but my other sons are here. How could I leave them?”
Achrekar produced the maximum number of Test cricketers for India: From Ramnath Parkar and Balwinder Singh Sandhu to Tendulkar, Kambli and Ajit Agarkar. Many others played first-class cricket while several got jobs because of their cricket. But the coach’s deeds were not restricted to the field alone. In fact, he legally adopted former Railways player Naresh Churi only so that he could watch a cricket match from a stadium. And he would painstakingly cut photographs of international cricketers in action from magazines to show the right way to play strokes to his students.
It is probably because of the efforts that he took that he expected the same from his players. They were told to value their wicket despite the runs against their name. Former Mumbai skipper Amol Muzumdar was ecstatic after scoring a record 260 against Haryana on his first-class debut. “How did you get out?” Achrekar asked him after the mammoth knock. When he said ‘stumped’, the coach replied: “What? You get out stumped after scoring 260!” That gave Muzumdar a reality check. Also, when Amre scored a century on Test debut against a quality South African attack in Durban, Achrekar asked him how he was dismissed and told him that he should have continued batting.
This is what separated Achrekar from other coaches. He was proud of the achievements of his students, but did not praise them so that they don’t turn complacent. No wonder after his retirement with 100 international centuries against his name, Tendulkar had remarked: “I don’t have any more matches to play, Sir. You can now tell me, ‘Well played’.”
Achrekar’s paralysis attack and subsequent illness, believe his wards, was perhaps God’s way of telling him to rest. He selflessly devoted his entire life to cricket and enriched the game. With his passing away, a special life of a special person has come to an end.
(Kunal Purandare is the author of Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster's Master, a biography of the coach)