May 8, 2014

The Pravin Tambe fairytale

It's a story about self-belief, dedication and the ability to chase your dreams

Pravin Tambe's career is like a childhood dream come alive © BCCI

Were a schoolboy to submit the story as fiction, any sensible publisher would reject it as far-fetched. Pravin Tambe's late entry into cricket on the big stage, even if in its shortest form, has been a fairytale. What a wonderful story of a man who perhaps never stopped dreaming of competing with the best through his decades in the wilderness - playing club cricket in Mumbai and, incredibly, as an "amateur" in the English league!

In all of India's cricket history - since the days of double-international C Ramaswami, who made his Test debut at age 40 and successfully at that - has there ever been a more inspired selection than the spotting of the legspinner by the talent scouts of Rajasthan Royals (if we don't count the picking of Sachin Tendulkar at the other end of the spectrum by Raj Singh Dungarpur's Indian selection committee 25 years ago)?

Watching Tambe's spectacular performances, it has been easy to live his fantasy vicariously and relive one's own childhood dreams and growing up painting those dreams in technicolour through adolescence.

For who among cricket lovers hasn't dreamed as a boy that he will one day play for his country, score a century or take five wickets, perhaps do both on debut, as New Zealand's Bruce Taylor did in the Calcutta Test in March 1965?

I remember trying to replicate Dattu Phadkar's pre-delivery jump in neighbourhood cricket as early as January 1956. He had captured my imagination a couple of days after Mankad and Roy created a world record with their opening partnership of 413 at the Corporation Stadium, Madras. I was even nicknamed Phadkar for a while, in derision rather than appreciation.

For a brief while I pretended I was Subhash Gupte and constantly tried to imitate the legspinner's neat little action, imagining the absent cricket ball as well as his full sleeves, as I bowled all the way from the bus stop to school, oblivious to staring onlookers.

Ghulam Ahmed had been another hero. Even when I first saw him in action, he was balding and looked avuncular, but did he spin his offbreaks! With a slightly round-arm action he gave the ball a fair rip, but his gait between overs grabbed my attention as much as his effortless action. Now the schoolboy walked in Ghulam's elegant swagger, Fergie Gupte already a distant memory.

Like most kids of my time, I tried everything during my boyhood - batting, legspin, offspin, pace - but it comes as a delicious surprise to learn that Tambe bowled medium pace for a long while, switching to legspin only some ten years ago. In my own case, it took Jim Laker's astonishing 19-wicket haul in the Old Trafford Test against Australia in July 1956 to guide me firmly towards offspin as a cricket career choice.

Though I never saw even a film clip of his bowling, I knew Laker's bowling action backwards, so profound was his impact on my fevered cricket imagination, entirely based on the written and spoken word, the latter courtesy the BBC's running commentary. Not only was I Jim Laker in my daydreams, I continued to fantasise about him, or rather about me with his bowling action, destroying some pretty formidable batting line-ups in my sleep.

I was 28 when I made my Ranji Trophy debut, long after I had in my waking hours given up hopes of any realistic chance of playing first-class cricket, though the dreams continued. When I actually made it to the side, some of my seniors in the Hyderabad team, including the captain, helped me overcome any pre-match tension - by the simple act of trooping into my room the night before the match accompanied by Mr McDowell and dismissing my protests that I wanted to go to bed early. They were so kind to me during that first season that I floated rather than walked the whole of that time. What a warm glow Tambe must experience playing with cricketing greats he earlier only watched.

For a long time, my late debut was my badge of pride, something I loved to show off - until I was humbled by Tambe's extraordinary arrival from nowhere after his 40th birthday. By grabbing his chances and performing on the big stage as if to the manner born, he has earned the respect and admiration of his celebrity team-mates as well as his world-class opponents. That he obviously never gave up his pursuit of cricketing excellence throughout his years in club cricket speaks of amazing self-belief. And of the capacity, I suspect, to dream big and chase those dreams regardless of reward.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s