The wait pays off for Tambe
For the first five years of the IPL, Pravin Tambe was the liaison manager for teams at the DY Patil Sports Academy ground, where he has worked since 2004. His kids would push him to get them autographs of their favourite players, and his friends would pester him to get them a picture with Sachin Tendulkar.
He kept a notebook handy for the autographs. "But I would feel uncomfortable, because if a player refused I would get hurt," Tambe says. "I am a touchy guy and tear up if people hurt me." As for Tendulkar, Tambe did manage to get his friends pictures, but he said he could not utter a word in the batsman's presence.
Five years on, Tambe is the one signing autographs. He finished on top of the wickets table in last year's Champions League T20. And in the current IPL season he has been Rajasthan Royals' leading wicket-taker, with 15 at a strike rate of 19.6. He and team-mate Shane Watson are the only bowlers to have taken hat-tricks this season.
Tambe's success has gained the attention it has largely because of his age. Most people can't believe a 42-year-old can find a role in a tournament and format designed for twentysomethings. Tambe has earned his place by taking wickets, tightening the screws in the middle overs, and being one of Royals' go-to bowlers.
Like the story of offspinner Nathan Lyon, who went on to play for Australia after working as a groundsman at Adelaide Oval, Tambe's is a tale not written overnight, filled with two decades of hard work and passion.
It has been 15 years since Tambe married his wife, Vaishali. When they got engaged, he made it clear to her that cricket was his passion. She supported him, but last year, before he was picked for Royals, she questioned his commitment.
"We were watching TV after I returned from training," Tambe says. "She suddenly burst out, asking how many more years I was going to carry on playing, and why didn't I do something big. She hadn't said anything like that before." After he came home from the 2013 IPL, she said: "So you do accomplish what you say you will."
Tambe started playing club cricket in the 1995-96 season with Parsee Cyclists in the D division in Mumbai's domestic league. He then moved to Parsee Gymkhana in the B division and finally to the top league when he joined Shivaji Park Gymkhana, one of the city's oldest and most illustrious clubs, one that has produced many Mumbai and India stalwarts.
In the course of his time in the game Tambe has bowled against all kinds of batsmen - the illustrious, the industrious, and mavericks. He started out as a medium-pace bowler and lower-order batsman in tennis-ball cricket, where he originally made his name, including in the once-prestigious Matchless tournament.
Once, when playing for Orient Shipping in the Thosar Shield, his captain, Ajay Kadam, sensing the pitch was slow, asked if Tambe would try bowling spin, since he used to put some revs on his slower delivery.
"The advantage of playing in maidans is you have bowled against batsmen who play pure cricketing strokes and those who like to bat across the line and play scoops and reverse sweeps. So over the years I have tried to create a plan to make sure I can defend myself against all kind of batsmen," Tambe says.
Wasim Jaffer, the former Mumbai captain, has seen Tambe play since he was young. "Whoever has played a good standard in tennis-ball cricket is very street-smart. They are also generally very good fielders. You can see that in Pravin. You don't need to teach him what needs to be done in important and tense situations, because he has encountered such moments many times in Matchless tournaments," Jaffer says.
Between 2000 and 2002, Tambe was part of Mumbai's Ranji probables list. He moved a step closer to playing for the team when he was part of the 15-man squad for the limited-overs Vijay Hazare knockouts last year.
"I have always wanted to play cricket, no matter which level, which team, which stage. I have always believed the team comes first. Last year when they did not play me in the Vijay Hazare, I understood they could only play one spinner, who was doing well at the time."
In January 2013, Tambe was the captain and coach of the B team of the DY Patil Sports Academy in their invitation T20 tournament which featured many Indian fringe players. When a last-minute injury forced Indian legspinner Rahul Sharma out of the A team, Tambe was asked to replace him, and he took 12 wickets to help them win the tournament.
Unknown to him, scouts from Royals were watching and keeping tabs. Abey Kuruvilla, the former Mumbai and India fast bowler and the sports director at DY Patil, told Tambe that he would need to travel to Jaipur early the next morning to bowl at Royals' trials.
Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton, the coaching think tank at Royals, looked at Tambe's bowling closely. "I remember not giving even one four or six on the small training ground outside the Sawai Mansingh Stadium," Tambe says.
After he established himself as the team's primary spinner in the Champions League T20, the expectations increased.
"My role is to break partnerships: I have to come and contain the batsmen even if I am not able to take wickets. I know that when I bowl well, wickets will come. The team has not ever asked me to take wickets and put me under pressure."
The faith that Dravid has shown in him has helped boost Tambe's confidence. "He tells me that I have been playing cricket for such a long time, so I know what I need to do and to keep doing that," Tambe says.
He is one of a handful of players who have played their first high-profile match in T20 league cricket. But to Tambe his inexperience is an advantage.
"I have no fear at all. I have seen many domestic players are nervous when they move to a stage like the IPL and that can affect their performance."
One of the biggest moments of his career was the hat-trick, against Kolkata Knight Riders. "We needed wickets desperately at that stage. And with the hat-trick we retained control of the match.
"I trust myself to bowl a particular line. That confidence was there when I lined up to bowl the hat-trick ball against Knight Riders."
That ball was a flipper - Tambe's go-to ball. Tambe had used it before to dismiss Ryan ten Doeschate in the Champions League last year. And he bowled it again, to the same batsman, to get his hat-trick. "I remembered he puts his leg across, so I knew I had to bowl the flipper full and on his pads."
Tambe dedicated his hat-trick to two of his closest friends, Krishnadas Nair and Ashwad Aiyappa, who died in accidents this year. "They would always coax me to aim big and work towards achieving those dreams. So when I grabbed the hat-trick, I felt I had done something for them."
Tambe has many big names among his scalps, but the one he most enjoyed getting was MS Dhoni, the Chennai Super Kings captain, during a league match in this year's IPL.
"He is one of the best batsmen in cricket, so to get his wicket I got immense joy. I know we lost that match, but when his wicket fell we could have made a comeback. My only plan was to not allow him width to swing his strong arms. I wanted to keep it full and bowl into his pads and I had an 80% chance of getting him out. I pitched on the right length and he was caught at deep square leg."
His best wicket, Tambe says, was that of Dwayne Smith in the Champions League final against Mumbai Indians. "When I finally got him you could see how frustrated he was, as he kicked the stumps in disgust."
Tambe has picked up five Man-of-the-Match awards, including two in this IPL. Incredibly, he was retained for just Rs10 lakhs (US$17,000 approx) by Royals, who used their right-to-match card to keep him in the side. But the price doesn't bother Tambe.
"If I wanted more I could have easily raised the base price. I was the highest wicket-taker in CLT20 and many did ask me to raise my base price to Rs 30 lakhs ($51,000 approx). But more than money, I wanted to play. My fear was: what if no franchise bought me? I was so proud that they used the card to get me. It was an honour."
The biggest moment of Tambe's career arrived one afternoon last September. "I got a call from Abey Kuruvilla. He thought I was already aware of the news but I had no idea what he was talking about. When he told me I was part of Mumbai's 15-man Ranji squad, it was one of the happiest moments. I called up my parents and both my mother and father were in tears."
The newspapers played up his age. "That is when I realised I was 41 years old. When you are playing club cricket in Mumbai, you work towards one day wearing the Lions shirt. I wanted to prove that I was worthy to perform at this level to all the people who always point out my age."
When Jaffer presented Tambe his cap before the season opener against Orissa, the spinner could not hold back his tears. "The amount of hard work that we have to put in to gain this cap is immense. When you get the cap you have this feeling that now I have to show the value of this cap. Not everyone can get to wear it."
Jaffer is among the many who have been impressed by Tambe's determination despite his advancing years. "Generally after a certain age fitness begins to give way and the motivation level drops, but Pravin never lost it. It is not that he is only performing now. He was doing it earlier as well, but Mumbai had spinners like Sairaj [Bahutule], Nilesh Kulkarni and Ramesh Powar. But Tambe kept playing club cricket and persevered."
Tambe's daily life has remained the same. The only change he made, and that after being pressed by his family, has been buying a car.
He says the source of his confidence is his upbringing and the support he received from his father, Vijay, who was an allrounder at Johnson & Johnson in the Times Shield in the 1980s. His biggest strength and inspiration has been his older brother, Prashant. "He always sends me a message before every game I go to play, saying: "Gheun tak [Take them on]." That gives me a lot of confidence."
Could this be his last IPL? "I don't think so, because I don't feel tired. I just want to play on."
Tambe knows his story is now a motivation for others to not give up on their dreams. Youngsters at the club where he coaches used to sulk when they were not selected for Under-16 and U-19 tournaments. "Now whenever a guy gets dropped he tells me he will get picked next time."
Ian Bishop, the former West Indies fast bowler who now commentates in the IPL, points out that Tambe has been successful because he plays every day like it's his last match. That could be true, because Tambe is past the point of looking at his performances as a ladder to take him to bigger, better things. For him the joy of playing cricket alongside great, good and normal cricketers is his biggest dream achieved.
People often ask him about how he managed his transformation. "I only tell them that if you love the game then continue playing. Don't bother about where you will end up."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo