In his maiden appearance for Shardashram Vidyamandir, schoolboy Chandrakant Pandit scored a triple hundred in a day against IES Pinto Villa High School. The future India stumper was elated with the standing ovation that he received despite being dismissed off the last ball of the day.
A century in schools cricket is a remarkable achievement, a double a bigger feat and a triple a rarity. Shardashram’s coach Ramakant Achrekar did not think on those lines. Once Pandit entered the tent, he called him aside and slapped him for getting out.
“Gadhdya, 300 karoon asa out hotos! (You idiot, you get out in such fashion after scoring a triple hundred!),” Achrekar told Pandit. The youngster did not realise then what his coach was trying to convey, but he would later admit that it was one of the biggest lessons he learnt in his cricketing career. Cricket can be a cruel sport and scoring can be difficult even if you are batting well. So, when you are in form, you should respect it and make it count.
Any other coach would have been ecstatic, but Achrekar was different. He rarely praised his players as he believed his job was that of a teacher who points out errors.
Born in 1932 in Bandvide village in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district, cricket was an inheritance for Achrekar. He was a formidable batsman in tennis-ball cricket, often putting a heavy price on his wicket in matches played in Mumbai. In club cricket, his solid defence was often on display as an opening batsman for New Hind. The legendary Vijay Manjrekar once said one would have to drill a hole in the ground and keep a fielder there to dismiss Achrekar. He was an equally competent wicketkeeper. However, he played only one first-class match: For State Bank of India against Hyderabad in which he scored 30 and had five dismissals behind the wicket. It was as a coach that Achrekar came into prominence.
As coach of Dayanand Balak Vidyalaya, a Hindi-medium school run by the Arya Samaj, he was adamant that he wouldn’t accept money. On much insistence from the authorities, he agreed to take Rs 50 per month as coaching fees, but even those were spent on cricket.
The school reached the Giles and Harris Shield (inter-school tournaments for Under-14 and Under-16 children respectively) finals during Achrekar’s first year as coach. He did not run down the team as it lost to better opponents. In fact, he took them for dinner at a restaurant at Churchgate and invited India player Eknath Solkar as the chief guest.
Achrekar’s stature as coach rose even more once he took over the reins of Shardashram and turned it into an unbeatable unit. It was here that he brought cricketing talent from different parts of the city and honed their skills under his watchful eyes. The likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli batted in multiple nets, practised with a rubber ball in the rains and played every match that they could, often several in a day.
Kambli, once unbeaten on 108 at the end of day’s play in a Harris Shield semi-final, came to the ground post lunch the following day and had the audacity to ask the umpires if he could bat. Achrekar royally fired him in the evening. The coach would often hide behind a tree and watch a game or keep himself apprised of the developments through his assistant coaches. Nothing escaped his prying eyes. He was a strict disciplinarian and his students were scared of him.
It was Achrekar’s selfless devotion to the game that resulted in him giving the maximum number of Test cricketers for India. Ramnath Parkar became his first student to play for the country when he opened the batting with Sunil Gavaskar against England in 1972. Since then, the likes of Pandit, Tendulkar, Kambli, Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Praveen Amre and Ajit Agarkar, among others, represented India. Several others went on to play first-class cricket.
Achrekar did not bask in the success of his players or chase awards. In fact, when Tendulkar called to congratulate him on being conferred the Dronacharya Award, the coach told his famous pupil to concentrate on his match instead.
While Tendulkar went on to shatter all cricketing records, Achrekar silently continued with his deeds at Shivaji Park. The ground and he were inseparable. Every morning and evening, he would unfailingly be there in his trademark tweed cap, guiding young ones to get their forward defence right. A paralysis stroke ended that routine for Achrekar, but even on his wheelchair, he found solace on the maidans of Mumbai.
The 86-year-old breathed his last on Wednesday, 2 January, after a prolonged illness. In Achrekar’s passing away, cricket has lost an institution.
(Kunal Purandare is the author of Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster’s Master, a biography of the coach)
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