Vikram Solanki: a spiritual home with no regrets over far pavilions

Vikram Solanki, a dazzling centurion in the C&G final between Worcestershire and Gloucestershire on Saturday, and already recalled into England's one-day cricket squad to face India this week, was himself born in India and for the first eight years of his life did not set foot out of Rajasthan.

Vikram Solanki, a dazzling centurion in the C&G final between Worcestershire and Gloucestershire on Saturday, and already recalled into England's one-day cricket squad to face India this week, was himself born in India and for the first eight years of his life did not set foot out of Rajasthan.

Yet he considers himself no less English, and even before his marvellous 115 at Lord's - which, alas, was not enough to turn the match Worcestershire's way - some astute observers of the game regarded Solanki as one of the three or four most naturally gifted batsmen available to the England selectors, and one suggested that he is potentially "a right-handed David Gower", such is the elegance of his stroke-making, to say nothing of the brilliance of his fielding, when he is on form.

But Solanki is 28, which is getting a bit old to be talked about in terms of potential. Moreover, he has a county colleague, friend and mentor, in Graeme Hick, who knows just what it is like for a man to fall short of the summit of his potential. Solanki's one-day century against South Africa at the Oval was one of the highlights of last summer, yet he was later dropped for the tour to the Caribbean after scoring just 11 runs in three one-day internationals against Bangladesh. So he has a big point to prove in this forthcoming series against India.

The fact that it is India, he says, is immaterial to him. As a boy growing up in the zinc-mining towns around Udaipur, he loved cricket but did not form any attachment to particular Indian cricketers. He didn't watch cricket on television or listen to it on the radio; he played it. There were few other forms of entertainment.

"For years there was no cinema in the town," he recalls. "One guy had a video recorder and charged people to sit in his house watching videos, and that was all there was. But I played loads of sport. I taught myself to ride a bike. I became very good at roller-skating. And I played cricket. My mother would tie her sari up and bowl to me for an hour in the garden, as a reward for doing all my schoolwork."

His mother is a white-skinned Englishwoman, born Florabel Petula Lawford, but she is thoroughly Indianised. She wears a sari and is a practising Hindu. Florabel too had grown up on the sub-continent, where her father worked, but unlike most expatriates she embraced the culture. She was fluent in several southern Indian languages, but didn't speak Hindi. So she took Hindi lessons and her teacher was one Vijay Singh Solanki. They fell in love, married, and a future England cricketer was born.

"It would make a great Bollywood script," says Solanki, with a chuckle. We are sitting in the pavilion at New Road, Worcester, his spiritual home. "It wasn't at all easy for them and I think both sets of parents were opposed to them marrying, but she ended up closer to my paternal grandfather than my father was, because he saw her efforts to give me a proper upbringing, to follow the right path."

In November 1984 that path took them to Wolverhampton, where Florabel's sister, Vikram's aunt, had settled. Vijay, a manager in a zinc-smelting company, stayed behind in India, thinking that his wife and only son would be gone only a few months. But it was a volatile time in India; Indira Gandhi had been assassinated just a few days earlier and there were riots in Delhi, which Solanki remembers seeing on his way to the airport. His aunt tried to persuade his mother that he would be better off staying in Wolverhampton, and that they should look into some form of schooling.

"Then dad turned up, and I remember him asking me whether I wanted to go back to India. I knew he wanted to. But by then I had made friends in England and I wanted to stay. So he went back to pack everything up. There were people there who couldn't believe that they were giving up the life they had there, to live in England. My parents gave up a lot to come here in the hope that I might benefit. In India they were well placed in the social hierarchy. My mother didn't have to lift a finger. All she had to do in the house was tell other people to do things. But then she came here and had to go out to work."

Florabel and Vikram had a difficult start in England. Their flight to Heathrow was delayed by a day, and by the time it landed the relatives who had gathered to meet them had gone home, assuming they were not coming.

"We had my aunt's address, but no telephone number, and very little money. So mum just wrapped me up as best she could and we got a coach to Birmingham. On the coach we met a Chinese couple, who were also going to Wolverhampton. They offered to share their taxi, and luckily they lived quite near my aunt, although the walk seemed to take an eternity. I remember that day so clearly. The leaves were what I noticed. So many leaves on the ground. I had never seen anything like that before."

The leaves might have been a shock, but at least he didn't have to learn a new language. In India it had been a strict household rule that when he was at home, Solanki spoke English (the same rule has now been turned on its head for his 15-year-old brother, who is made to speak Hindi at home).

This meant that he arrived in Wolverhampton speaking accentless English with beautifully-scrubbed vowels. Indeed, he must have had the most received pronunciation at Regis, the local comprehensive school to which he duly went, and which was attended by another pupil who would go on to enjoy a measure of sporting success: Denise Lewis.

"I knew Denise, even though she was a little bit older than me, because I started playing in the first XI when I was in my first year, so I had a lot of older friends, and some of them were her friends. I had a lot of older friends in the neighbourhood where I lived, too, because I could play cricket and football. There are still guys around there who call me 'kid', in broad Wolverhampton accents, even though they're only three or four years older than I am." He laughs. "I don't even bother to ask them to call me 'Vik'."

I ask him whether, at school, Lewis seemed like the stuff of which Olympic champions are made.

"I didn't even know she was especially good at sport, to be honest. There were loads of people there who were good at sport. It wasn't unusual. I saw her recently in Birmingham, actually, and wondered whether I should go over and say hi. Not 'hi, I'm a cricketer', but 'hi, we were at the same school and I knew such-and-such'. Then I thought no. It might have been embarrassing."

I like the idea of an international cricketer deciding not to greet a fellow sportsperson with whom he went to school on the basis that he might embarrass himself. Although if things go as Solanki plans, then one day in the future Regis might become better known as his old school, not hers.

He was 15 when Worcestershire first expressed an interest in his batting ability, although there was some competition from Leicestershire, who invited him to Grace Road for a net.

"When I told Mark Scott, who was the second team coach here, he asked me if I could wait a week before I called Leicestershire back, until after they had had their retention meeting. I said that would be fine, even though I didn't know what a retention meeting was. Anyway, he then phoned and said 'we'd like to invite you on to the professional staff' and my first thought was 'great, I'll get a tracksuit'."

Solanki made his first-class debut in 1995, and while warming up one day in 1999before a match against Warwickshire, was loudly and excitedly informed 'by a group of ladies who sit over there', that he had been conscripted into the England one-day squad.

"I was so proud to wear that England blazer," he says. "It was what I had dreamt of." Has it occurred to him, I wonder, that if his parents had made the decision to stay in Rajasthan 20 years ago, he could have been walking out on Trent Bridge on Wednesday for India, not England. "No," he says, "it honestly hasn't."

Solanki made his international debut against South Africa in Bloemfontein. "I was going in at four and I didn't bat. Nasser (Hussain) and Knighty (Nick Knight) knocked them off and we won by nine wickets. And I fielded down at third man, which was strange, because for Worcester I had always fielded close in. I didn't think I was automatically going to be in the ring, but even so, I had never fielded at third man before."

Was it the captain's way of making sure he didn't get too big for his cricket boots?

"No. Nasser actually said that I'd covered decent ground in training, and it was a case of making sure I could cut out the twos. I have no complaints about the England management. When I was dropped after Bangladesh I knew I only had myself to blame."

His self-assessments have not always been conducted in such an equable manner. In short, Solanki used to be a bat-chucker. "But not now. I never chuck my bat because I look after my kit. It goes straight back in its case.

"I've had my moments [of throwing tantrums], but to be fair it's a little while ago now, the best part of three or four years. Emotion can be a good thing, but it can invade your game in a negative way. I've had to rein in my temper and that has come about from watching and talking to people like Graeme Hick."

So now that he has his temper under control, and now that he is demonstrably in fabulous form, what are the heights of his ambition? Does he yearn for a Test place to go with a regular slot in the one-day side?

Another smile. "I've made the mistake in the past of looking too far ahead, and it's come back and bit me hard. Without wanting to fall back on clichés, without saying I'm taking every day as it comes, that's just what I'm doing."

Starting on Wednesday in Nottingham.

brian.viner@independent.co.uk

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