Cricket: A bat, a ball, and a million dreams: The England cricket team's winter tour has brought home the depth of talent in the Indian game. Richard Williams reports from Bombay on the system and way of life that help nurture greatness

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The Independent Online
I WANTED to find the soul of Indian cricket, so I went to Bombay, looking for Ramakant Achrekar. It took two days to find him, but by then I'd seen a lot, and learnt some lessons about why the Indian cricketers have been beating Graham Gooch's England.

The only clue I had was this: it had been to Ramakant Achrekar that the 11-year-old Sachin Tendulkar went, eight years ago, in search of advice on how to play cricket. Now Tendulkar is the princeling of Indian cricket, a marvellous boy whose name may one day be uttered in the same breath as those of Bradman, Hammond and Worrell.

And it wasn't just Tendulkar, either. The present Indian team also includes two more products of Achrekar's coaching, the 21-year-old left-hander Vinod Kambli and the 24-year-old Pravin Amre. What kind of coach was this? And where would I find him?

I began by walking from Nariman Point, where the high-rise hotels are clustered, down Marine Drive, a boulevard sweeping by the blue waters of Back Bay. Halfway along, I spotted what I was looking for: a row of four cricket grounds, separated by rough fences, facing the sea. These were the communal gymkhanas, the historic headquarters of cricket clubs based on the city's four main religious groupings.

The first ground, with a smart little pavilion resembling a 1930s railway station in a small town in the Tyrol, declared itself to be the Parsee Gymkhana, the home of the descendants of Persian refugees, whose admiration for the British led them, in the early 19th century, to become the first of India's ethnic groups to take up cricket. There are still 60,000 Parsees in Bombay, and a game was in progress in the 90-degree heat of this weekday morning.

Further along, several teenage boys were at catching practice in front of the Islamic Gymkhana's pavilion, a ribbed and finned 1960s concrete affair that could have been a public library in Brasilia. By contrast, the dilapidated and deserted pavilion of the Catholic Gymkhana, a plain square-sided building which had once been painted dark red, looked like an abandoned movie house somewhere in West Virginia. But in the middle of these, dominating them with a giant edifice of crumbling plaster, six storeys high and as long as a mansion block, was the Hindu Gymkhana, and it was here that I went to enquire after Ramakant Achrekar.

No, I was told by an elderly gentleman who sat with a scorebook at a trestle table while young men in white flannels warmed up on the outfield. No, Achrekar is not here. You will find him in the afternoon, at Shivaji Park in Dadar, on the other side of the city. So, looking to fill the hours before I could take the commuter train to Dadar, I walked back up Marine Drive, past the concrete bowl of Wankhede Stadium, where every Bombay Test has been played since 1974, and turned down the side street leading to its predecessor.

Brabourne Stadium, the home of the Cricket Club of India, was the site of Test cricket in Bombay from 1948 until a schism between the CCI and the Bombay Cricket Association led to the building of the Wankhede. Ten minutes after walking in, I was sitting in a cane chair on the cool verandah of the vast pavilion, taking tea and looking out as sprinklers fanned over a field

that once saw centuries by Everton Weekes and Neil Harvey, Hanif Mohammad and Denis Compton.

'If you should see Mr Compton, give him my greetings,' said the old man with the face of an eagle. 'Denis Compton was a naughty, naughty man, on and off the pitch. Just like me]'

Silver-haired Mushtaq Ali, 78 years old, looking like a fashion plate in fresh navy T-shirt, knife-creased tan slacks, argyle socks and brown suede brogues, once scored centuries in both innings of a Ranji Trophy final on this pitch. Now he was visiting from his home in Indore, an hour north by plane, at the invitation of the CCI, which was holding a dinner to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first Test match in India. Just as the Test teams had in the old days, he was staying in the rooms on the second floor of the pavilion, built like a Cunard liner, all curving decks and storm rails.

First selected for India in 1934 as a left-arm spinner, Mushtaq became famous as a stylishly aggressive opening bat, good enough to take a century off Gubby Allen, Alf Gover and Hedley Verity at the Old Trafford Test in 1936. 'Plum Warner came to the changing room to congratulate me,' he said. So did Jack Hobbs, who had given him a pair of silver hairbrushes when they played together in India four years earlier. Mushtaq became so popular that his omission from the national side in 1945 caused riots in Calcutta.

'I am a hero to many,' he told me, sipping his tea, 'but I too have my heroes. Denis Compton, Keith Miller, Sir Frank Worrell. I loved their talent, their approach to the game.' And, he added, their figure. 'In my time, we wore flannel shirts and trousers, and blazers. Now . . . ' And a wave of the hand covered the years between the drop-dead-handsome young Mushtaq, smiling wickedly above his cravat in photographs from the 1930s, and the logo-splattered leisurewear of today's international cricketers.

Mushtaq Ali had been a protege of the cricket-mad Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, known as 'Vizzy', who captained the 1936 touring team. But Mushtaq's first cricket had been played with an improvised bat and a cork ball on the maidans, the open spaces of rough grass which are the lungs of Indian cities. And, a few hours after saying goodbye to him, still searching for Ramakant Achrekar, I saw the full flowering of maidan cricket.

Shivaji Park is about twice the size of Horseguards' Parade. Within its boundaries, on a hot evening, approximately five to six hundred boys, all dressed in whites, were playing cricket.

Some were practising in nets. Others were throwing and catching. Most of them, though, were taking part in organised games. Dozens of games, jostling for space on the field, their outfielders often overlapping. What struck me most forcibly was the way these boys - the youngest about five, the oldest perhaps 14 - were playing. All of them, even the very smallest, bowled overarm, with correct actions. This was not the 'quick cricket' stuff that's supposed to drag modern children away from their Game Boys, pandering to their short attention span. Here, innings were being built, bats stroked confidently through the ball, the blade angled with an elegant flourish. And tiny fielders made their returns as boys were once taught on the playing fields of England, six inches above the bails.

I asked one of the older boys if he knew of Ramakant Achrekar, and was directed to a group of the very smallest boys, a few pitches away. At their centre was a young woman wearing a track suit and a cricket cap.

'I am Kalpana Achrekar,' she told me. 'I coach the boys from five to 11, and my father takes the older ones, up to 22, which is when they go to college. He is not coming tonight, but you can find him tomorrow morning, from seven o'clock, at Azad maidan.' And she broke off to tell a thirsty seven-year-old where to find the water bottle.

Kalpana, who is 27, played cricket for Indian Universities while acquiring a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Now she helps her father to run the Kamath Memorial Cricket Club, to which somewhere around 200 boys and youths belong, paying 75 rupees (about pounds 1.80) a month to attend two hours of coaching every day of the week.

At seven the next morning I walked to Azad maidan, a great field in the middle of the city, cheek by jowl with the picturesquely faded grandeur of Bombay Gymkhana, where the very first Bombay Test was played, against England, in December 1933. Just outside the club's perimeter fence, a man sat on a folding metal chair, watching a group of youths bowling in a net supported by bamboo poles. This was Ramakant Achrekar.

I introduced myself, and he told one of his boys to fetch me another chair from a tent at the edge of the field, close to a row of lean-tos improvised mostly from sacking stamped 'Indian Post Office', within which families were waking and washing and preparing breakfast. Then I asked Ramakant Achrekar to tell me about himself, and how he turned himself into a producer of cricketing genius.

'I was born in 1932,' he told me, 'in a village called Malvan, about 500 kilometres from here, near Goa. I came to Bombay with my parents when I was 11, and eventually I took a job in the State Bank.' There he met and played with Ajit Wadekar, another bank employee, later the first Indian captain to win a Test series in England, and now the manager of the present Test team. Achrekar himself, a batsman-wicketkeeper who had inherited a love of the game from his father, played only one first-class match - 'for All-India State Bank, against Hyderabad, in 1964. I got 30 runs.' Three or four years later, when a schoolboy approached him for advice, he began coaching. That boy later went on to play for Hindustan, the forerunner of two dozen of Achrekar's prodigies to have appeared in the Ranji Trophy.

Ramnath Parkar, an opening batsman who played twice for India in the 1980s, was the first Achrekar product to win a Test cap. Pravin Amre came to Shivaji Park at 10, and Vinod Kambli joined the Azad maidan games at nine. Sachin Tendulkar was brought to Achrekar by his older brother Ajit. 'The first time I saw Sachin,' Achrekar remembered, 'he seemed to be just like the other boys, nothing special. But then I watched him in the nets, and he was middling the ball all the time, hitting it hard, never playing defence. He had good wrist work, and wonderful reflexes.' Tendulkar's father, a university professor and a noted poet in the Marathi language of central India, had no great interest in cricket himself, but willingly sent the boy to stay with his uncle, who lived near Shivaji Park.

'Sachin loved to play,' Achrekar said. 'He never wanted to miss a match. Soon he was playing 10, 11 matches a month.' According to the coach, he was so keen that he used to skip lessons at school in Dadar. And, at 13, on Achrekar's recommendation, he made his debut at Brabourne Stadium for CCI. A legend was born.

Watching Tendulkar, Amre and Kambli in the Wankhede Stadium last week, you couldn't miss the wonderful sense of play in their game, alongside the marvellous technique and the confidence to express it. Unlike their nearest English equivalents, they don't seem oppressed by the business of having to play cricket. Throwing, catching, hitting - whatever they do, thanks to wise old Ramakant Achrekar, they're having fun. Just like the hundreds of little boys on the scrubby lawns of Azad maidan and Shivaji Park, unfurling their cover drives and honing their leg- breaks. Just like the little boys they once were.

(Photograph omitted)