They have shown that all it takes to succeed is an idea, a dream, a lot of hard work and an element of luck. The rise of players like Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Ajinkya Rahane has come as a confirmation that dreams are no longer a prerogative of the metros likes Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
A little over two decades ago, when cricket telecasts were still being produced by Doordarshan, it was hard to imagine so Indian cricketers coming from such diverse locations. The selling of TV rights to cable and satellite companies has had a huge role in the spawning of such dreams in small towns like Rae Bareily and Jamshedpur, Kochi and Cuttack, Moradabad and Gadag, Allahabad and Ikhar, Jalandhar and Ranchi.
There was a time when players had to migrate to established pastures to be able to play for India. Vinoo Mankad moved from Western India to Nawanagar, Dattu Phadkar from Maharashtra to Bombay, Bishan Singh Bedi, S Madan Lal and Mohinder Amarnath from Punjab to Delhi and Karsan Ghavri from Saurashtra to Bombay. Prashant Vaidya is another example that springs to mind. He had to move from Vidarbha to Bengal to gain recognition, first to play for the India A team and then to gain four India caps in one-day internationals.
Of course, Kapil Dev had shown that one could stay put anywhere – his home town Chandigarh in his case – and rise to the top. There have been others like Sunil Joshi, the left-arm spinner from Gadag in Karnataka, fast bowler Debashis Mohanty and his fellow Orissa team-mate and opening batsman Shiv Sundar Das, Andhra wicket-keeper MSK Prasad as well as Kerala paceman Tinu Yohannan who has followed suit, even if without much success.
And over the past decade, cricketers like RP Singh, Munaf Patel, and S Sreesanth have come to the fore. And, towering over all else, we have also had one of India’s finest captains – Mahendra Singh Dhoni, if you must know his name, come from the back of beyond. Son of Pan Singh, a pump operator in MECON at Ranchi, Dhoni has entrenched himself in the hearts of millions of cricket fans in and out of India.
There is no doubt that Dhoni’s success story has been an inspiration for countless youngsters in India’s hinterland to dream of playing for India and pursue that dream with single-minded devotion. Indeed, it all starts with a dream. Munaf Patel, for example, just wanted to play cricket outside Ikhar and Bharuch. Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron, who have emerged as exciting fast bowling prospects for India this season, both dreamt of bowling quick – and consistently. They have repeatedly gone on record as saying they would not compromise on their pace.
One of the key elements in such careers is that their coaches – be it those who have imparted the fundamentals or those who have worked on the nuances – have not tampered too much with the basics. In Varun Aaron’s case, however, Dennis Lillee and TA Sekar helped him improve his action, making it more biomechanically correct. Yadav has worked with former India fast bowler Subroto Banerjee (who is now Vidarbha’s bowling coach).
Interestingly, Umesh Yadav’s formative years show a distinct contrast to those of Aaron and Rahane. While Aaron’s father C Paul Aaron taught him the first lessons of fast bowling and Rahane’s father Mayank took him to a coaching academy when he was eight, Tilak Yadav was quite clear that his son Umesh should work towards joining the police.
Hailing from Jamshedpur where his father was working for Mico Bosch, it was inevitable that sport was a big part of Varun Aaron’s life. His father was a club cricketer in his youth in Bangalore and his mother played basketball for Bihar. And what is more, his grandfather had played hockey for Bihar. Playing the under-15 tournament for the Polly Umrigar Trophy, Varun Aaron was picked up for grooming by the MRF Pace Academy in 2005.
Madhukar Rahane, Ajinkya’s father got his son to a coaching camp in Dombivili so that he would not break window panes at his home and stay fit. And then the family moved to Mulund so that he could attend coaching camps easily. As a junior cricketer, Ajinkya Rahane spent time as a ballboy during two international games at the Wankhede Stadium. That was enough for the lad from Mulund to dream of earning an India cap and back it up with a resolve to work hard for that.
By contrast, Umesh Yadav surfaced only as a 21-year-old tear-away in 2008. His father Tilak Yadav has worked as a miner in the Western Coalfields at Majri in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district. The young man had to cycle a long distance to play his cricket in Nagpur. He had to content himself playing tennis ball cricket until he got picked up for the Vidarbha under-22 side.
Of course, Yadav is not the first Indian cricketers to come from such a humble background. Even the first few generation of Indian cricket saw diversity – from the wealthy Parsi Mehallasha Pavri, a doctor by profession, to the Harijan groundsman Palwankar Baloo to the middle-class Sanskrit scholar Prof. DB Deodhar.
In the early 60s, Eknath Solkar, later to be unarguably India’s greatest ever fielder at forward short-leg, learnt his cricket at the Hindu Gymkhana in Bombay (as Mumbai was then known) where his father was the chief groundsman. Solkar could not hone his skills against the trainees and members of the club and had to wait for them to leave to be able to work on his game until the great Vinoo Mankad spotted his talent and took him under his wings. Vinod Kambli’s story was no different. Son of a mechanic, he grew up with 18 people in a room in a chawl in Bombay’s Bhindi Bazar.
In the current squad, Virender Sehwag is the son of a grain and flour merchant from Najafgarh in the outskirts of Delhi while Ishant Sharma, one of the stars of India’s last tour of Australia, grew up in a household where his father ran an airconditioner repair shop. And, it is a well-known story that Irfan Pathan, who is now on the road to a Test comeback, is the son of a Muezzin in Baroda.
Yet, what we get to see is some great bowling and batting feats but what remains tucked away in the background is the sacrifices that families make to see that the dreams of their children come true. And, happily, this has no longer been the prerogative of those living in the metros. Dreams have their own way of actualising. Sooner than later, even if for every such wonderful story, there are dozens of heartbreaking tales too. That perhaps is the beauty of this sport that we love so much.
(This piece was written for Prabhat Khabar‘s Sunday supplement, Ravivar)