'We have the talent, our problem is attitude!'
Finding Ramakant Achrekar was as simple as making my way to Shivaji Park and asking the first boy I saw with a bat in his hand where I could find the supercoach.
The man who was pointed out to me looked old. A white cap on his head, Achrekar was walking lazily around the ground when I went up to him.
On being approached, he looked a little surprised at first, then he asked me to visit him at home, later that day.
'Home' was Manali Apartments, not too far from Shivaji Park, the nerve centre of Mumbai cricket. Achrekar opened the door himself, and escorted me to a small room where we sat, chatting about the game he loved.
What impressed me right up front was the patience he showed towards a rookie reporter. Clearly unwell -- Achrekar is recuperating at this point of time, from a major ailment that kept him off his feet for almost two months -- he answered my questions with care and patience, helped at times by daughter Kalpana, who has played cricket for Mumbai, and by Naresh Churi, a family friend and Ranji Trophy player under Indian Railways colours.
Excerpts, from an interview with Bhishan Mansukani:
Your own cricket career has not been as distinguished as that of some of your protegees....?
Yes. I started playing cricket in 1943, when I was in Chabildas High School, then I played club cricket for New Hind Sports Club and for Young Maharashtra XI, this was in 1945. After that I played for Gul Mohar Mills and Bombay Port, I also played one first class game, for All India State Bank, in the Moin-Ud-Dowla tournament. After that, I didn't make much progress.
How did you get into coaching?
That was totally by accident. I was secretary of the New Hind Club, my father and Vijay Manjrekar's father had both played for the club. Actually, it was called New Hindu Club, before Mahatma Gandhi requested that the word 'Hindu' be dropped from names of public institutions.
In 1964, left arm spinner Suresh Shastri, who is now a first class umpire, was a schoolboy with Dayanand Balak Vidyalaya. The school needed a practise ground, and at Shastri's request, I gave permission for the school to use our ground.
I used to work in State Bank, at the time, and after work, I would come to the ground, supervise the groundsmen, watch the boys. I thought Suresh looked promising, there were a few other boys as well who were quite good so after their practise, I would point out their mistakes, make suggestions. It was all very ad hoc, I guess...
How did it become regular? In the sense, how did you move into formal coaching?
Well, as it happened, Dayanand was not one of the higher-rated schools, but that year they reached the final of the inter-schools tournament. I remember they played Balmohan, which was led by Sandeep Patil, and Dayanand actually led on the first innings. I left the ground then, and they collapsed in the second innings and lost the match! I've never done that since, never left a match halfway.
And after that you became a coach?
Well, actually, the Arya Samaj Trust used to run Dayanand Vidyalaya, and the son of one of the trustees was in the team, so his father used to come regularly to watch him practise. After a while, he asked me if I would coach on a full time basis, and offered me a remuneration. I told him I would take the coaching assignment, but wouldn't accept money. I had never managed to play cricket at a high level, so my desire was to help others do what I had failed to do.
Usually, after play, we would go to a local tea shop and have tea and snacks. At the time, Suresh, Chandrakant Pandit and Lalchand Rajput were all regulars in the nets. I told them if they wanted to become good cricketers, they had to join some club, and they told me that they wanted me to manage it. I was at the time overseeing the nets at New Hind and another club, Sassanian, so I could offer them their choice. And I guess that is how it all started. In time, I founded another club, Kamat Memorial, based at Shivaji Park, and that is what I manage to this day.
Your forte is spotting talent, so how exactly do you do that? What do you look for in an aspiring cricketer?
I take a thorough trial of each student who comes to me, and observe his technique and style of playing stokes. I believe that every player should stick to his natural game, not change it, but try to improve it through constant practice and playing more games. My job as coach is to point out mistakes, to guide students into how best to correct their flaws while retaining their natural game.
You are the recipient of the Dronacharya award, for excellence in coaching. How do you define the ideal coach? That is not for me to define or decide -- I know that my own thinking is to provide what knowledge I have, leaving it to the students to imbibe it to the best of their ability.
I guess the only definition of 'ideal' coach is one who is committed, fully and completely, to his students, and is one hundred per cent dedicated.
What is your opinion of the overall coaching standards in the country today?
I don't think any such overall definition is possible, for one thing there is no centralised coaching system in the country, we have different coaches in different places doing their own thing, and they all have different attitudes and approaches.
Besides, coaching is looked upon as a second job, it is not a full time profession here. I have been a full time coach for some time now, and I regret to say there is a slight lack of professionalism in coaching.
At one time, you had three of your wards in the Indian team -- Tendulkar, Amre, and Kambli. Now there is only Tendulkar, what happened to the others?
Actually, now there is Agarkar as well. Kambli is injured, I confidently expect to see him back in the side soon. As for Praveen (Amre), he has been out of form for some time now, it does happen to even the best players.
Of your protegees, who would you rate as the most naturally talented?
Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli, in equal measure. I think the difference between the two is that Vinod does not have sachin's knack of studying his own faults and working to erase them.
Vinod for instance has the tendency of getting fully across while batting, which means his leg stump is exposed, this has caused him so much trouble, I have pointed it out so often, but he still does it.
And what about Tendulkar, what are his defects?
Earlier, he used to play across the line, and wave his bat at bouncers outside leg stump to get caught at fine leg. Now, his only defect is a tendency to check his drive, sometimes, especially to a ball of full length, it results in his being caught and bowled. Of late, he has learnt to cut out the cross bat shots and the hooks, though he is still susceptible to the checked drive.
Doesn't he have a slightly suspect defense?
If he did, he wouldn't have scored all those runs at the highest level. His defence is strong, well organised, but he prefers to play his shots and I have always encouraged him to do that. He doesn't like to let any bowler get on top of him.
Another big problem with him is a tendency to overdo things -- he would have batted for hours in a game, and then after close of play, he will promptly be back in the nets, wanting to bat again, or bowl. Someone has to curb his enthusiasm, teach him not to burn himself out.
Speaking of which, Kambli's attitude is believed to be his own worst enemy...
In a sense that is true. He comes from a very poor family, and often does not know how to behave, both on and off the field. He doesn't mean any harm, it is just that his fondness for a flamboyant lifestyle, his swagger, gives him an I-don't-care appearance, which puts people's backs up. I've spoken to him about this, enough times, each time he tells me he will improve, but that determination lasts only for a couple of days, then he reverts to his own former behaviour. It is not that he means any harm, it is just the way he is, unfortunately, this tendency has earned him many enemies.
More generally, there is a feeling that Shivaji Park, once cricket's cradle, is losing its aura these days...
I don't think that is true, in fact, nothing has changed over the years, Mumbai is still capable of producing good cricketers. We have upcoming stars like Wasim Jaffer, Amol Mazumdar and Amit Pagnis, all are capable of becoming Test players of the future.
Neither the ability, nor the enthusiasm, has abated in Mumbai. It is up to the national selectors to recognise and pick the talented players. Besides, I think if a player is good enough, and performs consistently, then he will definitely make it to the side.
Since you believe that Mumbai is a cradle of cricketing talent, do you think there is need for an academy here, to harness the potential?
No, there is no need for such an academy. Like I said, the present coaching methods have produced talent consistently down the years. We have different coaches in Mumbai, but everyone has the same method, of thorough practise and making the students play plenty of matches on various grounds, and various surfaces. Also, the focus here is always to let the students play their normal game, honing it to perfection, eliminating flaws. Basically, I believe the trick is to learn the simple things correctly. And also, we now have the ELF Vengsarkar Academy, which is also doing a good job.
Many players perform well, and consistently, in domestic competition but fail when they are picked for the higher class -- how does one judge whether a particular player has what it takes to make the transition to the international stage?
Consistency is definitely one yardstick, but I also would give great importance to assessing the technique of the player. Vikram Rathore is an example, and admittedly, it is a rare example of a player very good in domestic cricket, but unable to transcend his limitations at the higher level. Look at the likes of Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly, picked for domestic performance, and showing the skill and technique needed at the highest level...
How closely are you associated with Mumbai cricket?
I was a selector of the Mumbai cricket team for a few years, I am still a member of the Mumbai Cricket Association.
A recent concern is that there is an overdose of one day cricket. Do you think this will ruin a player's skills when it comes to Test cricket?
Not really, a batsman's game never deserts him, not if he is good. For instance, Sachin always plays aggressively, goes for his shots, whether in one dayers or in Tests. Rahul Dravid on the other hand is a more graceful batsman, a patient one, waits for the loose ball whether in Tests or the shorter version.
A word about your latest prodigy, Agarkar?
I am thoroughly impressed with the way Ajit has performed in international cricket. He is an attacking bowler who concentrates on picking up wickets. He may not be as well built as Donald or Ambrose, but he is nippy and can surprise many batsmen with extra pace. He needs to work on his fitness though, and build muscles. Also, he must be handled with caution and not be overused, which which may result in a burnout or injury. He is a brilliant prospect for Indian cricket.
Do we need an international coach?
No, I see no real need for an international coach, we have enough talented, experienced former Test cricketers who are capable of bringing out the best in our players. The national coach, further, needs a longer run and more time to produce the deserved results. However, we do need a psychiatrist and fitness expert, who will help in improving attitudes of the players, also in improving our overall fitness, and our fielding standards.
Indian cricket is moving into the next millenium, and it seems unprepared. What is it we need to do?
I think the Indian team suffers from a lack of the right attitude. It is easy to realise this when we see say the South Africans on the field, they are agile, professional, always raring to go, whereas we always seem to have our minds on other things, when we are fielding.
The South Africans may not be as gifted or talented as the Indians, but they make the best of what they possess, they play to the top of their ability, whereas we play at half throttle most of the time. It is this attitude we need to change, first.
As far as the World Cup is concerned, I think our team is shaping up well. Our batting has always been at the top of its form and we have a good line up of seam bowlers who will revel under English conditions. If we improve in fitness, and fielding standards, we will go a long way towards winning the World Cup.