He’s barely three feet away from the TV screen, sitting on the edge of the bed in a red shirt and shorts following the action in the last Test of the India-Australia series. People kept coming and going but his eyes didn’t stray from the screen, taking in every detail.
Just a stone’s throw away from the legendary Shivaji Park in Mumbai, we are seated in a 100 square feet drawing room in another of the city’s unremarkable houses. What makes it special is it’s the residence of Ramakant Achrekar, perhaps India’s most famous cricket coach, the man who mentored and groomed Sachin Tendulkar.
That said, there’s very little sign of the famous alliance except for a solitary picture of Sachin standing behind his coach and a few friends at a far corner above the television along with a miniature cricket bat.
At 80 years and four months, coach Achrekar is a man of few words. But talk to him about his favourite pupil and the octogenarian makes a serious attempt to speak. He speaks extremely slowly and in Marathi.
“He continues to be the same, just as he was, there has been no change in him. He still visits me, to seek my blessings. Despite my limited speech, he constantly talks to me about cricket,” says Achrekar.
“It’s tough to distract father while he’s watching a match,” adds eldest daughter Vishakha, who’s visiting.
Having just recovered from malaria, the Dronacharya awardee reveals that Sachin visited him before the Australia series to check on his health. The little master may be on the road for nine months a year, but he has registered his old coach at one of Mumbai’s finest luxury super-speciality hospitals, SevenHills.
“While he discusses cricket, he spends a lot of time enquiring about my health. Even when he is on tour, he calls and speaks to my daughter Kalpana to stay updated. When they are in Mumbai, he and Anjali visit me often,” adds Achrekar with a smile on his face as on the screen Tendulkar sprints, slides, gathers and returns the ball to the wicketkeeper from the boundary.
From taking Sachin on his own scooter to various grounds for matches, to giving him a Rs 1 coin for remaining unbeaten, the Sachin-Achrekar story is captured in the annals of Indian cricket history and is probably known to every cricket fan in India. During his early days, Sachin spent enough time at the Achrekar household to have developed a close bond with two of his daughters, Kalpana and Vishakha, who now run a cricket coaching centre. (In fact, even after his Test debut, they continued to compete in table tennis and the story goes that Sachin was once defeated by them.)
Kalpana, who stays with her father, says, “Sachin is devoted to the game and even after his retirement from ODIs he had spoken to baba (father).” Even at 80, cricket continues to be the dominant theme in Achrekar’s life, though these days it’s mostly matches on TV. You can also catch the coach at the local temple and at times in Shivaji Park in his wheelchair, where he is still greeted with awe by the young Sachin wannabes. “He feels nice and really enjoys meeting people. He doesn’t like sitting cooped up at home. We also drive down to Alibaug from Mumbai at times,” says Kalpana. There’s an ad break in the match, so he turns back towards us as I speak to him on Sachin’s 40th birthday. A look of contentment passes over his face as he smiles broadly, “Chikati sodaychi nahin (Never leave your bat), I just want him to continue doing well and play for as long as he can.”
Despite his limited speech, as I grab my camera to take a picture, he stops me from clicking and looks for his trademark brown cap. While his daughter finds a blue cap, he urges his grandson to look for his brown cap, puts it on and gives me a broad smile for a picture. As I make my way out, he calls me back and signs off, “Sachin should play for four more years, I want to see him score a few more centuries.” Ramakant Achrekar is no different, just like every Indian cricket fan he wants to watch the master wield magic with his willow for ever.