In the 80s, Manoj Parmar, still a teenager, would always take a couple of arduous detours on his way to play club cricket in the UK. From his home in Rajkot, he would travel eight hours on the road to be for darshan at Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
After the pilgrimage, the wicketkeeper-batsman would take a bus for Udaipur to buy in bulk “cushions covers, table cloth and wall hangings with colourfully embroidered elephants”. The Saurashtra Ranji regular of the past would land at Heathrow, lugging the bags stuffed with his cricket kit and elephants, after 10-hours on the Udaipur-Mumbai train and roughly the same time on the Mumbai-London flight.
Once in Scotland, where he would play league cricket for 12 years, Parmar would make a tidy profit exploiting the high demand for the exotic Indian handicrafts. The apartment that the club gave him would double up as a take-away for ‘chicken curry & rice’ that he cooked in a very Indian way. For the only son of an LIC clerk, who made his first trip to England after his father and a cousin took personal loans, making money on the side was as important as giving it all to English cricket system that employed him as an overseas professional. Roughly three decades after his first trip to these shores, meeting Parmar, 47, shows that his goals haven’t changed much.
Now in England, after a short stint in USA, he is talking about his early days of struggle sitting in his own double-storied, four-bedroom house that has a mini-van and car parked in the porch plus a sprawling backyard where his two sons play cricket and football.
The typical English village house at Thame, 40 minutes from London, is not far from his 2,500-square feet sports shop, the biggest in Oxfordshire, or the cricket ground where he runs a popular academy that groom around 100 kids, most of them in their pre-teens. Pointing to a field close to the approach road to his house he says, “If things go fine I will buy this land and shift my academy,” says the ECB-recognised Level 4 coach, certified ground keeper and, the ultimate English recognition, an MCC member who wears the yellow-orange tie when he gets invited to Lord’s games. Parmar’s story is as much about an enterprising journeyman who didn’t stay home moaning domestic cricket’s low wages during his playing days, as it is about the vast network of the inclusive English cricket structure that recognises not just the passion to play cricket, but also teach it.
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The Parmars are the only Indians in the mostly-white Thame, with a population of about 12,000. Elder son Manan, a budding cricketer, says he is the only full-Asian in his school. But cricket has made them a very popular family around this village that is a short drive away from Oxford University.
At Parmar’s shop, a day before his academy students were to travel to Lord’s to watch the Test, a cricket mom walks in to collect the specially designed shirts for the trip. “He is a pied piper, kids just love him,” she says. Mrs Parmar, Hema, who joined Manoj in Thame in early 2000, started as the ‘tea lady’ for league games and now is a popular hostess.
His big break
Parmar’s big break came in the 2004, the year he brought his house. And it’s a story straight from a movie script. Towards the end of his playing days, the pro cricketers started spending more time with kids at the Thame CC academy. He would spend hours speaking to children and thinking of ways to make cricket a fun experience. Parmar would include Indian street games in drills and the kids would never even think of missing a session.
The number of Parmar’s wards bloated with time and the spike got noticed by the club officials. One day, as Parmar went out collecting litter from the ground after training, an old habit from his playing days, he was called by club chairman, the late John Fulkes, who was the secretary of Oxford Cricket Board, ECB’s cricket manager for south region. Fulkes, unmarried but a true cricket romantic, was an Oxford graduate and a deputy head of local school. He stayed with his mother and spend most of his after-work hours drawing schedule for school cricket, score for them or being the lone little league spectator.
“Mr Fulkes asked me to buy a house. I could just spare 800 pounds but he would give me about 3 to 4 lakh pounds since my family was growing. He really liked what I did and he wanted to me to make Thame my home,” says Parmar. In a twist of fate, the day after Parmar got the cheque, Fulkes succumbed to a heart attack. “I wanted return the cheque to the family, but his mother told me that ‘If John had given the cheque, you must have done something good.”
Parmar takes to the back room of his office to show the picture of Fulkes, who is framed next to several Indian gods. In an alien land, he has found a new home, new friends and a new God too.