KIRAN MORE has this fading photograph, taken 25 years ago, saved on his mobile phone. It’s from India’s 1992-93 end-of-apartheid cricket tour to South Africa. It shows More, in his India formals, with his blazer casually slung over his left shoulder, his right hand on the shoulder of a bare-footed two-year-old boy. Dressed in a blue T-shirt and matching shorts and barely reaching the former Indian wicket-keeper’s hips, that boy is now all set to look straight into the eyes of Indian cricketers on their 2018 tour to South Africa.
Keshav Maharaj has grown up, not just in years and inches. From being an infant fan to an international cricketer, the 27-year-old is the only left-arm spinner in the South African squad that takes on India in the first Test at Newlands on Friday.
A five-wicket haul in his last Test against Zimbabwe makes him a certainty in the XI that will follow captain Faf du Plessis at the picturesque ground under the constant watch of the towering Table Mountain beyond the stadium premises.
The man who took that photo, Keshav’s father Athmanand, can’t wait for the day when his son is on the field with cricketers from the country where his great-great grandfather lived before he took a ship to the continent of opportunities — and hard work — to work as an indentured labourer.
But then, anticipating Indian tours isn’t new for the Durban-based educator. He has done that before, and that’s how it all started.
The story behind the yellowing photo is one of a cricket-obsessed father, and the sacrifices he made to see his son live the dream that he secretly nurtured within.
The frame is special for the Athmanand since it was taken on the day More, while visiting the Maharaj home, had made a prediction about Keshav’s future. “I recall fondly that Kiran picked up Keshav’s palm and looked at it and shook his head. After that, he mentioned that this boy will play cricket. We never looked back and Kiran’s words were prophetic,” says Athmanand, who can never forget the early encouragement from the international star.
More, who went on to head the national selection panel, underplays his hunch but is happy to speak about the day he got a message from his old friend in South Africa. “When Keshav was picked to play for South Africa against Australia in 2016, Atma sent me the photo and reminded me about what I had said about his son. I have been friends with the family for years, we have kept in touch,” says More.
But the first meeting of these friends for close to three decades hadn’t been easy. It was a series of coincidences, a dash of destiny and some “kismat” that got Athmanand to meet More and invite him home — where Keshav showed his palm to the guest — and finally click that picture of the cricketer with the tiny tot.
Back then, South Africa was celebrating its newly acquired rainbow hue and the chance to finally watch international sport at home. After the long years of sanctions, everyone wanted a piece of the Indian cricket team. “From the airport, we got into open-top cars. There were people on both sides of the road. It was overwhelming. There were people who wanted to just touch us. Everywhere we went, people thanked us, we were mobbed,” recalls More.
Athmanand wanted to be with the guests from India, talk cricket with them. He wasn’t alone, the whole of Durban, the largest “Indian” city outside India, wanted to do that. But fate had plans for the budding cricketer who kept wickets for the Natal B team.
“I had this friend, Ajay Gupta, who was a sailor. His grandfather had played cricket for India. He used to intermittently visit Durban. As luck would have it, when the Indian cricketers were here, he was at my home and I asked him if he knew someone in the team whom I could meet. He mentioned Praveen Amre. I think they lived in the same town. He mentioned that in case I meet Amre, he should mention him,” says Athmanand.
However, the cricket fan soon realised that reaching Amre wasn’t easy. That’s when the second slice of luck fell at his feet from nowhere. Athamanand’s uncle, an “influential man”, happened to be an important client of New Republic Bank, the sponsors of that series.
In the lead-up to the Test, the sponsors threw a gala dinner for India’s cricketers at the Durban City Hall. Athmanand’s uncle, too, was invited. In a final stroke of luck, the uncle “got busy with some work” at the last minute.
“He couldn’t go and knowing that I was playing cricket, he offered the invite to me. I was overjoyed to get there and the first thing I did was to get hold of Amre. I told him about Ajay Gupta and things started to get little easier in term of communications. That’s also where I met Kiran for the first time. I had an interesting chat with Sachin Tendulkar and I took a photo with him, which I still have,” he says, adding that he also has a frame of Mohammad Azharuddin with his then seven-year-old daughter.
Subsequently, he got invited to other events and that’s when he hit it off with More and invited him home. Athmanand believes those meetings in the summer of 1992 had a role to play in deciding Keshav’s future. “Our family was rubbing shoulders with the biggest names. I don’t know if it was destiny but a path opened up for Keshav,” says the father.
But this week, as irony would have it, Athmanand won’t be in the stands at Cape Town for the first Test. Of course, he no longer needs a friend to put in a word, or an obliging uncle, to meet the international cricketers — as Keshav’s father, he can walk into the team hotel and meet his heroes. However, a family function in Durban will force him to stay back.
Still, that picture of a cricketer in formals and a boy in bare feet is certainly worth a thousand words. Maybe, more than a thousand.