“Bahut gussa aa raha tha,” he says. “Kudh pe?” you ask him. He looks up at you, shakes his head and then trying his best to look and sound menacing bellows, “Uspe”.
Ayush Dubey is 10, around 4’4” tall and is in the fifth standard. He bowled 23 overs across two days when Pranav Dhanawade produced the greatest innings ever played in the history of the game, numerically speaking that is. Sarth Salunke is half-an-inch taller and is Ayush’s classmate at Arya Gurukul. He had opened the bowling at Kalyan’s Wayle Maidan in arguably one of the most lopsided sporting encounters ever, and between them the two diminutive ‘pacers’ bowled half of the overs. Apart from getting angry at him, Ayush—the scrawnier of the two—also reveals having asked their tormentor to give his team a break. But to no avail.
“Bas kar na. Aur kitna marega? I told him. But he asked me to go back and said ‘Ja, ja bowling kar. Aur bahut maarna hai’” Incidentally, Ayush nor Sarth, both U-12 cricketers at best, were supposed to play that game. Not only were they not in the same age-group or league, they weren’t even the right size. Neither had played in a match where bowlers could bowl more than 9-overs each. They hadn’t bowled on a pitch longer than 16 yards—the norm for under-12 matches—or held a full-sized ball in their hands.
But their bowling figures will remain etched in folklore from here on as much as Dhanawade’s 1009 off 323 balls that pushed the reaches of cricketing imagination to new horizons. Not to forget the dimensions of the odd-shaped venue, the utter lack of competition and the 25 chances—22 catches and three stumpings—that the 15-year-old survived.
By the time we head to Kalyan in search of the stories behind the epic, 10 days have passed since the busy township some 40 km away from Mumbai turned into the cynosure of the cricket world. The previous evening incidentally had seen the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) throw a gala felicitation ceremony for the rickshaw-driver’s son, where he had been honoured by president Sharad Pawar, even if he kept referring to him as ‘Pravin’. It was the crowning glory of a week that saw Dhanawade turn into a worldwide phenomenon, with his posters adorning most streets around his hometown, and his rags to riches tale being told and retold around the globe.
The dust has now settled on his epoch-breaking feat, and life has returned to normal in Kalyan. Most of those posters—except the one outside KC Gandhi English School, have now been replaced with the routine fare of political standees. But the aftermath of the humiliating defeat—by an innings and 1382 runs—still rankles at Arya Gurkul, an upmarket institution located up a craggy road and in the midst of otherwise proletariat establishments in Kalyan East’s Nandivili village.
Coach Yogesh Jagtap can’t stop ruing the fact that he couldn’t go in with his full-strength team, principal V Srinivasan is in the process of organizing a session for the playing XI with a counsellor while the 9th and 10th standard boys who Dhanawade would have faced ideally are baying for payback.
“Sir ek rematch karao please. Hum phir dikhayenge usse,” one of them tells Jagtap. He simply smiles as if to say, “If only I could.” Funnily enough, the rag-tag outfit—made up under-age kids from 5th, 6th and 8th standards—that did eventually take the field, and gamely so, seems the least affected by the dramatic outcome. Maybe they’re not yet old enough to realize its enormity.
Aarya Gurukul’s U-16 team had never qualified for the second stage of the HT Bhandari Cup, a Thane district inter-school tournament, before. But they had a good team this year, groomed meticulously by their 33-year-old coach. Jagtap runs his own academy at Subash Maidan, a ground that before Dhanawade had witnessed all of Kalyan’s trysts with cricketing fame with everyone from Sachin Tendulkar having played here. And through years of planning, he had put together an outfit that had won their matches easily in the first stage of the tournament, which is played on a knockout basis.
“We got a bye in Round 1 and soundly beat our opponents from Thane and Ambernath in the following rounds to progress,” Jagtap recalls. Ironically, one of the two 45-over encounters was played at Wayle Maidan, which saw Arya Gurkul chase down a paltry score. Captain Harshvardhan Barai, who keeps wickets, the big-hitting Rubel Biswas, all-rounder Prakar Mishra, Saisurya Narayan the off-spinning vice-captain and fast bowler Wasim Kurne were Jagtap’s ‘boys’. With them, he had dared to dream, even as far as winning the title.
But with five days to go for their first two-day league encounter, the fateful one against KC Gandhi and Dhanawade, Jagtap was not quite preparing for battle. He was instead left scrambling to find 11 players ready to play. According to brand-new school regulations, the principal had decreed that 10th standard students weren’t allowed to play matches post January 1. That ruled out all five of the team’s key players. Barai anyway was to miss the match as he had to be in Delhi to represent Maharashtra in the sepak takraw nationals.
“I was in Jalgaon when I found out and was frantically messaging the principal trying to get a clear picture. This was during the Christmas break and the match was scheduled for the first day after reopening and he said he would allow the 9th standard kids to play,” says Jagtap. But of the three 9th students, one who had attended the MCA U-14 camp the previous year had been barred from playing cricket by his parents and the other two had been left out owing to disciplinary reasons. Based truly on instinct, Jagtap would assemble 12 players most of whom had never played a proper match before and, in his words, were picked because he felt “fielding toh kar lenge”.
Srinivasan, meanwhile, was busy dealing with a graver tragedy. A balloon cylinder blast had killed the vendor and severely injured several of the students during the Sports Day celebrations on December 25 at Arya Gurukul, a Chinamaya Mission-run institution. But he does acknowledge the fix that his trusted coach had been put in.
“I even asked him to withdraw the team as there was no point. But he insisted that it could put the team’s future in trouble if the MCA took action. So I allowed the kids to go just for participation sake,” says the principal.
While the Bhandari Cup is held under the aegis of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA), it is organized by the Sportsman Cricket Club, headed by Piyush Dhakras. And Jagtap recalls Dhakras having approached him with a request that he now can’t help laughing about.
“The Wayle Maidan was a last-minute choice, and as it is surrounded by some of the most opulent residential societies in Kalyan he requested that I not pick hard-hitting batsmen who could hit balls towards these buildings,” he says. Eventually, Dhanawade would smash 59 sixes, most of which flew well beyond the walls of the rectangular venue. Dhakras would sit through both days and enjoy the carnage.
“Actually I recall a conversation between the Gandhi school coach and Pranav that morning. He was asking the boy to not play seeing the opposition quality but he insisted that he desperately wanted to score a ton and got his way,” Jagtap tells you. He also informs that the trustees on the board of KC Gandhi are also the same on the committee of the Union Sports Club, which owns the ground. And it is here that Dhanawade’s school team practices.
Ganesh has been the curator at Wayle Maidan for 7-8 years now. And you find him perched on top of the roller on Monday afternoon. It’s another busy day. Wayle is set to host its first match since making an unexpected entry into the record books. But the first thing Ganesh talks about without any prompting is his primary vocation. Pitch-making he tells you is a mere passion.
“My first love is snake catching. And that’s my living. When you’re dealing with them, you can’t get it wrong, or you lose your wicket for good. No second innings,” he says.
He also takes pride in being in the know of all the school teams who play here. And he talks about being surprised when he saw Dhanawade open the innings, considering he’d never seen the teenager bat above No.7. But having seen him bat before, Ganesh wasn’t surprised with the ease with which he was clearing the ground. Akash Singh, who scored a century too, and Shashwat Jagtap are the regular openers generally, he says. Jagtap batted No.4 in the match.
“This is too small a ground for U-16 teams. Even U-14 kids can clear it easily, maybe even U-12 ones if they are in regular touch. The square boundaries are very nearby,” he says. But he refuses to share the exact co-ordinates of the boundary distances. And when you do try to measure it, Ganesh puts his foot down and asks you not to. Luckily by then, the square-leg and point boundaries have been ascertained. It’s around 32 yards. The square at Wayle is diagonally located, which means except cow-corner (wide long-on) none of the other boundaries are more than 40 yards. It also means that even the fleetest for fielders will find it difficult to cut off angles. So once the ball leaves the square, it just races off and slams into the boundary wall. For Jagtap’s diminutive army, most of whom weren’t used to 5 ½ ounces of hard leather flying their way with evil intent, this was a near-impossible task.
Dhanawade was no stranger to Jagtap. Apart from dressing-rooms during local open category tournaments, the two had even shared a last-wicket stand for their team last year. Jagtap knew of his occasional teammate as someone who could pack a punch with his shots but was far from being a complete batsman, good enough to score 70-80 at the U-16 level but not big centuries, forget four-figure behemoths. But he does agree that his young bowling attack had no chance against his might to the extent that he wasn’t even made to play a quality stroke, say a cut or a pull. He just kept banging the balls that landed under his bat over the ropes.
In addition to Ayush and Sarth, his options were Pratik Bedekar, Harshal Jadhav and Mayank Gupta, a bespectacled 5th standard student. You meet Mayank at the Arya Gurukul ground later as he shyly tells you about trying a slower one to which his coach quips, “Arey tera ball pahunch hi nahi raha tha, kya slower one try kiya tu?”
But as Jagtap reveals now, his only expectation from his young ‘pace attack’ was that they manage to get the ball across without the ball bouncing more than once. His other bowling option Swaraj Deshmukh—who would go on to nab a six-wicket haul in his team’s next match—was forced to keep wickets as the coach was petrified of putting anybody else behind the wickets, where he believes his kids would have been in mortal danger.
As Dhanawade began feasting himself to boundaries, Jagtap remembers having had a word with him too.
“I asked him why he wasn’t stopping and he said let me score 500 and then we will declare. But they didn’t and then I thought they would put us in first thing on Day Two by which time he had the world record but still no,” he says. Catches kept getting dropped, most of them in the deep mid-wicket region which was the longest part of the ground, and the hapless coach sat keeping count.
Though the kids themselves weren’t complaining, Jagtap had begun receiving calls from worried parents wondering what their children were being put through. He was receiving calls from friends chiding him about his coaching credentials And on the second morning, as he rode from home to home on his bike, he was worried whether he will have 11 players again. To his surprise, all except one who injured his shin, turned up and looked eager to resume battle.
As the media started piling on to the ground on Day Two, Jagtap realized that KC Gandhi were no longer interested in the match itself, he says. It was the record they were after. His kids were now undergoing harassment.
But much to the coach’s admiration, his pacers kept running in off their full runs. While Sarth is more measured in his approach, Ayush’s on the other hand is like that of any kid aspiring to be a fast bowler—he steams in as fast as his little feet lets him to, stumbling along, and despite all his effort the ball barely reaches the batsman.
Arya Gurukul’s best and final chance to get rid of Dhanawade came when he was in his 920s. It was a skier and Harshal Jadhav had the ball in his clasp. But agonizingly he let it slip out in his excitement to celebrate the catch. “Funnily enough of everything that happened, that’s what I remember most vividly,” says Swaraj the wicket-keeper, as his entire team bursts out in laughter, when you meet them at the Arya Gurukul school ground.
It’S on this very ground that the single most battered team in cricket history was felicitated in front of the entire school on January 6—a day after they found themselves on the wrong side of a run avalanche.
“I have to cross KC Gandhi on my way to school every day and I could hear their staff going gaga over Pranav’s achievement. So I immediately sent our assembly in-charge a message and asked him to read it out. As soon as that happened, without being asked to every student stood up and applauded our warriors,” he says. Jagtap then spends a couple of minutes scrolling up his phone to show you the message.
‘Losing is only temporary and not all encompassing. You must simply study it, learn from it, and try hard not to lose the same way again. Then you must have the self-control to forget about it…With this quote, I would congratulate the team that played yesterday and today. They according to their age and level performed best and delivered to the best of their ability,’ it reads. The message, the principal says, turned the mood in his school from feeling bad for the kids to being proud of them.
It wasn’t just Jagtap’s heart that Ayush & Co had won, he’s quick to add. While the Dhanawade family rode into a starry sunset that evening in their rickshaw with the media and hordes of VIPs in hot pursuit, the Arya Gurukul XI were preparing for their own celebration. Ayush’s father had decided to take the entire team out for dinner. Unlike his son, the senior Dubey insists on not having been angry with Dhanawade. “Instead I was proud that my boy bowled 23 overs against guys double his size and picked two wickets,” he says as he waits to pick Ayush up from school. And as he walks away with his father, Arya Gurukul’s new pace sensation turns around and has the final word. He says, “Next time chance mila na, usse outside off on a length daaloonga. Out ho jaayega.”