Over the course of the Trent Bridge Test, many former Indian cricketers dropped by at Hospitality Box No.12. Sunil Gavaskar, Farokh Engineer, Rahul Dravid — all walked into the room with the top-of-the-sightscreen view, a table for eight, well-stocked cooler and the warm smile of the man at the door, owner Nat Puri.
Since their playing days, the legends of the game have seen this familiar smile of their generous host, who has often loosened his purse strings to celebrate Indian triumphs on the field or offer a helping hand to touring Indian cricketers. Buying sweaters for the early tourists, honouring Virender Sehwag with 50,000 pounds for his triple hundred, ordering the bubbly, sending cars, throwing lavish parties with return gifts — Puri has been Indian cricket’s trusted friend in England for the last four decades.
The 75-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist, who made his money in construction and manufacturing, is the president of the Nottinghamshire Cricket Club, the first non-Briton to head a county. But he is more famous as Nottingham’s “richest man”. Puri doesn’t deny his net worth but tries to underplay it. “One never knows who is the richest. Money is relevant only for what you use it for. I am the richest man inside here,” he says, pointing to his heart.
Unfortunately, the touring party of 2014 may not be able to enjoy the famous Nat Puri hospitality. The reason for the breaking of an age-old Nottingham tradition are the sharks floating around the cricket circuit, the new norms of the anti-corruption unit and a young team that hasn’t been to these shores often.
Keeping his distance from the cricketers is a new experience for Puri. “These days, security is a big issue. Someone else has done wrong and I am paying the price for it,” he says. “But I have to accept this because you have to stop the bad people. Whatever the rules are, people like me have to understand.”
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During their opening Test, Team India was invited to Puri’s traditional dinner, but the new team protocol stopped them from accepting the invite. Puri bemoans the end of that age of innocence and dawn of an era where fixers pose as fans.
“Not too far back, I used to sit with the players in the dressing room. Now, I can’t go anywhere near them. During the 1974 tour, when India was all out for 42, I offered the players incentive to play well — 25 pounds for a ton and 5 pounds for wickets. Even when Tendulkar scored 91 in 2007 and India won, I ordered a dozen bottles of champagne,” says Puri.
Born in Mullanpur in Punjab, Puri studied in Ambala and Chandigarh. He later plied trucks “between Kanpur and Kolkata on the GT Road as father said studying was a waste”. Somewhere during his intriguing journey, from getting a degree in “refrigeration and air-conditioning” in England to owning a business empire that at one point had 11,000 employees, Nathu Ram Puri became Nat Puri, the man who took up assignments and businesses that nobody touched.
“All I do is use common sense. You can buy everything but not common sense,” says Puri, the honorary life vice-president of Nottinghamshire Cricket Club, who has donated about 1 million pounds to develop cricket at Trent Bridge. Puri also has a foundation that offers scholarship for students at Nottingham University.
The words he uses are very British, but the accent remains Indian. Puri says that on the cricket field, he doesn’t try to be hide his allegiance to the country of his birth. Ask him about his favourite cricketer and he thinks hard. “I have watched so many of them, it depends on which day of the week it is. You watch Sehwag and you think how can one like anybody but him. Then you see Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, and you think the same,” he replies.
Puri is still hopeful of meeting the team. He has had a chat with his old friend Sunil Dev, the Indian manager on this tour and a regular visitor to these parts in the past. “Sunil has told me that they will be at my home for dinner when they return to Nottingham for the one-dayer,” he says.