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Monday, January 20, 2020

The one who dropped the ball: Before Sachin Tendulkar,there was Anil Gurav

As Sachin calls it a day,Bharat Sundaresan meets the man who disappeared into the shadows.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Mumbai | Published: November 17, 2013 11:08:32 pm

When Sachin Tendulkar started out,Anil Gurav was Mumbai’s brightest star,offering him tips and once a bat. As Sachin calls it a day,Bharat Sundaresan meets the man who disappeared into the shadows

Far,far away from Wankhede Stadium and even further away from the man who is the cynosure of it,in a 200-sq ft cramped dwelling with paint peeling off the walls,lurks another Sachin story.

On most days,at most hours,on a bare rickety bed here,in Mumbai’s Nalasopara,you can find Anil Gurav. The smell of cheap alcohol rests around him,as do years of pain in his wild,staring,glazed eyes. It’s his memory that remains the sharpest,particularly so these days. And as the Tendulkar story draws to a glorious end,these memories have been flooding back to Gurav: of how it was he who had once been the chosen one,of being called the Viv Richards of Mumbai,the next big thing from the city since Sunil Gavaskar,of playing with that curly haired boy from Bandra who had always been so talented,of teaching him a few tricks,and of once,long,long ago,lending a cricket bat with which the boy would hit his first competitive century — one of a historic many.

Gurav also remembers every bitter detail about how he lost his own way,partly to many things beyond his control. Particularly a brother who strayed to the other,darker side of Mumbai.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

Nalasopara itself is the back of beyond — in Mumbai parlance,26 stations away from Churchgate if you board a slow train. To get there though is only the beginning of the ordeal. While the main market area in this outlying suburb bustles with activity,the only way to ‘Tulinge Naka’ is via a treacherous potholed road.

Deep down in one of its narrowest lanes,lies a “landmark”,‘Trimbak Bungalow’,in reality as dilapidated as its neighbouring slums. A walk past a few tattered shanties,side-stepping dog faeces and an overflowing drain,leads one to Kholi No. 5.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

There are some in the locality who are aware Gurav was once a cricketer. His achievements they know of only vaguely. To most,Gurav is what he seems: a 48-year-old incorrigible drunk striving to keep his family together.

There was a time though when it was on his stumps that famed coach Ramakant Achrekar had placed a coin first — a sign in Mumbai cricket circles that meant you were the chosen one. Before Sachin,there was Gurav.

As he tells his story,we are constantly interrupted,by nosy neighbours either peeping through the window or the open door. Some smile wryly. Some shake their head in disgust. Some even dismiss his story as an inebriated rant.

Gurav ignores them.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

The boys mockingly invite Gurav to participate in their cricket matches before slandering him. And they speak in whispers about how he will go to any extent for his next drink — even if it means cleaning gutters or selling off the trophies and medals he once won. He keeps on talking.

Things were a lot different 25 years ago,says Gurav,his eyes giving away little,except when they light up as he describes a shot with a flick of his wrists or recalls one of his many aggressive knocks. That was when the stylish right-hander would set off a buzz every time he arrived at the crease. When Gurav cut the ball,it would slice through the grass. Every hook shot that he sent sailing over the outfield from under his nose would invoke raptures of applause. In mid-’80s the murmurs were that the maidans were witnessing the arrival of the next big thing from Mumbai since Sunil Gavaskar.

Among the ardent fans were Sachin and Vinod Kambli,who would often spend hours watching Gurav bat in the nets or were asked to observe his stroke-play by their coach. “Sachin loved my cut and hook shot. He also took a few tips regarding how to go about playing with as much power as me,” says Gurav.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

Former Mumbai cricketer and a Sachin confidant,Rajesh Sutar,remembers that everyone from Achrekar’s nets thought it would be Gurav among them who would go on to play for India. “He was called the Viv Richards of Mumbai at that point. Even Sachin used to admire his batting a lot,” Sutar says.

They also remember that he had the audacity to overrule coach Achrekar’s stringent rules and continue playing tennis-ball tournaments.

Mangesh Bhalekar,another noted maidan coach,remembers people bunking work to watch Gurav take an opposition attack apart.

Even as Sachin began stealing some of his thunder,Gurav remained the star of Mumbai’s upcoming batting talent,representing Bombay Schools and the Bombay U-19 team.

Talking about the time he lent Sachin his bat,Gurav says: “I was his captain at Sassanian (the cricket club). He wanted to use my bat but was too shy to ask me directly. The request came through Ramesh Parab (now the international scorer at Wankhede),and I told Sachin he could use it provided he made a big score. He said,‘I will sir’,and went on to score a century with my SG bat,” he says.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

A deep breath later,his stained teeth breaking into a huge smile,Gurav says: “Imagine Sachin called me ‘sir’ back then.”

Gurav’s highest score came for Bombay Schools,135,in a crunch match,where he overshadowed the likes of Sulakshan Kulkarni,the current Mumbai coach,and a few others who would go on to play Ranji Trophy.

His story,of course,would take a completely different tangent. And as he fell from grace,it would coincide with the rise of Sachin.

“Sachin was always special. He had all the shots and a great temperament. He also was blessed in a way,everything happened at the right time for him. Most importantly,he had a great background,” says Gurav. “Background is everything,” he adds,after a pause.

Gurav should know. Around the time he was scoring his big hits in the maidan,younger brother Ajit was climbing the ranks elsewhere — as a sharp-shooter for a famous local gang in Parel,where the Guravs originally hail from. As Gurav moved from Western Railway to New India Assurance for better cricketing opportunities,Ajit rose into the upper echelons of crime,bringing the city police in hot pursuit.

The association would prove costly,says Gurav,notwithstanding all the laurels he was earning in the field. A top police officer who later became very well-known,he says,kept picking him and his mother up in their search for Ajit.

“He would question my mother and me repeatedly and then take us away. They would beat us up,me more than her. Luckily I still had a name in the cricket circuit,and someone would come to my help. But not before they had left me in no condition to stand,” Gurav shudders.

Mother Sumitra,who lives with Gurav and his family,points to her swollen knees,before breaking down. “Anil could at least get away because someone would recognise him or he would show them a few photos of his cricketing achievements. I had no such option. They would keep me for days,even up to a month,” she claims.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

Gurav reels off the names of the police stations he was taken to. While he still played cricket at this time,it got more and more difficult to keep up with the game. “I was afraid every time I walked out to the field,” he recalls. “I didn’t know when they would come for me.”

Finally,desperate to distance himself from his brother,Gurav and his mother moved to Nalasopara in early 1990s. They hoped that the police wouldn’t find them there. “After a while,they caught up with us there too,” he says.

While Ajit would also land up at times,mostly in the middle of the night,to meet their mother,Gurav says he “just ignored his presence”.

The memories of what happened after one such visit still haunt him. “They came in five vehicles,some 20-odd cops,and surrounded the place. I was having dinner and before I knew it,there were two revolvers placed on either side of my head. They had never laid eyes on Ajit so they presumed I was him. They dragged my mother and me away. Somehow my brother escaped yet again,” he recalls.

This time Gurav was made to spend a night in lock-up and sleep on the cold floor with criminals for company. “I was tied upside down and beaten. They broke my leg. The torture was inconceivable,” he says.

As he remembers that night — “mother had made mutton that day,” he whispers — Gurav suddenly clutches his head and starts rubbing his temples. His eyes redden,though there are no tears.

By 1994,Gurav had made a name for himself at New India Assurance (NIA),and using some influence there,he finally convinced the police that he had no ties with his brother anymore. That was the end of the police pursuit,say the mother and son.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

In Mumbai Police records,Ajit remains untraceable and still wanted. Gurav and Sumitra claim to have not seen him in years.

While those nightly knocks ended,by that time Gurav’s cricketing career was also over. He took to heavy drinking. While he continued to work as a clerk at NIA,his life was now in a free fall.

Gurav remembers avoiding any contact with Achrekar,the man who first spotted the cricketing spark in him,as he did in several of his legendary pupils. However,five years ago,he did bump into Achrekar at a local match. “It was in the afternoon and I was drunk. We didn’t acknowledge each other for a while and then he suddenly signalled to me,asking me to join him. All he said was,‘Khelaayla shikavle mee,daaru pyaayla naahi (I taught you how to bat,I don’t remember having taught you how to drink). What have you done to your life?’,” recalls Gurav,shutting his eyes.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

Sutar admits that family problems played a huge role in Gurav’s downfall,but he also recollects his former teammate failing to perform to his potential on the big stage. “The sad part is that when it was needed the most,Gurav missed out. He was a prolific run-scorer but whenever any selector came to watch him,he never scored big runs,” he says.

That’s another piercing memory for Gurav. It was an inter-Railways match between Western and Northern in 1986 at Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi. “The selectors were there and told me I was one century away from being picked for the Railways Ranji team. I raced to 84 and was confident,and then just lost my nerve. The leg-spinner was Durga Prasad and I jumped out of my crease and attempted a shot that I never used to,an ugly hoick over mid-wicket,missed the ball and was stumped. That shot still haunts me in my sleep. That shot changed my life,” says Gurav.

Anil Gurav,Sachin Tendulkar Retirement

He diligently preserves now the remaining proof of what could have been — holding on to all his certificates and newspaper cuttings of all the matches where his name is mentioned,some kept in files but most of them folded under his mattress.

In that small house,that’s his sanctuary. Talking about his wife Anita,Gurav lights an imaginary fire,adding she is “aag (fire)”. His sons have only heard stories of Gurav’s cricketing days,stories that miserably pale both in the harsh light of their surroundings and the harsher light of the missed possibilities. Yash,10,is too young to say as much,but Aniket,18 — Gurav says without much bitterness — long gave up on him.

Aniket is gone for most part of the day from home,returning only around midnight. He scored 85 per cent in his recent Class XII examinations,Gurav adds proudly.

“I am pursuing a banking and insurance degree from MMK College in Bandra. By 3 pm I’m at Nariman Point for a traineeship at NIA,from where I leave at around 8.30 pm. I got the job through my father’s reference but I don’t talk to him. I have gone through his paper-cuttings a few times but I don’t think much of them,” Aniket says.

The sport the 18-year-old was closer to was chess,in which he won several competitions across Nalasopara.

Alone in that home,with only his indulgent mother for company,regret hangs almost constantly around Gurav. “When I was at the peak of my powers,I always made the right choices with the bat. Didn’t matter who the bowler was or where he was bowling,I always knew which shot to play and which ball to leave. Unfortunately I made all the wrong choices in my life off the field,” he shrugs.

“I always had good friends like Sachin,” Gurav adds. “But I chose to be with the wrong ones,and look where it’s left me.”

He did run into Sachin once after he began his descent. On a rare occasion that he had donned cricketing whites,he ran into him at the Islam Gymkhana at Marine Lines,in the early 1990s.

“I was just leaving the ground when I saw this melee. Sachin was getting into his car,with some 10 security guys holding back the crowd. Somehow he spotted me,and called me over. We could only speak for a couple of minutes,but he asked me to come over to his house,” recalls Gurav.

A few days later,he went to La Mer,Sachin’s old residence,only to be told that the cricketer had left for England the previous evening.

“My main intention was to take my bat back. The SG one that he never returned. That was the only bat I ever owned in my life. I hope to meet him after retirement and ask him to return it,since he’s not using it,” he says.

Gurav also hangs on to the hope of starting over himself,having signed up for the Alcoholics Anonymous programme in Nalasopara. “One at a time,one at a time,” he repeats a slogan learnt from his first AA meeting.

He is confident of sticking to what he has been told,to wake up each morning and convince himself not to drink that day,and to keep going like that.

But then the day drags on and,away from the flashlights of Wankhede,the shadows creep in long and fast. Gurav suddenly asks for some money,“Aaj aapke naam pe ek 90 ml (Today a toast to you for 90 ml).”

You are not surprised. That penny on Gurav’s stumps dropped a long time ago.

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