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Zimbabwe is a land of story-tellers. Here you have good narrators and great orators. And then you have Ray Price.
When asked how he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar thrice in each of the three innings (the only three innings he has played against India in Test cricket) back in 2002, Price begins re-arranging furniture and clothes stands in his little sports shop in Harare and outlines a pitch.
The former Zimbabwe orthodox is now standing against one wall of the shop with a brand new bat, taking guard like Tendulkar, a picture of calm and serene. Slow bat taps, a pinch of a smile on the face. Then he rushes to the other end, picks up a brand new ball and bulges his eyes. “That’s how I looked,” he says, eyes still bloated with nerves, fingers immediately rotating the ball. “‘Jeepers man’, I’m thinking at this point, ‘that’s friggin’ Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar at the other end!’”
Over the next few minutes, he’s dismissed Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly in Nagpur. And by the end of the hour, we’ve gone through and played out two more Tendulkar dismissals in Delhi, Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh in Sydney and Brian Lara in Harare.
“Holy Moly, I get goosebumps every time I think about it. Look, the hair on my hand is standing!” he says, on his seat behind the check-out counter and still twirling the ball. “I was just an ordinary guy who managed to compete with some extraordinary gentlemen. But that’s the beauty of cricket, isn’t it? It all boils down to who was ready for a nice fight. And I was always ready.”
It makes sense at a whole lot of levels that post his retirement, Price decided to own and run a sports shop. It doesn’t take long to realise that the left-arm spinner is a proper cricket nut. He’s days away from turning 40 but has a child-like fascination for autographs — signatures on stumps, signatures on bats, signatures on jerseys, pen marks on L-cups. Surrounding himself with more such merchandise for a living then just seems right.
And playing sport at a professional level runs in Price’s family. He’s been a Zimbabwe cricketer longer than most of his contemporaries, the last of the ‘90s blokes to survive the ‘rebel era’ and retire on his own terms in 2013. And his uncle Nick is a Hall of Famer in golf, having won three majors in his career — the PGA Championships (1992 and 1994) and the British Open (1994).
But what makes very little sense is how Zimbabwe’s second highest wicket-taker in Test cricket and one of only four bowlers to take 100 wickets in ODIs goes unrecognised every single day of his new life. Teenage autograph-seekers walk right into his shop, Price Sports, at the Harare Sports Club, buy a bat or a ball from the from the recently-retired Zimbabwe hero and walk right out.
“It’s not new to me. I remember my under-the-radar arrival in India in 2002. Woweeee, was I in for a surprise,” he says, chuckling and bursting into a demonstration of passengers pushing out trolleys in an airport. “Andy Flower was the first to deboard the flight in Mumbai and the press went nuts. ‘Andy, Andy, Andy’ they screamed. Same with Heath Streak, who was next. And Grant Flower after that. I was behind Grant and waited for my Indian welcome. Maybe some chants of ‘Razor, Razor, Razor!’”
Under the radar
So what did they say? “Nada. Nothing. Utter silence. Till one journalist looked at another and said ‘this must be the physio’. That was it. The boys took the piss out of me. And for the rest of the tour, I was referred to as ‘Physio’.”
Physio did pretty well in the opening game in Nagpur. He claimed the scalps of SS Das, Deep Dasgupta, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman in Zimbabwe’s only bowling innings in a match that his side lost by an innings. But ask him about it and he makes no bones in the fact that all he cared about was bowling to the great man. It of course helped that the great man was in the middle of some kind of crisis against left-arm spinners.
“Ashley Giles had troubled Sachin in India on the previous tour and enjoyed a fair amount of success by bowling a negative line,” he says. “But I had made up my mind before the tour began that I won’t go over-the-wicket to Tendulkar and aim for the rough. Why, you ask? Because cricket is all about being positive.”
So what was his plan? “Simple. Stay around-the-wicket. Bowl it fuller because he’s short. And on middle, so that if I can get turn it will head towards the top of off stump. And if it skids, then I’ll have him LBW.”
When it turned in Nagpur, he had a sweeping Tendulkar caught behind. And when it skidded in Delhi, he had Tendulkar leg before. Twice. Now, he wasn’t the unrecognised ‘physio’ anymore. And you know he has a great story to tell about his new-found fame.
“We’d gone to the zoo in Delhi after the second Test. And there the guy who cleans the elephant-pen spotted me and said ‘Mr Price, my son is a left-arm spinner. And you are his hero.’ That has to be one of the greatest memories of my life.”
Nine years later, Tendulkar called him up to join the Mumbai Indians, making him only the second Zimbabwean, after Tatenda Taibu, to play in the IPL. “I went to his house and gave his daughter a packet of Biltongs,” he says. And the ‘Tormentor of Tendulkar’ (as he was known here in Zimbabwe) and Tendulkar have been friends since.
Another great memory that Price can talk for hours about is his career best six-for against Australia in Sydney, 2003.
But rather unfortunately, it came immediately on the back of his ‘most tormenting’ on-field moment, conceding 187 runs for no wickets in Perth, a match that witnessed Matthew Hayden score 380 runs in an innings and break Lara’s then world record of 375.
“Jeepers creepers. Matty nearly scored a hundred of those runs against just me (89 runs, for the record). But not too many people remember that Adam Gilchrist fired away to a 70-ball 100 in that match and took me to the cleaners as well,” he says. “Twice in two balls Gilly hit me over the Lillee-Marsh Stand and they needed a ladder to retrieve the bloody ball. I spent the night praying and crying, wondering if I am good enough for this level. But a chance meeting with Greg Matthews in a Sydney bar helped me turn it around.”
What did Matthews say?
“He said ‘give it right back to the bloody Aussies, only way to earn our respect.’ So there I was, telling Hayden I’ll have him for lunch and asking Steve Waugh to go multiply with self. And I got a six-for. They all signed caps and shirts for me at the end of the tour and Steve’s message on a stump said ‘Razor, love that attitude’.”
Razor, a most ironic nickname for a dibbly-dobbly left-arm spinner.
“That pretty much sums me up, doesn’t it?” Price says, up on his feet again searching for Waugh’s stump. “Incredible what a bloke who bowls dollies with a little bit of attitude can achieve.”