It’s a 50-year-old incident but Karsan Ghavri remembers every painful detail. From the place where he bought the biggest rose in the shop, the garden where he finally mustered courage to present the flower to the girl he silently loved, the rejection, the delicate red petals getting crushed under her stomping feet, the complaint reaching his father and the sound thrashing he got in front of the girl he adored.
Ghavri, 65, is talking about his early cricketing days in Rajkot and his instant stardom. Having represented India Schools as a 15-year-old, he was the darling of the city’s cricket circles. His never-seen-before ferocious pace — at that level — and his sharp short balls gave him truckloads of wickets, regular write-ups in the local press and fame. But Ghavri’s square jaw, uncombed mop, dishevelled look, swimmer-like lithe frame and disarming smile hadn’t yet charmed everyone in Rajkot.
“I bought the rose from Sanganwa Chowk, gave it to the girl at Trikon Baug and later got a beating from my father at home. After that day, I realised these thing would get me into trouble. I concentrated on cricket, appreciating beautiful things from a distance,” he says before quickly adding. “That’s only in Rajkot, in Mumbai I opened up.”
Ghavri was too fast for Rajkot.
On the eve of the India-England Test, the first Indian pacer to take 100 Test wickets returns home. He will be felicitated after the toss. In Saurashtra, they see him as a path-breaker, the one who took that giant leap of faith and landed on his feet.
On the sidelines of cricket games, Ghavri gets referred to as “Kadubhai” when exaggerated tales of the all-rounder’s exploits in Rajkot are repeated. Around here, they trust Kadubhai for all important cricketing calls. When Cheteshwar Pujara’s father, Arvind, wanted to find out if his son had it in him to do well internationally, he took the then 12-year-old to one of Saurashtra’s most famous cricketers.
“He saw my son for an hour and told me, ‘Chokra upar mehnat karva jevi chhe’ (the kid is worth investing your time on),” says Pujara Sr. Arvind and Kadubhai might dab at moist eyes when India’s No.3 walks out at the Saurashtra Cricket Stadium on Wednesday.
Making a move
Though age has caught up, hair thinned, Ghavri, upright and immaculately dressed as ever, could still take his chance at Trikon Baug. Here in Rajkot he has his extended family, close friends, fans who rave about his dark glasses and stylish shirts. At least three to four times a year, he travels to Rajkot to visit his family deity.
Returning to Rajkot is easy for Ghavri but not leaving it, like it was in the early 70s. That was the time when the 19-year-old was offered a job by ACC in Mumbai.
“My grandfather didn’t want me to move out. I was very young,” he says. It was his uncle Jiva Mala, a first-class cricketer, who convinced the family patriarch. Jivabhai’s cricket career had stagnated as he could never go out.
“He never wanted me to suffer the same,” Ghavri says.
Jivabhai was in a minority, since there were many who wanted the young pacer to stay pinned to Rajkot, a sleepy town of mostly unambitious and deeply content inhabitants in love with their surroundings. Even today, for a thriving city, known for its world-class engineering innovations, top industrialists have offices in Mumbai but theirs homes remain in Rajkot. The BOM-RAJ round trip, costing around Rs 15,000, is mostly full. In Rajkot, they can’t live without their siesta and late night ice-cream sessions by the roadside. [By the way, in winters, they have ginger ice-cream.]
Ghavri’s move to Mumbai wasn’t seen as a betrayal; it wasn’t even a tall poppy situation. It was seen as plain stupid.
“They would say ‘forget Mumbai, be content with what you have’,” Ghavri recalls.
But Ghavri was never afraid to take the plunge. He had fears but those demons would lose out to his cricket confidence. For the teenager, who was in the habit of bunking English classes, the Australia tour with the Indian School’s team was a harrowing experience.
“We had to stay with local families during the tour. Our hosts were wonderful but it was like a jail to us. I didn’t even know words like ‘goodnight’ or ‘hello’. I would dread going home from the ground. I would eat on the dinner table things I had never seen without uttering a word and move to my room,” says Ghavri, painting the picture of a scared kid lying in bed in an alien land, in a house owned by strangers he couldn’t communicate with, waiting for the sun to rise so that he could be dropped to the ground.
It was cricket that would empower the traumatised child, who would return home as the best all-rounder on that tour. His memory of the tour was of facing a very young Jeff Thomson.
“He made us do dandia raas. Me, Mohinder Amarnath, Brijesh Patel, we all got hit,” he says, only to add how years later he would tour Australia with the senior team and bounce Thommo.
Within months of returning from Australia, Ghavri, just 17, realised that cricket could actually get him money. State Bank of Saurashtra wanted a pacer and the left-armer fitted the bill perfectly. Ghavri had just one problem. This time, it was mathematics. Twin impediments
“At school when I would look at the maths paper, the paper would shake, the numbers would jump out. I told them, ‘in case you make me work, the bank will go bankrupt’,” he cackles. It was a win-win for everyone. Ghavri got Rs 150 and could avoid office, the bank climbed up the league table.
The callow youth with a slingy action would get another offer before the season ended. Railways were ready to pay him Rs 300 to be a Grade 3 employee but there was a catch. English, again. “I went to Mumbai for the interview. They asked me questions in English, I didn’t have a clue. The officer told me I could only get Grade 4.”
Railways were less compromising when it came to their players during that time.
“They told me I had to haul coal on steam engines when not playing cricket,” laughs Ghavri.
The big break came a year later. It was a Ranji Trophy game against West Zone giants Mumbai that proved to be the turning point for the pacer.
Ghavri loves telling the story, so over to him.
“I took four wickets in that game and also scored some runs. People say I used to bowl real quick and had a deadly short ball. I got wickets of Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad, Ajitbhai (Wadekar). The manager was Polly Kaka (Umrigar). He thought that with me in the Saurashtra team, Mumbai would continue to tumble. They said ‘let us take him to Mumbai so that we don’t have to face him’,” he says.
Ghavri has high regard for Mumbai cricket and their strategic planning that borders on conniving. Polly Kaka’s plan included a job at ACC with a Rs 800 salary. Jivabhai’s support would see Ghavri leave for Mumbai, his tearful mother asking the teenager to eat properly. The pacer would soon play for Mumbai and be Sunil Gavaskar’s constant companion. The two played for the same club, institution, state and the national side. Ghavri would discover how the Mumbai professionals were different from the Saurashtra amateurs.
“Batsmen from Saurashtra were too flamboyant; they would hit a couple of stylish fours and dream about them the entire night. After crossing 50, they would throw their wickets. ‘What are the other 10 in the team for?’ would be the question that would justify their loose shot,” he says.
Ghavri makes an observation that sums up the different approach to batting.
“A Mumbai batsman would seldom get out at mid-on, they would either be LBW, bowled or caught behind the stumps. Saurashtra batsmen would play the ball in the air and get caught at mid-on. Either they would get tired, content or bored,” he recalls.
When Ghavri sits at the breezy Saurashtra Cricket Association stadium during the Test, he will realise how times have changed. Saurashtra has more boys in the Indian team than Mumbai. Of the two local boys in the team, one has the best temperament and the technique to bat for long hours. The other happens to be the fittest and most accurate.