Achrekar sowed seeds of greatness at the grassroots
Ramakant Achrekar’s life story highlights the enormous value of sports coaches in the junior age groups. In his case, school cricket on the maidans of Mumbai, but applicable to other disciplines too.
Yet not enough accolades come their way in my opinion, for they live virtually their entire life below the radar, unlike those who come in as coaches when players have already reached the highest level. One can’t compare apples and oranges, but I think those who work at the grassroots level don’t get their due.
More often than not, the contribution of coaches at the junior levels remains unsung, known only to the few who follow and understand the sport at this level, or through their wards who benefited from their association with him and are gracious enough to acknowledge this later.
The renown Achrekar, who passed away on Wednesday, earned is without doubt linked directly to the exploits of Sachin Tendulkar, who became the exemplar of batsmanship and the game’s lodestar from the early 1990s till he retired in 2013.
The world record 664-run partnership between schoolboys Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli in February 1988 turned the spotlight on their Shardashram School coach too.
By the time Tendulkar finished his career, Achrekar was a household name across the cricket universe.
However, the roster of players he groomed/mentored at the school/junior levels contains some very important names: Kambli, Praveen Amre, Ajit Agarkar, Sameer Dighe, Ramesh Powar, Amol Muzumdar in the last three to four decades, and going back even a decade or two earlier to Balwinder Singh Sandhu and Ramnath Parkar. And I might be missing a few names here.
For sceptics who might argue that none from the above barring Tendulkar achieved cricketing greatness, let’s look at the premise through a different lens: didn’t all those mentioned reach the top one percentile of sportspersons in the country?
That’s a remarkable achievement for any coach at the junior level in any sport anywhere in the world. Of course, how the young player then goes on to perform depends on how he actualises his talent.
The impact Achrekar had on Indian cricket and fans, from the 1990s, comes through from the Test match between India and England at the Wankhede Stadium in 1993. Kambli got a double hundred, Tendulkar and Amre got half centuries and banners of “Shardashram versus England” went up in the stadium!
While the number of high-quality players tracing their early learnings to Achrekar is a measurable index of his contribution to Mumbai and Indian cricket, the unheralded — but no less important — one is how he went about his task, caring neither for comfort nor adequate money for long years.
The sheer longevity of his coaching career reflects Achrekar’s abiding passion for cricket, and the number of players from his stable who went on to play at the highest level highlights a keen eye for spotting talent.
As tributes for him have poured from his many wards, what’s also clear is the hours of effort Achrekar put in, taking personal hardships in his stride, unwavering in his focus to groom kids in their formative years with a selflessness without which doing such a job well is impossible.
In a way, this is symptomatic of most coaches in all sports at the junior level. They are very much like schoolteachers who guide us through the early years, learning how to walk, talk, sing, behave, stoke our ambition, and help us find our metier, without quite getting the credit they deserve.
This is because their service is taken for granted. Moreover, success at the highest level usually comes only in adulthood, by which time, sadly, the early coach may be a distant memory.
Fortunately, this has not been the case with Achrekar. Indeed, the most admirable and endearing aspect of the guru-shishya relationship between him and Tendulkar was that Achrekar never clamoured for recognition in a genius’s development, and Tendulkar never forgot to acknowledge this.