Few among the cricketing fraternity and his own band of cricket fans in Mumbai probably know that Ramesh Powar played for Shardashram Vidyamandir Marathi Medium School in the inter-school Giles and Harris Shield as a batsman, got selected for the Elf-Vengsarkar Academy scoring two half-centuries in as many selection trial matches and that respected coach Vasu Paranjape encouraged him to bowl off-spin at the Oval Maidan nets.
Playing friendly games with his brother Kiran (India under-19 captain on the tour of Australia in 1995) in a vacant plot behind his house was a routine affair and once famous coach Ramakant Achrekar saw his potential while hitting a rubber ball, he was put through the wringer at the Shivaji Park Gymkhana.
There was no looking back for Powar once he made the decisive move to go through the grind in the city’s maidans and club tournaments. He did not play more than one under-19 match for Mumbai and was made 12th man in the MCA Colts’ first match in the Police Invitation Shield.
The young cricketer mutinied, called up a police official, Iqbal Shaikh (in-charge of the Police Invitation Shield) and soon Powar was playing for the Police Team led by Lalchand Rajput.
“It’s an invitation tournament and one could play for any team. Walking out of the MCA Colts team was a terrible thing in those days. The Chairman of the MCA selection committee told me that I would never play for Mumbai and that I would regret what I had done. But my only aim was to play, not to be weighed down by selection matters. The irony is that I played against MCA Colts and took five wickets. I was happy that I had made the right choice,” Powar recalled the crucial phase of his career in a candid interview to Sportstar a few days after he announced he had played his last first class match and retired from competitive cricket.
Question: You were capped by Mumbai CA 15 years ago and your career has come to an end now. How would you describe the journey?
Answer: The journey has been very satisfying and pleasing too. I enjoyed every moment of representing Mumbai in the BCCI tournaments. When I look back, it was like a dream come true because I began my cricketing journey as a rubber-ball cricketer. It was Ramakant Achrekar who picked me up from nowhere and made me the cricketer that I eventually became.
Playing cricket for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy was a lot of fun because I made many friends. I played with a genius named Sachin Tendulkar. That was easily the biggest thing while playing for Mumbai. I had seen him only on television during the 1992 and 1996 World Cups. Because I played for Mumbai I could share the dressing room with him and also with Ajit Agarkar, Paras Mhambrey, Sairaj Bahutule, Nilesh Kulkarni and Avishkar Salvi. I was a fully satisfied cricketer sporting Mumbai’s lion crest.
How did the transition take place from rubber ball to hard ball cricket?
After seeing me play with the rubber ball, Achrekar sir asked my brother to bring me to his nets at the Shivaji Park Gymkhana. It was then that I started playing with the hard ball. After seeing me at the nets, he (Achrekar) felt that as a 10-year-old I was too young and small to play. He sent me to Das Shivalkar who made us play with the hard ball in order to gain confidence. Two years later Achrekar said that I was ready to play with the hard ball and with the big boys. I was given admission in the Shardashram Vidyamandir Marathi School. I played the Giles and Harris Shield. Since there was no off-spinner in the team, I started bowling off-spin. The ball just went straight.
I gave up bowling when I was 19; I actually played one game for Bombay under-19 as a batsman. Thereafter I went to the Elf-Vengsarkar Academy where I was guided by Vasu Paranjape sir who gave me the confidence that I could become a good off-spinner. There was a shortage of bowlers towards the end of the practice session and I picked up the ball to bowl off-spin; and I started bowling well somehow. I used to bowl for two hours at the academy nets. Then I began to get wickets in the club tournaments and in the Police Invitation Shield and this helped me to get into the Ranji Trophy team.
Which particular performance clinched you a place in the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team?
It was the Police Invitation Shield tournament in which I became the best player in 1999. I got every award in that tournament. Things changed pretty quickly. Initially, I was rejected for the under-19 team. I did not know where I was heading, but began to imitate Pat Symcox and Muttiah Muralitharan, not their actions, but their way of releasing the ball. Symcox imparted a lot of overspin on the ball, and this (overspin) came off well off my hand too and I used to get good batsmen out in the nets. Then Paranjape made me the off-spinner that I shaped into. Paranjape advised me to flight the ball, not bowl flat.
You were an off-break bowler whose action was never questioned. But did you become conscious of your action when others’ actions were suspected to be illegal?
Actually, I felt very proud that I was the only off-spinner not being questioned for my action. I was thankful to God that I had the cleanest action. Luckily, I was not part of the group that was supposed to be not having a clean action.
Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez, Bilal Asif have all been reported for suspect action. Your comments.
Obviously, they must be doing the wrong things. This started many years ago and once even Harbhajan Singh was sent to correct his action (with help from Fred Titmus). The ICC wanted to eradicate the chucking menace. The measures taken by the ICC send a good message to the players at the grassroots level that chucking will not be tolerated. It’s not only with Pakistan spinners; recently even Pragyan Ojha had issues. Basically, they are reported by the umpires to the Match Referee and thereafter they follow a procedure. Ojha has remedied his bowling and he is playing first class cricket.
Did you get a fair deal from the selectors, or was it because of the presence of Harbhajan Singh that you missed out on opportunities?
Well, Harbhajan Singh performed better than me. I think I got a fair deal. I don’t regret not getting more chances. I was competing with the best spinners like Harbhajan, Anil Kumble, and Murali Karthik. I wish I had been born after 10 years. There was a time when two off-spinners played for the team — myself and Harbhajan; this was against England in India in 2006. Whoever performed stayed in the team, and whoever did not had to make way. I did not do well in two matches against Australia in 2007 and I was dropped.
There were people who believed that you lost out because of being overweight and for lack of fitness. Did you ever make an effort to improve your fitness?
I made a very conscious effort in 2005 and 2006 with Gregory King for three months during the tour of the West Indies. I played three ODIs and sat out for four Test matches. I lost seven or eight kgs, but while trying to bring down my weight, I discovered that I was missing my rhythm. I realised that if I was not bowling well, I was not going to be picked. And I decided to focus more on skill development rather than on fitness. If my aim was to become a Jonty Rhodes, then I would have had to be a specialist fielder. I don’t know, I thought I was missing the sync in my bowling and decided against pushing myself hard into fitness.
There were a lot of people who were impressed by your skill to flight the ball and obtain turn off the wicket?
After Prasanna sir, there were very few spinners who could flight the ball. I was very happy that Prasanna sir was happy with my bowling action. It was pleasing to know that.
India does not have many quality spinners now?
That’s because of the mindset and the pressure on the finger spinners because of three formats of cricket; Test, ODI and Twenty20. But there is a prime example of Ravichandran Ashwin who plays all formats. He’s flighting the ball and mixing up the pace. It’s up to the young generation of spinners to make the adjustment. They are afraid of flighting because of the fear of not getting long spells when hit for many runs. So it’s up to the captains and coaches to encourage the spinners. You cannot bowl flat and get wickets. If there is no help from the pitch, you have to beat the batsman in the air and off the pitch. No one asked me to bowl flat and I was always encouraged to flight the ball.
Today’s generation need to show patience; they cannot master the art overnight; it takes many years. If they are willing to practise, they will get there. The example is there to see, Ashwin.
When I played, the batting approach was different, Rahul Dravid and Laxman played along the ground, but the likes of Yuvraj Singh hit sixes. Flighting the ball is not the issue, when to flight the ball is. One cannot flight the ball six times in an over; I used to do it four times.
Tell us something about the Mumbai experience... the Ranji finals in 2003 (Tamil Nadu), 2007 (Bengal), 2009 (UP) and 2010 (Karnataka) and all won?
We felt that we had to win at any cost. We made it a habit. I was in the playing XI on four occasions and I missed two finals because I was playing for India.
How much have pitches in India changed in the last 15 years?
They have become flat.
What are your plans post-retirement?
I am looking to play the Masters Champions League in the Emirates. I have registered myself. It will be competitive cricket. I will try and enjoy that. Then I want to get into coaching. I will speak to senior cricketers and decide on that. I will make sure that spin bowlers become classical spinners.
Vidarbha’s Akshay Wakhare... he’s 30 and has taken 40 wickets this season. Have you seen him? Also Jalaj Saxena, Jayant Yadav and Assam’s Swarupam Purkayastha?
I have seen Wakhare take 13 wickets against Gujarat in Surat; I also took 10 wickets in the same match. It was a turning track and I would like to see him perform on a fair wicket. But Jayant Yadav is certainly a good bowler. He’s a good all-rounder, and I think he will play for India. Jalaj Saxena is more of a batsman. I have not seen Purkayastha. You have to judge spinners on flat tracks; that’s where the skill comes in.
RAMESH POWAR FACTBOX
For Mumbai: 100 matches, 323 wickets.
Rajasthan: 6 matches, 10 wickets.
Gujarat: 8 matches, 28 wickets.
Total First Class matches: 147 matches, 471 wickets.