EXCLUSIVE-INTERVIEW

Cheteshwar Pujara, batting on 87, came forward to defend a loopy delivery from Zafar Ansari that did not spin as expected. Pujara missed it and got struck on his back pad. The English players appealed and the umpire ruled him out. Pujara was quick to signal the ‘T’. Replays suggested ‘height’ was the issue and the on-field umpire’s decision was turned down. The crowd erupted, so did Pujara’s wife Puja in the stands. The local boy survived and brought up his 9th Test hundred.

Rewind to 1993. Pravin Amre’s last Test was against Sri Lanka. It was his 13th innings at Test level. He was adjudged caught behind off Pramodya Wickramasinghe in the penultimate over of Day Three. Amre was looking good during his stay and the Indian Express report noted, “The batsman did not appear to have nicked the ball.” His batting average chopped down to 42.50. He did not play another Test innings again.

“Had there been DRS, the story would have been different,” laments the 48-year-old, who is regarded as one of the finest Indian batsmen to have not made it big in big stage.

Back to present. For the first time, India are trying out DRS for Tests at home. Technology has finally managed to win over the reluctant Indians. It does take us back to the ugly spat between Ravi Shastri and Nasser Hussain in 2011 over DRS, and the latter definitely made some sense. Prior to this Test, India’s success rate with DRS stood at 22 percent and they thought the technology was not foolproof, so we know from where the apprehensions were coming from.

However, it makes no sense to choose between a 400-kph bullet train and continuing to travel in steam engine. If there is an electric 150-kph train as the stopgap, so be it.

Amre believes introducing technology adds to the overall betterment of the game.

“I think the great game has changed now and technology played a vital role. Even in tennis, many important decisions are helped by technology,” said Amre in an exclusive chat with CricketCountry.

I met Amre in an event where technology took the centre stage. However, this was for the benefit of cricket coaching.  Amre is a renowned coach who has helped Mumbai to three Ranji Trophy titles and has been a personal advisor to the stars like Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Naman Ojha, Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa and others.

The technology used by PitchVision involves video and motion tracking and has been endorsed by Cricket South Africa, MCC Cricket Academy, Cricket Australia and even ICC. It elevates cricket coaching to a futuristic level. Amre added, “The feedback generated by this technology is commendable and accurate. This will only help the future cricketers as well as the professionals to take their game to the next level.”

Drawing parallels, Amre emphasised on how technology can help in getting accurate results, be it coaching or decision making during a match.

“If technology is correct, it only benefits. Often one decision changes the course of the game, technology only aids in that. If it’s going to benefit the game then why not?” he adds.

Amre, the prodigy

South Africa were readmitted to international cricket in 1991. They played their first game on their return, an ODI at Eden Gardens, on November 10. Along with the 10 South Africans (Kepler Wessels had already appeared for Australia), Amre earned his first international cap. It was a matter of time for the youngster, then averaging over 88 in First-Class cricket.

He was another prodigy from Sharadashram Vidyamandir. His junior Sachin Tendulkar was already bagging headlines for the national side. Triumphing against a pacy Allan Donald, Amre and his school-junior Tendulkar guided India to a win.

“White Lightening [Donald] was in full flow. I still remember while chasing we were 60 for 4 when I joined Sachin at crease. It was a coincidence that two from Sharadashram School, who trained under same guru Ramakant Achrekar-Sir were in the middle, bailing out India. Playing together during childhood and replicating the same for your national side is a different challenge,” Amre remembered fondly.

“There was no data or video available on South Africa. We only knew they had bowlers who could bowl fast. This was the first game when I saw myself bat.”

Amre got a fine 55 but was overshadowed by Tendulkar’s 62 and Donald’s five-for. No wonder this was a dream-come-true but the ultimate challenge remained.

Debut hundred

The track at Durban has the reputation to be hostile. South Africa had the likes of Donald and Brett Schultz in their ranks. A year later, against South Africa at Durban, Amre finally earned his Test cap (almost 24 years to this day). The wait was long and conditions were challenging.

However, this Test was no ordinary match. More than Amre, again the grandeur of the occasion took the centre stage. This was South Africa’s first home Test since March 1970!

“It was a long wait. I had to wait for 12 Tests to get my chance. It is a dream to play for your country and the ultimate aim was to play Test cricket for India. The opportunity came at Durban — one of the fastest tracks in the world. For me, it was all about survival. I had finally got my chance and I knew I had to grab it in order make my place in the side. When I played my first game for India, my First-Class average was over 88. I had a chance now to prove myself that I belonged to the big arena,” Amre recalled.

Did he prove himself? In almost 60 years of Indian cricket’s history, he became only the ninth Indian batsman to craft a hundred on Test debut. Only Abbas Ali Baig and Surinder Amarnath had achieved the feat away from home. He had bailed out the India after coming in at 60 for 4 on ODI debut; the challenge in Test was steeper.

Pravin Amre en route to his hundred on debut. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
Pravin Amre en route to his hundred on debut. (Courtesy: Getty Images)

South Africa posted 254 and India were reeling at 38 for 4. Shastri, Ajay Jadeja, Sanjay Manjrekar and Tendulkar were back in the pavilion. While wickets tumbled at one end, a determined Amre fought on, taking body blow amidst those glorious drives and pulls. He raced to a hundred and spectators rushed to the field to congratulate him.

Walking down the fond memory lanes, Amre adds, “I remember coming in at 38 for 4. One-Day cricket is fine but Test is a different challenge. Surviving the hostile pace bowling was not easy. There were blows on the body and I batted over six hours to get my hundred.  I was determined and focused to ensure we got the lead. We scored more than them and most satisfying bit was saving the Test.”

India managed a 19-run lead, in a match that ended in a draw. A month later, he played another fine innings to see India home. India were trailing 1-5 in the ODI series. The final ODI was played in East London. Chasing 204, India had lost a flurry of wickets and the run rate had dipped even below 3.

When Kapil Dev fell in the 38th over, India needed 74 from 77 with 5 wickets in hand. Along with wicketkeeper Vijay Yadav, Amre saw India through. Amre’s 84 not out from 98 balls remains his highest ODI score.

What went wrong?

“After that series I got two fifties against England, one against Zimbabwe. Then I toured Sri Lanka. Umpiring was not good and there was no DRS,” Amre chuckles. He adds with the apparent disappointment, “After that I went to New Zealand and did not play there. That was the end. I was dropped and never again played for the country.”

Amre scored 57 against England at Mumbai in the 1993 series. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
Amre scored 57 against England at Mumbai in the 1993 series. (Courtesy: Getty Images)

The First-Class teams that Amre played for in his illustrious career are — India (obviously), Bengal, Boland, Goa, Mumbai, Railways and Rajasthan.

Amre delves into this interesting bit of what led to the shifts and about adapting to challenges: “I was 18 when I played for Bombay. To bag a job with Indian Railways, I joined Railways side. It was in the Central Zone and I was leading it. Later I joined Air India but since I was the captain of Central Zone and was established there, I had to play for a side from that zone. That was how I joined Rajasthan and played for them for many years. It was while playing for Rajasthan while I made it to the national side.

“I came back to Mumbai because by this time I had a hundred for India but not for my home city Mumbai. It was a very special moment for me to get a hundred for Mumbai. I kept on notching up records. I was the first cricketer to get double-hundred in each format, Ranji, Duleep and Irani.

It was a long journey for decade and half. Playing for so many teams is a different challenge. You have to adapt. I started with Mumbai, went to Railways then Rajasthan and then came back to Mumbai. I played a year for Boland in South Africa, and Bengal. I ended my career with Goa.”

Love for South Africa

He was the first India cricketer to bag a contract for domestic cricket in South Africa. He represented Boland in 1999-00. Though Boland won the championship that year, Amre was not at his best, averaging in the mid-20s (though he made a couple of vital contributions). Boland ended as runners-up in the First-Class competition and winning the 45-over tournament, Standard Bank Cup. He however relishes the experience.

“I was the first Indian to play in domestic cricket in South Africa. I got a hundred there on my debut and maybe that earned me the call. Boland were champions in the Standard Bank tournament. It was a great experience and a challenge to stay six months away from home,” he adds.

Despite his glittering First-Class CV, Amre’s international career was restricted to 11 Tests and 37 ODIs. He has moved ahead and vies to earn accolades with his new role as a coach.

“It’s history. I do not dwell in the past. I cannot change that. Whatever I have learned at the international level and while playing cricket, I wish to pass it on to the next generation,” Amre mentions.

Amre, the coach

When the Ranji Trophy season started this year, Robin Uthappa’s scores in his first three innings read 2, 14 and 5. Karnataka were now scheduled to play Assam in Mumbai. Uthappa dropped into Shivaji Park and sought Amre’s advice.

“I came back to Mumbai from Kolkata and I told sir, ‘I wasn’t getting my swing. My feel wasn’t that great’. We practised at Shivaji Park for two days and he was confident in two days I will get my feel back. I actually got it back and feel really good,” said Uthappa after smashing 128 against Assam.

Rahane still seeks his childhood coach’s advice. He worked with Amre ahead of the New Zealand series. The cricketers have openly spoken about Amre’s advices and how it has helped them. He helped Raina counter the bouncer phobia and once the Indian batting star famously remarked, “He is like a family doctor who is aware of everything from the very beginning. He has seen me from my (Lucknow) hostel days.”

Amre reckons his move to coaching was not planned, “It was accidental and I never planned it. It started at Shivaji Park Gymkhana, my club. The club wanted to start its academy and they got me on board to run that. In the first batch, I had Shreyas Iyer, Tushar Deshpande, Harmeet Singh Shardul Thakur, Siddhesh Lad. It all started from there.”

He has coached Mumbai for six years and three times out of that the side has lifted the Ranji Trophy. He is also the batting coach in the Delhi Daredevils (DD) camp, working meticulously with Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton.

Amre believes that adjustment and need to focus on the longer format is important for young cricketers. “Important thing is coping up and adjusting to three different formats, which are vary a lot from one another. If you focus on Test cricket more, it will help you become a complete player.”

A lot of big names in Indian cricket consider Amre as their guru but the guru does not differentiates and goes to elaborate on the challenge that satisfies him personally.

“Every student is special. For a coach it is a journey to take the player from one level to another. I enjoy that. My focus on each pupil remains same. Be it an international player or a 10-year-old, my approach does not changes. I enjoy the journey along with students. From pointing out the basic mistakes and identifying the root cause to escalating one’s game, I enjoy the process and approach it in the same way.”

However, Mumbai cricket holds a special place in Amre’s heart. Mumbai was where he was desperate to return as a player and score a hundred. He coached them to three Ranji titles. Mumbai, the defending champions, are leading Group A with 19 points in Ranji Trophy, but Amre reckons the real challenge will begin in the knockout stage.

“We might have started well but the real challenge begins when the knockout stage starts. Mumbai can handle pressure better than others. We are defending champions and there is no reason why we cannot do it again.”

My focus on each pupil remains same. Be it an international player or a 10-year-old, my approach does not changes. I enjoy the journey along with students.

Understanding the mental aspect as a coach is critical. When Mumbai lost to Jammu & Kashmir in 2014-15, Amre invited Tendulkar to boost the fallen morale of the side. He has been there and knows how it feels. When he was a rookie with the Bombay side, his idol Sunil Gavaskar had met him at the Bombay Central railway station; the pep talk had fired him up.

Ramakant Achrekar, who shot to global fame for training Tendulkar, now sees one of his pupils, carrying forward his coaching legacy. Amre as an international cricketer finished with a good Test average of 42.50 but destiny played a role in cutting it short. He ensured that Achrekar’s school of coaching did not perish.

“I have learned a lot from my coach [Achrekar] and I tell all my players that whatever I teach them I have learnt from him,” Amre says. “I am just passing on that knowledge to the new generation.”

So does he have any memories of the little Tendulkar for the Achrekar sir’s camp or in Sharadashram Vidyamandir School?

“I was senior to Tendulkar and Kambli by four years, so I wasn’t always there. I did practice in the nets though. I finished my school and was in college and took a job so I did not spend a lot of time with them at school. But we trained together under sir. Sir used to tell me about Sachin’s talent that he will be the next batting hero,” Amre signed off.

Achrekar’s prophecy had come true. Tendulkar went on to become one of the greatest ever. Amre, too, has made Achrekar proud by playing international cricket and carrying forward Achrekar’s coaching legacy.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur,  philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully [Twitter] and rivu7 [Facebook].)