|Illustration: Ahmed Sikander|
Last ball, three runs to win.
I was the captain of the fielding side, positioned at mid-off. Our pacer Zeeshan Khatri bowled a yorker, the batsman managed to block it, and the ball trickled straight towards the bowler. He could have just taken the ball, strolled towards the stumps, clipped the bails off and won the game for us. But he was all of nine years old and attempted a direct hit at the bowler’s end. It turned out to be an overthrow that flew past me for a boundary and we ended up giving away a match that was sitting on a platter. United Sports Club had lost to Poisar Gymkhana in this nail-biting Under-10 cricket match and all us, red- cheeked boys did on our ride back home to Mira Road is cry. I didn’t know it then, but it was my first lesson in leadership, teamwork, coping with pressure, and dealing with failure. And only sport could teach it to me.
“I want to play cricket for India,” was every child’s dream in the era of Sachin Tendulkar, and I was no different. Every birthday, I got a cricket bat as a gift and I would watch all of India’s games (including Test matches) in their entirety. My father responded to my enthusiasm by getting me enrolled to a summer coaching camp with one motive: “Vacation mein kuch activity karega, warna ghar mein sirf TV dekhega pura din.” But it worked: A boy who was too lazy to get up for a glass of water would now voluntarily wake up at 5 am every morning during summer vacations for cricket coaching.
Our coach, Khan Sir was a typical pot-bellied uncle with Bhagat Singh-wali moustache, who wore a white hat and always walked with his hands crossed at the back. He had an unassuming personality but was quite stern and you didn’t want to cross him when it came to discipline. If you arrived five minutes late, he would just smile and declare “two rounds extra!” and walk away. There was no debate or arguing with Khan Sir and you had no choice but to start running. A murmur, and the punishment would go up by a round. “If I can be on time and everyone else can be on time, why can’t you be on time?” he would ask. A couple of such punishments and you learned to reach early, a habit I maintain to this day.
Whether it was whispering expletives at a bad umpiring decision, resting during warm-up when you weren’t supposed to, or needlessly flashing outside the off stump (like Quinton de Kock), there was a crafty punishment for every crime. And it was always delivered with a smile, because you were learning a lesson. Khan Sir made it compulsory for all the boys to wash their own soiled clothes and clean their spiked shoes without help from their moms. He would then question parents on whether the kids were complying. If the answer was in the negative, there was more punishment incoming. I didn’t realise it back then, but he taught us early on about entitlement and equality. When one of us told him, “Kapda ladkiyan dhoti hai,” he made the boy not only wash his clothes but everyone’s tiffin boxes. Our coach might have been a man of few words but I’ve not forgotten the lessons he taught us even today, a decade later.
I will never forget the time I once went in to bat without a thigh pad. It was a strict no-no, and unfortunately I got hit. Khan sir was furious. But he had a polite way of making his point, and he just called out me out of the nets immediately and told me to do some fielding drills. He didn’t allow me to bat that entire vacation. I would often forget the multiplication table for seven but I never forgot to wear a thigh pad ever again in my life. You see, Khan sir had very simple ways to deliver complex messages and build habits that would stay with us lifelong.
While school was teaching us about the soil in Sangli and what the Pythagorean theorem was, there were certain skill sets that were out of its purview. It could help me land a great job at TCS or Wipro but not teach me how to handle the work pressure or work as a team in a corporate setup. The curriculum wasn’t designed to teach us teamwork, leadership, patience, decision-making or temperament – skills that are essential to life itself. But sport is a great teacher of things school can’t teach you, and it is the reason I cherish my formal cricket coaching years. I never played cricket at a professional level or ever became really good at it, but those years in coaching prepared me for life itself.
Afterall, there’s nothing more beautiful than having a good time with your friends on the field and learning life-skills without even realising it.
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