He was a man of few words. I learnt to gauge from the force and intonation of his monosyllabic answers, whether he was happy or cross, though with him, I could get away with blue murder. He rose early. The cricketing grounds beckoned him. From opening the Mumbai Ranji Trophy innings with Vinoo Mankad, he had begun to coach the cricket team at Ramnarain Ruia College, where Ajit Wadekar was the captain. We lived bang opposite the college. Some or the other cricket tournament was always being played on the maidan opposite the college. It was dotted with men in white. There were no sponsors then, and it wasn’t the era of designer gear. Students from Ruia and Podar College, and passersby sat on the concrete fence bordering the maidan, to watch the game, and applaud them wholeheartedly. The emotions even local cricket matches generated, were palpable. Soon, Dadu (to me) or Prabhakar Kamath, nicknamed Joe in cricketing circles, was coaching the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team. Dadu was the first cricketer to be appointed coach of the Bombay Cricket Association to look after the Ranji Trophy boys.
In fact, he has many firsts to his credit. He was the first Mumbai coach to go to the then Madras, at the invitation of The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. He was also the first Indian coach to visit Sri Lanka officially. Mr Shelley Wickremeshinge, the then Vice-President of the Cricket Board of Sri Lanka, who later went on to become the Chairman of the Sports Council in Sri Lanka, has gone on record to say that not only had Dadu brought about dynamic changes in Ceylon’s cricket, but also that after being trained by him, those Sri Lankan cricketers who were not in the consideration set before attending the coaching camp, were making their rightful claims for inclusion in the Sri Lankan team. What’s incredible was that he didn’t charge a penny for his services. His passion for the game drove him day after day to the grounds, toiling with the boys, and exulting when they piled up runs on the board.
Soon after waking up at dawn, he placed a thick steel pan on the gas, cracked a few eggs into it, sprinkled the sizzling half-fried eggs with salt and pepper, wolfed them down with a few slices of toasted bread, topped it with a tall glass of filter coffee, and headed out. I had no idea then that he walked from Matunga to Kurla and back, to increase his stamina. He was known for his impeccable fielding, and his adroitness in the slips, and his insistence that the boys he coached trained themselves to be ambidextrous fielders. I remember my mother telling me how, taking a full-blooded catch off the unorthodox right-handed batsman Budhi Kunderan’s bat, had split his palm, and how, after getting the gash stitched up, he was back at his favourite position in the slips. My grandmother worried for her son’s well being after that, often talking about how injurious the season ball could be. Helmets were unheard of in those days.
Many are the stories of his discipline and strictness. How the cricketer son of Dadu’s contemporary was made to run extra rounds, when he came to know that the India hopeful had guzzled beer the previous night. How the intense fielding practice exhausted the boys, who were later grateful for the punishing regimen at the nets. How he had got Ajit Wadekar, known as his protege, to perfect his one-eyed stance. I remember seeing young cricketing hopefuls sitting on the steps of Kumkum Laundry and Central book Depot, opposite Ruia College, rise as he walked by, as a mark of respect to this unobtrusive man, who went about doing his job with quiet passion. I also remember how young cricketing hopefuls visited our Matunga home to take some advice from him, and how he heard them out patiently, reassuring them and offering them tips. Often, as the boys in our neighbourhood played cricket in our building, he stood for hours watching them, playing umpire, and settling any disputes that arose out of controversial deliveries, doubtful LBWs and issues of whether the ball had hit the outside edge of the bat or not. Whether it was gully cricket or a test match, it was sacred to him.
Dadu was a zealous letter writer and was among the few who held a record of sorts for being a regular. He wrote a column on the sport, in the Free Press Journal, under the byline Hooker (coined after the hook shot), often sitting at the tiny desk in his room, at night, writing longhand. An avid reader, he was a frequent visitor to Strand Book Stall, and the library in our house was stocked with books ranging from Chaucer to The Complete Works of Shakespeare to Dickens to The Autobiography of a Yogi. He had a habit of signing his name on the first page, a quirk I have picked up, much like I have, the reading habit. He loved music, and had an enviable collection of long-playing records, from the soulful melodies of Talat Mahmood, Lata and Kishore to those of Sudhir Phadke, and Marathi Natya Sangeet too.
Dadu was my maternal uncle, my mother’s elder brother, but a father to me. I lost mine to a rheumatic heart, at two months, and grew up in my maternal grandparents’ home, lovingly supported by my two uncles – Dadu, the cricketer, and Kishore (Kandu), the shuttler. Even after retiring from active cricket, and coaching the Ranji Trophy team, Dadu coached the under-19 team for some time. Then age caught up, and athlete’s veins too, a condition that left him in great pain, making him reclusive. He remained a bachelor, wedded only to cricket and books. And, every morning, he sat in the comfy chair in the balcony, reading 3-4 newspapers, sipping from his tall glass of filter coffee. Then, inhaling a pinch of snuff, (an inheritance from my grandmother), he sneezed, and retired to his room to read or rest. When he passed away, he was a shadow of his former self, but his eyes never failed to light up, when he watched a new young cricketer dive to take a difficult catch. His close friend, Vasu Paranjpe, and his best buddy, Vithal (Marshall) Patil were there to bid him goodbye.
Dadu had played his innings well. When the time came, he returned gracefully and quietly to the pavilion. It was a privilege and blessing to have been brought up by him. He played straight. So do I:).