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‘I couldn’t imagine walking into Not Just Jazz by the Bay’

Updated on: 27 June,2024 05:12 PM IST  |  Mumbai
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In this extract from his book, I Have the Streets, cricketer R Ashwin talks of his time in then-Bombay, where he grappled with Hindi, worried about making friends, and was in awe of the fancy restaurants. By the time he left, he was a part of the Under-17 squad

‘I couldn’t imagine walking into Not  Just Jazz by the Bay’

Mahendra Singh Dhoni (left), Rohit Sharma (right) and Ravichandran Ashwin appeal for LBW against South Africa’s Vernon Philander during a World Cup match between South Africa and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2015. Pic/Getty Images

We are on the Dadar Express to Bombay, but Appa has woken me up well before our destination. The train has been stationary for a while near Lonavala. He is picking up all our stuff even as my eyes adjust to the dim light. The train is scheduled to reach Dadar by 6 am, but we are still about 150 km away and are certain to be late. Our destination, as usual, is Wankhede Stadium, but not for a Test match this time. I have to report for my India Under-17 selection trials, which I will miss at this rate. All those years ago, Appa traded his dreams for the job security provided by the Indian Railways, also his father’s employer.

Ironically, now, a tardily running Indian Railways train is in the way of his son’s, and I suspect his own renewed, dream. He sheds his middle-class inhibitions and musters up the courage and the money to get us a private taxi to Thane. But we’re not taking the taxi all the way into Mumbai, retaining some of our austerity. Thane is a suburb just outside the city, and Appa knows we can get on a local train from there. We make it in time to report at the camp, but I am already regretting not taking up Thatha’s many offers to teach me Hindi.

I can read and write Hindi, but the Hindi spoken in the world outside Tamil Nadu is nowhere close to what we are taught in textbooks. I have been cracking Hindi exams in school by using the old trick of flicking half the words from the question. If the question is, who was India’s first prime minister? I don’t necessarily need to know the exact spelling of ‘pradhan mantri’.

“My first-ever floodlit match. A school’s final against Don Bosco at Don Bosco, in kits provided by them”“My first-ever floodlit match. A school’s final against Don Bosco at Don Bosco, in kits provided by them”

I can copy that from the question. At the camp, though, the first question I am asked is, ‘Naam kya hai?’ It literally translates to: ‘what is name?’ I am not prepared for this kind of colloquial, informal Hindi. For seconds I am trying to figure out whose name the peon wants to know. Then I translate it to Tamil in my head and realize that even in colloquial Tamil they ask you ‘peyar enna?’ and not ‘unkal peyar enna?’

So I cut short my rote answer from ‘mera naam Ashwin hai’ to ‘Ashwin’. I am taken to the spot where forty to forty-five of us are completing the formalities. Then we are each handed an envelope with our daily allowances and our room number at the nearby Sea Green hotel. The allowance is Rs 300 per day, and five of us have to share one hotel room. Luckily, there are two other boys in my room whose first language is not Hindi. One of them is Abhishek Hegde from Kerala, a funny, stockily built guy.

The other boy is Anirudha Srikkanth. Of all the hotels in the world, of all the rooms in the hotel, it had to be the one with Anirudha, my long-time friend, nemesis, at times my opening partner, mankading victim and often my captain, with whose career mine has been intertwined right from our Under-14 days. We have both been opening batters, we have both scored heavily for our schools and Tamil Nadu age-group teams, but he has more games against Goa than I have.

“Appa, not yet confident of letting me sit behind him on the bike. This way his arms protect me from falling”“Appa, not yet confident of letting me sit behind him on the bike. This way his arms protect me from falling”

In fact, the first time I got to face Goa, the weakest team in the South Zone, was during my third tournament for the Tamil Nadu state team, just before coming here. They had no choice this time. In the game before the Goa one, Anirudha and I opened the innings against a strong Hyderabad side. I should have been duck-out, but I was dropped in the slips. Then I was involved in Anirudha getting run out for a duck. I went on to score a double-century, followed by runs throughout the tournament. Anirudha ended up losing his place in the side towards the end of the tournament.

Here we are again, in the same hotel room, fighting for the same spot. We have all heard of the unofficial quota system well before arriving. Only one boy from Tamil Nadu gets selected for the Indian teams. That’s true across all age groups. Uttar Pradesh gets three almost every time. Bombay is often well-represented. One of the two kids we have heard the most about in the camp is Rohit Sharma, who comes with a bat with an old green SG sticker. We have heard that he is the future. We have heard how he travels with his kitbag on the crowded local trains.

The other is Cheteshwar Pujara, who is only 15 and has already scored a triple-century in Under-14 cricket. This year he has scored a double-century in the Under-17 West Zone matches for Saurashtra. There is an aura around him, an aura of thousands of runs.

(First from right) With the Tamil Nadu Under-19 team. Pics Courtesy/Penguiin Random House India(First from right) With the Tamil Nadu Under-19 team. Pics Courtesy/Penguiin Random House India

This is as far as Appa can join me. He needs to resume work. He also doesn’t have a place to stay in Bombay. On the first two days, we bat and bowl in the nets before we are split for selection matches among ourselves.

V. Chamundeswaranath is the selector from the South Zone. He played first-class cricket for Andhra and is an influential functionary in cricket circles. The man making the final call, though, will be India’s chief selector for Under-17 teams, Pravin Amre, who has played cricket with distinction for India. As we go about our business in the nets, I spot the legendary Dilip Vengsarkar talking to Anirudha, who is not just an aspiring cricketer but the son of his former teammate and friend, Kris Srikkanth. Vengsarkar is a towering figure, and he spends the rest of his stay talking to Amre and watching us play.

In the evening, I walk to the hotel alone. This is the first time I am out of the south on my own. Everywhere I look, I see big, intimidating restaurants. I walk past Not Just Jazz By The Bay, where a bunch of kids, who look my age, are waiting for a table. It looks like an upscale restaurant, the kind they show in Hollywood films. These kids look like they belong there.

I imagine I am sticking out in my cricket kit, unable to speak the language on the street. I’m not looking forward to going back to a room where we aren’t exactly friendly. Outside the room, we haven’t been introduced to the forty or so other boys at the camp. Nobody knows Who’s Who. I can’t imagine walking into Not Just Jazz by The Bay. Or any other restaurant. They are all intimidating and, I imagine, expensive. What if I end up eating something I can’t pay for? I spot a blue cart carrying street food and settle for aloo chat, which is deep-fried potatoes with spices sprinkled on top, for dinner. As I eat, I replay in my head Anirudha talking to Dilip Vengsarkar and assume he will be the one boy who gets selected from Tamil Nadu.

I Have the Streets by R Ashwin

After two days of nets, we are split into teams for two days of selection matches. My team loses the toss, and we are asked to bat first. For many of us, this is our first experience of playing at Wankhede, and it is everything we have heard of. Early in the morning, on the fresh pitch, there is extravagant bounce and movement off the surface for the bowlers. Umesh Karvi from Karnataka, against whom I have played previously in the South Zone, is letting it rip and has us down at 27 for 5 in no time. I walk in and score 40 odd runs. It gets easier to bat in the afternoon.

It’s the same story the next day, when we lose the toss again and struggle in difficult conditions to bat. The next morning, we are asked to assemble at the place where we first registered ourselves. A peon is announcing the names of the fifteen players selected to play Under-17 cricket for India. This is the dream, the stepping stone for an international career. I have made all the calculations in my mind. Only one from me and Anirudha will be selected. The names will be read out alphabetically. My official name is Ravichandran Ashwin and his is Anirudha Srikkanth so I am bracing for Anirudha’s name to come up in the first few and put me out of my misery. Anirudha is standing right next to me. They move past A without naming him. It is an excruciating process, although it doesn’t take more than two minutes in all. Now my mind has changed the calculation. I am thinking that he probably goes by Srikkanth Anirudha, which means our names are next to each other. Ten names have gone by, and neither of us has been selected yet. I am still watching out for a call for Anirudha and don’t even answer the call for ‘Ravichandran Ashwin’. They call my name again, and I realize I am officially an India Under-17 player. I will have a blue jersey of my own now. A.G. Pradeep from Andhra is our captain. Uday Kaul from Punjab is the wicketkeeper. I am the only one from Tamil Nadu. There are exactly three boys from Uttar Pradesh: vice-captain Ravikant Shukla, all-rounder Ali Murtaza and legspinner Piyush Chawla. Rohit Sharma makes it. Cheteshwar Pujara doesn’t. Even before I can process what’s happened, we are instructed to pack our stuff from Sea Green and move to the Garware Pavilion at Wankhede Stadium. Our new daily allowance envelopes carry Rs 1000 per day. Automatically, we assume a different air: we are now in rooms shared by two and have more money in our pockets while the others are going home. What makes this extra special for me is that Pravin Amre has stuck his neck out for me and overruled the other selectors because I batted in both of the morning sessions and actually scored some runs. This is what we had heard about Bombay: tough runs are valued there.

I have it all planned out now. I am the only opener in the squad. I am going to score a lot of runs in this Asia Cup and get selected for the senior international team. I will put on that blue jersey, puff my chest out as the national anthem plays, look at the India flag with pride, and give my blood and sweat for the team. 

Excerpted with permission from I Have The Streets by R Ashwin and Sidharth Monga, Penguin Random House India

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