In the gush of emotions and encomiums that were showered on two legendary 40-year-olds of Indian cricket—Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid—during the Champions League Twenty20 (T20), the feats of 42-year-old Pravin Tambe this year were unfortunately lost.

The stocky Rajasthan Royals leg-spinner finished with the highest number of wickets in the tournament (12 in five matches), bamboozling the best. On another occasion, Tambe would have been feted and fawned over, but this time he ran into two retirees whose emotional bond with Indian fans is thick and long.

The contribution of Tendulkar and Dravid to cricket, of course, does not need major certification. Scorebooks and expert opinion—of former cricketers and peers—find unanimity in assigning them everlasting greatness. They have been champion players, torch-bearers, role models, et al.

That the Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals reached the final with both these players signing off from T20 league cricket added a huge dose of nostalgia and mushy melodrama that we Indians simply love. Fans went gaga, the media over the top.

Yet, fact is that neither Tendulkar nor Dravid was remotely near his best in the Champions League, struggling for runs right through. It could be that the 40-year-olds, with two decades and more of relentless cricket behind them, were feeling the fatigue.

For Tambe, however, it was working in a dramatically opposite direction. For 20 years and more, he has been struggling to make a mark in cricket. Looking well past his sell-by date, he suddenly found the success that every performer craves for.

For the record, he is a “maidan boy" from Mumbai who has played in the city’s league tournament ever since adulthood. Significantly, he has not played first class cricket, though he has been on the fringes for almost two decades.

He assisted Shivaji Park Gymkhana—dripping with history and legacy—for almost a decade. Simultaneously, he played for his employers Orient Shipping Co. Ltd in inter-office tournament. Nine years back, he moved to Dr DY Patil Sports Academy in Navi Mumbai where he is now also captain.

Indeed, Tambe looked like a classic case of a straggler and struggler in the harshly competitive world of sport in the higher echelons, showing decent promise, but losing out every now and then for seeming lack of talent or luck to excite selectors and displace other bowlers.

Nonetheless, some significant changes took place from the time he moved to Dr DY Patil Sports Academy. He got greater responsibility in the dressing room, which succoured his continuation in the game. He also gave up medium-paced trundling for leg spin which, in hindsight, was to be a game-changer for him.

Now, leg spin is a most difficult art to pick up even early in life, and even more daunting when you are in your 30s. It requires not just a different skill-set, but also a completely different mindset. This unlearning and relearning can be terribly disorienting, except to the most persevering.

It redounds to Tamble’s credit that he became so proficient that he was in the Mumbai squad for the Vijay Hazare Trophy early this year, though he never got a chance in the playing eleven.

What did happen though was that the Rajasthan Royals, not the biggest spenders on talent, were seeking a leg-spinner to replace Shane Warne and found in Tambe somebody who fit their purse as well as team-balance requirements.

In the Indian Premier League (IPL) first, followed by the Champions League, it turned out to be a masterstroke. He has been niggardly in his economy rate and prolific in strike rate. In Dravid he found a captain who trusted and encouraged him, and Tambe became, along with Sunil Narine, the most feared spinner in the two tournaments.

Tambe’s is a compelling story, the triumph of not just personal passion and commitment, but also the opportunities that now arise thanks to T20 leagues that are redefining cricket as well as the lives of those associated with them, especially players.

In the IPL auction come January, for instance, Tambe would be a much sought-after bowler. Since he has not played first class cricket, he is eligible only for the money paid to rookie Indian players, but doubtless franchises will be looking to work around this hitch.

But even in this context, Tambe’s story becomes extraordinary for the sheer “lateness" of his blooming, as it were. If anything, I think it is freakish. Just like every 16-year-old cannot become a Tendulkar—in the limited horizon of T20 cricket—it will be difficult for 42-year-olds to do what Tambe has.

Even as a one-off, the story has great romance and is inspirational: of the reward for hard work and self-actualization. While Tendulkar and Dravid have hogged the headlines and the limelight, Tambe can pat himself on the back and pour himself a celebratory drink.

In the real sense, he has been the true hero of the Champions League.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

Close