The other day, we did a rough count of the support staff entourage with the Indian team currently doing battle in Sri Lanka. A cursory estimate put the ratio between players and support staff personnel at nearly 1, and it isn’t a phenomenon restricted only to Indian cricket, or only to teams on tour. Cricket left the amateur era – in every sense of that term – behind a long, long time ago; from an enjoyable sideshow that attracted its protagonists entirely on the basis of love for the game, it has embraced a professionalism that extends way beyond just impressive bank balances.
When India won the World Cup for the first time in 1983, there was a combined support staff of exactly one. PR Man Singh was the designated team manager in an era of few coaches and even fewer physios and trainers in world cricket. Video analysis wasn’t even a distant dream; no one had even imagined that a few years down the line, teams would travel with nutritionists and sports psychologists and masseurs as well.
Few that play the sport these days might even be in a position to imagine that in times gone by, there were no regimented and structured pre and post-match routines. A warm-up session before start of play might have included, at best, a couple of laps of the ground and perhaps a few minutes of knocking. There was no such thing as an ice bath or a rubdown after a gruelling day out in the park, much less recovery sessions in swimming pools. No huddling around the video analyst as you explore weaknesses in the opposition, no bowlers’ meeting, no hitting the gym.
Impeccable attention to detail has become the name of the modern game. Players are handed out dos and don’ts lists, especially when they travel to the subcontinent. Dietary charts are drawn up, bleep tests conducted, body mass ratio indices are the norm, curfews are in place on match days, all of these designed to ensure that the players are as well prepared as can be to give their best out in the middle.
Romesh Kaluwitharana is part of this regimented system these days. Immortalised as Little Kalu by Tony Greig who loved everything Sri Lankan with unapologetic abandon, the man who revolutionised opening the batting in limited-overs cricket alongside Sanath Jayasuriya is now the coach of the Sri Lanka A team, which itself strikes you as a little incongruous. Kalu, the maverick of mavericks, the small fella that smashed the big boys with gusto, now a coach? I mean, he was a bit of a freak himself, with his fearless approach and uninhibited ball-striking, so how does he go about coaching the guys who should be the stars of tomorrow?
“Coaching and playing are entirely different,” he pipes up. “The mistakes we didn’t understand sometimes, we were not told about them. But I am telling the boys now about the mistakes they might commit and not realise. I always think if I had the kind of knowledge that I have today, I would have got a lot of runs. People may think technique doesn’t play a big role, but it does. It keeps your batting, bowling or fielding very simple rather than making it complicated. If I had this base with the talent, the little talent, I had… I could always see the ball well, from my young days. If I could have managed little adjustments here and there, what I know now, I would have got a lot more runs.”
Not said with bitterness or regret, but with a wistfulness that you wouldn’t have associated with him otherwise. As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Little Kalu is a bundle of anecdotes as he settles in comfortably in his leather chair, a mischievous twinkle in his eye every time he goes back in time to the early 90s when he made a rather stunning Test debut, or to that campaign of 1996 when Arjuna Ranatunga’s men conquered the cricketing world. But he is not just about cricket – batting and ‘keeping and coaching – but also about nature and the growing hold of technology and the disconnect among cricketers these days.
As he trots back in time and takes a trip down memory lane, you can see a certain peace come over him. Like a switch has been turned on. He is, and will always remain, Little Kalu even if he protests that he is not little anymore – “My son is 16 years old now!” – but especially when he retreats to his happy space, the young man in him makes an almost subconscious appearance as words trip over themselves.
“I do remember when I was driving from home to the ground, people used to wave at me from public transport buses because that time I had a small car and everyone recognised both the car and the driver. The good old days.”
One of his favourite stories, one you suspect he relishes telling, dates back to 1992 and his Test debut. The opponents were Australia, the venue was the SSC ground in Colombo. Kalu walks in at 367 for 5, and proceeds to smash an unbeaten 132. In no time. Then, with play done and dusted for the day, he proceeds home. Home, yes, not the team hotel. Back home, dinner with family, sleep in your own bed. Test cricket? Ah yes, will be back at the ground tomorrow. Can you even imagine that?
“I remember when we played Test matches early in my career, we used to come from our homes to the ground, every day,” says Kalu, somewhat wickedly enjoying our bemused, shocked expressions stemming from could-such-a-thing-actually-exist-less-than-a-quarter-of-a-century-back? “We were not put up in hotels. My first Test match, I came from home. We had to find our own transportation. That’s the cricket we played. I came from home, made a Test hundred, went back home and returned to the ground the next morning.”
He remembers that day, that evening, like it was yesterday. With a little pride too, as he reels off numbers and digs into the memory bank. “And when I scored the hundred and went home, so many people came to see me. It was something different, my knock. I scored 132 in 158 balls, 26 fours. It was a very exciting Test innings and that time, so many foreigners also came home, just to meet a debutant Test centurion. It was quite embarrassing, actually. Somehow, I managed to get some dinner in, got some sleep, came back over the next morning. And it wasn’t just me, the entire team used to return home in the evening, like anybody going back home after a day at office.”
So you want to put him on the spot then, just out of non-malicious spite. You ask him if anyone came late to a Test match because the alarm at home didn’t go off on time, or because the milkman was late, or because he had a flat driving over to the ground. “I remember once in India, I missed the team bus because I overslept and I had to take the taxi to the ground,” he grins, knowing what you are up to but determined not to give you any joy. “But not coming from home, fortunately. Not really. I do remember when I was driving from home to the ground, people used to wave at me from public transport buses because that time I had a small car and everyone recognised both the car and the driver. The good old days.”
Kalu now is enjoying the good new days too. He may not drive a small car anymore, he may not drive from home to ground on match day, he may not drive the cricket ball like he did at his pomp. But he is driven by his love for Sri Lankan cricket, a classic case of natural talent embracing textbook tips with an eye on a better tomorrow for the young guns in his country. And no matter what, Little Kalu will remain Little Kalu.