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Self-belief was Ekki’s greatest strength
- He took to Test cricket like a duck takes to water

It’s been three days now but the mind refuses to believe that Ekki is no more. Why does the Almighty take the good guys so early' Aren’t there enough good guys up there' Or is it that they need a short-leg fielder and even the Almighty is not good enough there'

Ekki was not only India’s greatest ever close-in fielder but was the most popular and most loved by teammates that I have known.

Our friendship went back to the schooldays when we were beginners at the game and also eager to make it to the next higher grade. We first met at the coaching camp, held by the Bombay Cricket Association at the Brabourne Stadium. Along with Milind Rege, Ekki was the three-man band that took the C-route bus from the CCI where our camp used to be held.

At that time Eknath was a youngster and everybody was certain he was going to play for India. The cricketing grapevine in Mumbai had already marked him out for big things and we all had heard about him. To the youngsters reading this, it was just like Sachin Tendulkar when he was a schoolboy and had served notice to the world that he was meant for greater things.

Everyday after the camp, we used to go to the Udipi restaurant across Churchgate station and share idlis and masala dosas and a strong cup of aromatic coffee that only Udipi restaurants could make.

On the odd occasion when we travelled by train, Milind and I would gang up to hold him back and not let him get off at the next station, Marine Lines, where he resided in those days. We were petrified by the thought of penalty for travelling more than the ticket or pass would permit us to go. As Ekki tried to free himself, we often ended up tearing shirts of each other.

Next morning we would start on a fresh note, with no thoughts as to what had happened earlier. This was the best part of our friendship, in that we pulled each other’s legs, joked about but held absolutely no baggage about the previous day.

When Ekki was picked to play for India, it was as if we were also picked and we were as proud and as nervous and anxious for him to do well as we would have been for ourselves. We didn’t have to worry much for he took to Test cricket as a duck takes to water. He was among the many young Turks that the Vijay Merchant-led committee had blooded and G.R. Viswanath and he went on to cement places for themselves in the Indian side.

He was then more a batsman than an allrounder, though he bowled left-arm ‘straight’ as we would tease him every time he referred to himself as a left-arm spinner. We teased each other on just about everything and Ekki gave back as good as he got. This belief in himself was his greatest strength and it was only when it was dented a bit that he started to lose focus on the game.

On the West Indies tour of 1971 it was Ekki who sat with me when I was in pain with a problem. It was also during that tour that the manager Keki Tarapore ordered us to think up another nickname for Eknath as Ekki sounded so much like Keki. But it wasn’t a problem because by that time he had become famous in the West Indies and they were calling him Solkaa, the limbo artist for his flexibility of body.

Seeing the way he and Dilip Sardesai played the West Indian quicks, provided all of us with the confidence that we could play them too.

It was during that big partnership between these two that the famous incident with Gary Sobers happened where again Ekki’s confidence took the centrestage. The ball had gone out of shape and as the umpires were changing it, Sardesai, who had been batting brilliantly, sat down for a breather and asked Eknath to ensure that a ball of similar wear and tear was replaced with and not a hard one.

So Eknath asked to see the replaced ball, to which the great West Indian said “what do you want to see the ball for' You are going to play and miss anyway”. Eknath stood up to his full height and responded: “You play your game, I will play mine.”

When we heard of that incident later on, our respect went up several notches, for imagine telling the greatest cricketer ever in the world that. To Sir Garry’s credit he also saw Eknath and the Indians with new respect and never ever held it against Ekki. There are so many such incidents where Eknath stood up to those who were trying to bully him, but guess he had had good practice of that with Milind and I bullying him since school days.

He tried to shoot back to his best ability and only last year I found out again about that. He called me informing about his stint at the National Cricket Academy and somewhere during the conversation, addressed me as ‘Sir’ and I immediately said, ‘don’t call me that ever. You are Ekki to me and I am Sunny to you always.’ Pat came his reply: ‘When all your life you have not taken me seriously why do you take me seriously now that I called you ‘sir’'” How we laughed about that!

He was incredibly popular with everybody and not just the Mumbai guys and players like Prassanna, Venkat, Bedi, Chandra adored him. He was the only player who could ruffle Venkat’s hair and get away with it. Farokh Engineer used to tell him “remember Ekki we are not laughing at you but with you” and how true that was for, though he may have been the butt of endless jokes and pranks in the team, he was the first to laugh.

The day before he had moved to a better place, I was telling friends in London about some of his ability for, without doubt, he was the most naturally gifted sportsman in the team till Kapil came in the picture.

He was good at table tennis and athletics and other sports too. Next morning I heard that he had gone just like that ' no good bye, no pulling my leg about something I had said or written or about some ICC regulation. That’s not fair Ekki: Going without saying, ‘see you’.

But don’t worry pal for though we are all saddened beyond understanding, we won’t cry because that’s not what you would want, because you would want us to celebrate life like you did. Yes, we will try but it won’t be easy without you. Farewell, my friend and rest in peace. (PTI)

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