When I was a schoolboy, Dhobi Talao in South Mumbai seemed like Ali Baba’s cave. I would gaze longingly at the cricket bats in the shop windows of the city’s sports goods hub, drawn there by my love for the game and the ache brought on by my lack of talent. The world seemed to fade away as I stood there mesmerised by the beautiful, shiny bats, among them then-rare foreign brands such as Gunn & Moore and Slazenger.
India had just won the World Cup for the first time and it was common for conversations in school to centre on the kits of our cricketing heroes. Brands such as Sanspareils Greenlands (better known as ‘SG’) and SS Sunridges (often shortened to ‘SS’) were becoming popular and any child with a foreign bat, such as a Gray-Nicolls, was automatically the centre of attention.
I remember walking into the stores just to take in the smell – a mix of leather and perhaps the oils used to season bats and hockey sticks. The shelves were lined with helmets, balls, caps, sweatbands, wicket-keeping gloves. I would find excuses to linger, trying on sweatbands that I didn’t need or have the money for.
Today, a range of brands has flooded these stores, which in turn have tried their best to become hip. What hasn’t changed, however, is their basic nature – they remain mere retail outlets. All you can do is buy stuff there; there’s nothing to compel students or budding sportspersons to spend time in them, nothing to educate them about their sport or offer a glimpse into its history. There’s no memorabilia or reading material to engage you.
Simply put, these stores are now boring; there’s no compelling reason to visit one when you can buy most of what you need online.
That’s why I was delighted when on a recent visit to Pune I chanced upon the Sunny’s Sports Boutique – The Legends’ Cricket Store, aptly located on the corner of Professor DB Deodhar Road near Prabhat Road. (Deodhar was the ‘Grand Old Man of Indian Cricket’, one of very few to have played the game both before World War 1 and after World War 2.)
I had never heard of the store before, though I’ve lived in Pune in the past. I simply happened to spot the signboard during a post-lunch stroll and walked in because I had nothing better to do.
The treasures the store held hooked me – there were original signed team sheets, bats autographed by legendary line-ups, vintage books, paintings, plaques and all sorts of souvenirs. It wasn’t a store, but a shrine to cricket, a labour of love.
I wasn’t surprised that it was run by former cricketers – Jairaj ‘Raju’ Mehta, who played for Baroda (1977-81); and Shubhangi Kulkarni, who played for India (1976-1991) and is an Arjuna Award winner. So respected is this former India captain that there’s a gate named after her at Pune’s Nehru Stadium. That’s why I was secretly pleased that Kulkarni shares her birthday with me.
Mehta and Kulkarni turned out to be human encyclopaedias of cricket. They rattled off facts about old games, and had astute observations about current and past players. They were also articulate and incisive about the modern game.
What I found most endearing is that they didn’t care if I didn’t buy anything; they were simply happy to share their knowledge. I landed up spending the better part of an hour with them.
I never got around to asking them how business was, but from the store’s condition it seemed like it was doing well. I’m not surprised; with Mehta and Kulkarni there, and all the treasures adorning the walls, why would any player go anywhere else? It struck me also that a budding cricketer would benefit by spending time with them.
Like with bookstores, I see brick-and-mortar sports retailers being impacted by online stores. They need to find a way to engage their audience; it’s no longer only about good location and products.
Stores such as Sunny’s, I believe, are the way forward. They draw you in, make you want to know more about the game, to have conversations about it, find people whose minds you can tap, watch recordings of old games, read up on them…
I hope sports goods stores – especially those in Mumbai – take a cue from Mehta and Kulkarni. If they do, you can be sure I’ll spend a lot of time in them with my 12-year-old daughter, who too is sports-inclined and thankfully possessed of talent that I could only dream of as a child. Who knows, maybe we’ll even spend some time with Mehta and Kulkarni.
* Click on the pictures to read the captions.