A master of reverse swing, Manoj Prabhakar can play cricket and cook – both with equal felicity.
The Caramelo is on the second floor of Hans Hotel. But Manoj Prabhakar remembers the 21st floor. “That's where we stayed, in 1984, when I was part of the national selection process. Can't forget how we would target people on the ground floor with oranges. It was great fun.”
Prabhakar is our guest for an Italian lunch at Caramelo. He is late, driving down from Roshanara Club where the Delhi team is preparing for a Ranji Trophy contest. Cursing the traffic, he settles down to a hot chicken clear soup. “I love this soup; learnt about it from Ravi (Shastri)!”
What does Prabhakar like? “I was a glutton and much spoilt by mother's cooking. She would pamper me with some amazing food. I would return from cricket training and head for the kitchen. She would cook and I would eat. What a wonderful life it was!”
It was a wonderful life when Prabhakar travelled the cricket world, his conquests a folklore. He was not a hugely talented player but he was immensely tenacious.
“I made up with my hard work.” That he was a quick learner was discovered early at Sonnet Club by coach Tarak Sinha, who told Prabhakar to quit off-spin and take to seam.
A champion bowler was born that day as the ball swung like a banana. Bharat Alagh, the smiling chef, greets Prabhakar. “What can I offer you,” asks Alagh. “I leave the choice to you,” smiles Prabhakar. This is easy. The menu card is put aside and Prabhakar warms up with one more bowl of soup. “Please make it fast. I am famished,” pleads Prabhakar.
As coach of the Delhi team, he is back to mainstream cricket. His earlier stint was interrupted when he moved to assist Rajasthan but the roots beckoned. Prabhakar makes space in front for the big plate that brings him mix lettuce salad with sundried olives and tomatoes. “Hmmm, this is lovely,” he is excited. “So different from what I eat.”
His diet is strictly boiled and steamed. “I have been eating boiled and steamed stuff for 20 years,” says Prabhakar, who also reveals his cooking secrets.
“I am a good cook. I can make baingan ka bharta, bhindi, matter-paneer, mutton too…All made spicy with his own masala, a mix of onion, garlic and mirchi achaar.”
Mastery on swing
Prabhakar, now 47, was a rolly-polly figure when he arrived in international cricket. “I can never forget Rajbhai (late Raj Singh Dungarpur) calling me a penguin (in 1985-86). I lost my place in the team and when I returned he called me a tiger.” His mastery on swing and determined straight bat enabled Prabhakar play 39 Tests and 130 ODIs in 12 years of international cricket. “I was never injured during my playing days,” he adds, except the occasion when Courtney Walsh broke his nose at Mohali in 1994.
The chef has not forgotten Prabhakar, who is temped to cut the conversation and concentrate on what lies in front – mix grill with mashed potatoes, lamb chops, chicken, prawns and vegetables. “Let me relish this first,” he attacks the plate. He pauses to talk of reverse swing.
“I had heard it from Shastri. How to ‘shine one side' and keep the other rough? I remember doing it at the nets and tossing it to a fellow bowler (Shankar Saini). Kirti (Azad) was batting and was foxed. Saini was clueless as the ball swung the other way and Kirti was bowled thrice in a row. I had learnt the art on my own.”
When India visited Pakistan in 1989 Prabhakar bemused the great Javed Miandad with reverse swing. On a recent visit, for veteran's cricket, Prabhakar did the same and evoked a fond response from the master, who quipped, “Arre, you still swing the ball so much.”
Prabhakar picks Praveen Kumar as the best exponent of swing in modern cricket. “He can make any batsman struggle. I like his swing. Skills work better than just speed” The plate in front is empty and he looks around. Warm almond cake with ice cream is the parting dish. Prabhakar is game. “You can indulge once in a while.”
Playing days are a distant past. “Can't live on memories!” He has learnt to divide his time between cricket and work. Prabhakar has set up a chain of cosmetics. “Naturance is a reliable brand and we have two factories now. We will soon launch a soap in the market.”
Is he tempted to visit the 21st floor? “Would love but I am not carrying oranges,” his loud laughter characterises the man's personality.