Rags to riches: the boy who scored 1009 runs

Knowing the score: Pranav Dhanawade takes a breather after his record-breaking innings. © PA

On Tuesday, a penniless schoolboy smashed a 117-year-old cricket record. His achievement revived the age-old tale of the humble hero who makes good. Why do such success stories fascinate us?

The number barely fitted onto the scoreboard. When Pranav Dhanawade, a 15-year-old from Mumbai, went to bat for his school in a cricket tournament on Monday, he was hoping for 100 runs. A day later, he finished his innings on 1,009 – smashing a record that had stood since the 19th century.

In the media furore that followed, Dhanawade’s humble background was a big talking point. His family could barely afford proper cricket gear, but he triumphed anyway. In the process, he joined a pantheon of Indian cricket greats who came up from nothing (including the current national captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni).

Christopher Booker once wrote that the ‘rags-to-riches’ tale is one of the seven basic plots from which stories are derived. It is hugely popular in the USA, where the idea that anyone can be successful – the American Dream – holds sway.

But the story reaches across continents, and throughout time. In the Bible, Joseph emerged from slavery to become the Pharaoh‘s chief adviser. The character of Cinderella, who starts off literally wearing rags, first appeared in a 17th-century Italian folk tale. Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the farmer’s son who became the richest criminal in history, continues to inspire fiction – such as the current TV series Narcos.

The public loves a politician who has climbed from poverty to wealth. Several Republican presidential hopefuls in the USA have stressed their own modest origins. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher and John Major showed that children with modest backgrounds can become Prime Minister. The message is clear: we made something of ourselves, and we can help you do the same.

Not all rags-to-riches tales are so straightforward. Take Aladdin, the street rat who is made a prince, but gets carried away with his own success and loses it all. Eventually, he wins back the princess’s heart – but only after realising that he is not truly a prince, and should stop pretending to be one. Riches can be good, but dangerous too.

Money talks

Why is the rags-to-riches story so enduring? Let’s face it, say some: most of us lead ordinary lives, and it is nice to think that we all have the potential to become exceptional people. The chance that we will become rich may be slim, but what’s wrong with fantasising about it? Such stories are about wish fulfilment.

Sure, but they go deeper than that, add others. They raise a fascinating question: do success and fortune change your character? That’s why we are drawn to stories that end badly, too. Sudden wealth can go to your head; losing it can make you humble again. Those of us who dream of getting rich stand to learn from these cautionary tales.

You Decide

  1. If you won the lottery today, what would you do with the money?
  2. Look up Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots. Do you agree with his classification? Why (not)?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a character who goes from rags to riches. It can have a happy or a sad ending – up to you.
  2. Write a letter to David Cameron, suggesting three ways in which the government could improve social mobility in the UK.

Some People Say...

“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”

Jonathan Swift

What do you think?

Q & A

I know about the American Dream, but what about the British Dream?
The UK is often described as a class society. Study after study has supported this: to a great extent, British people’s success in life depends on their background. The country has among the lowest levels of social mobility – the opportunity to move from one social class to another – in the developed world.
Is that all there is to it?
It isn’t simply that the USA has more social mobility than the UK (in truth, huge barriers to success exist in both countries). The American Dream is also a state of mind. The ideal that everyone should be free to pursue success is rooted in the American Declaration of Independence, and you could say that it forms a bigger part of the national character than in the UK.

Word Watch

Mumbai
The largest city in India, with a population of over 18 million – making it around twice the size of London. It is well known for producing good cricketers. It is sometimes called by its old name, Bombay.
Record
The previous record for the highest individual score in one innings was 628. It was recorded by AEJ Collins, a 13-year-old English schoolboy, in June 1899.
Furore
Craze, wave of public excitement.
Christopher Booker
An English journalist and author. In his controversial 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he argued that almost all stories ever told can be reduced to one of seven basic storylines.
Pharaoh
Ruler of Egypt in ancient times.
Republican
The Republican Party is one of the two main political parties in the USA. Over a dozen politicians are currently competing to become the party’s presidential candidate in the election in November.
Cautionary tales
Stories, often folk tales, which include a strong warning.