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The coaches behind India’s cricket champions

The contributions of coaches such as Tarak Sinha, Ramakant Achrekar and Keki Tarapore to Indian cricket are both individual and institutional. They take gifted cricketers at hand at an early age; hone their skills and mould their personalities; recognise, develop, and fulfil their potentialities

columns Updated: Jul 15, 2017 17:29 IST
Delhi’s Gautam Gambhir playing a shot in a match against Odisha during a Ranji Trophy match, Mohali, Punjab. If Delhi has now come to equal Bombay and Karnataka, a great deal of credit must go to coaches like Tarak Sinha who groomed the cricketers who have since won their teams Ranji titles, Test matches, international one-day championships, and more
Delhi’s Gautam Gambhir playing a shot in a match against Odisha during a Ranji Trophy match, Mohali, Punjab. If Delhi has now come to equal Bombay and Karnataka, a great deal of credit must go to coaches like Tarak Sinha who groomed the cricketers who have since won their teams Ranji titles, Test matches, international one-day championships, and more(Keshav Singh/HT)

Forty years ago, a candidate presented himself at the cricket selection trials of St Stephen’s College. St Stephen’s then had the best college team in Delhi, and perhaps India. The new lad who came to the nets that day had two disadvantages: He was not articulate in English, and he was not to money or status born. Promising freshmen cricketers in St Stephen’s announced themselves by their pedigree; they either came from elite boarding schools such as Mayo College or from famous English-medium schools in New Delhi such as Modern School.

This shy new boy came from an unknown school in West Delhi; and he said he had played for Sonnet Club. The Stephanians had not heard of that place either. The Delhi cricket clubs they knew of were Roshanara Club, Madras Club, and Rohtak Road Gymkhana. So amused were they by the background and demeanour of this freshman that the senior Stephanian cricketers derisively nicknamed him ‘Bonnet’.

I speak here from intimate personal experience, since I was one of those condescending fellows myself. But later in the season our knowledge of Sonnet Club was to expand by leaps and bounds. Till then, our sole cricketing rival was Hindu College. We normally won the early rounds of the inter-college championship by an innings. Then came the main match of the year, the gruelling, close-fought, five-day final against Hindu. However, the year the boy from Sonnet joined our nets, we were given the fright of our lives in the quarter-final by the previously unknown PGDAV College, whose opening batsman, Raman Lamba, and opening bowler, Randhir Singh, were far better than our own. It was only our greater all-round depth that allowed us to squeak through.

Both Lamba and Randhir came from Sonnet Club, where they were coached by Tarak Sinha, who had just taken over as the coach of PGDAV as well. They had given us arrogant elitists a wake-up call, and were soon to dethrone us altogether, when within a few years PGDAV replaced St Stephen’s as the best college cricket team in Delhi.

I was reminded of that early (and educative) cricketing experience when reading a profile of Rishabh Pant, the wicket-keeper batsman who has had an excellent domestic season. Pant narrowly missed selection for the Champions Trophy, but has already played for India in T20s, joining a long list of cricketers from Sonnet Club to be capped for the country, among them Aakash Chopra, Ashish Nehra, and India’s player of the tournament in the Champions Trophy so far, Shikhar Dhawan.

The website of Sonnet lists its members who have played for India. Then it adds: ‘As for the number of first-class players, they stopped counting a decade or so ago. Maybe a hundred?’ One of those first-class cricketers from Sonnet was, in fact, the shy boy who arrived at the St Stephen’s college nets 40 years ago and whom we mockingly called ‘Bonnet’. His actual name was Deepak Sharma, and he went on to have a successful career with Haryana, scoring 199 in a Ranji final when his team beat Mumbai in a match decided in the last over of the last day. An off-spinner and opening batsman, he represented his state for over a decade in the Ranji Trophy, ending with more than 3,000 runs with the bat at an average of 36, and more than 150 wickets at some 25 runs apiece.

The Sonnet website also has an interesting account of how Tarak Sinha took to coaching. I quote: ‘It all started in 1969, when Sinha, then a budding wicket keeper-batsman at the government-run Birla School in Kamla Nagar, failed to find a place in the final 16 of Delhi’s CK Nayudu team — then led by Salman Khurshid, who is now more famous as a Congress leader. That was when the idea of running a training center where children from lower-middle-class families could learn the basics of the game, came to Sinha. “I realized that government school children did not have the basic coaching facilities to rise,” he recalls. “I made a vow that I would strive to give the best playing facilities to cricketers from government schools.”’

(I must add one detail to this compelling narrative. Before he became a senior Congress leader, Salman Khurshid studied at St Stephen’s and at Oxford. The journey of Sonnet Club therefore represents an emphatic triumph of the cricketing subaltern over the cricketing elite.)

The recent documentary on Sachin Tendulkar saw a cameo appearance by his own early mentor, Ramakant Achrekar. Because of his association with the greatest of all Indian cricketers, Achrekar has at least got some attention; most Indian cricket fans know his name. But other coaches who are as remarkable remain little known outside their home town.

The contributions of these coaches to Indian cricket are both individual and institutional. They take gifted cricketers at hand at an early age; hone their skills and mould their personalities; recognise, develop, and fulfil their potentialities. But beyond the impact on particular individuals, these coaches have helped further the democratisation of cricket in India, both socially as well as geographically. They have made working-class and lower-middle-class kids into international players; and they have made Indian cricket itself many-centred and multi-polar.

When I was young, Indian cricket had but one power centre, Bombay. When Karnataka grew to match Bombay in cricketing strength, few recognised that behind the rise of their best players was a focused and absolutely selfless coach named Keki Tarapore. Likewise, if Delhi has now come to equal Bombay and Karnataka, a great deal of credit must go to coaches like Tarak Sinha who groomed the cricketers who have since won their teams Ranji titles, Test matches, international one-day championships, and more.

Achrekar worked only in Bombay; Tarapore, only in Bangalore. After nurturing so many first-class cricketers in Delhi, Tarak Sinha then went on to coach Rajasthan to its first Ranji Trophy title. Still later, he helped make Jharkhand a considerable force in domestic cricket. The calculating selectors who denied Sinha a place in the Delhi under 16 side all those years ago are deservedly forgotten. But the boy they spurned has since become a real (if perhaps still somewhat unsung) hero of Indian cricket.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

Twitter: @Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal