The man who turned a snub into a launchpad for generations
KP Bhaskar was taking copious notes as Goa hurtled to a chastening 81-run loss against Punjab at Bharat Ratna Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Cricket Stadium in Lucknow on Saturday, unaware that his much-revered coach and mentor, Tarak Sinha, had breathed his last after a prolonged battle with lung cancer. He was 71, and is survived by his sister and the many lives he touched.
It was only after Bhaskar switched on his phone post-match that he was hit with the tragic news. "I couldn't believe it. I guess I was numb and really upset. So many memories came flooding back. I think I can write a book on him. It is such a sad day," said Bhaskar, a former Ranji stalwart and the current Goa coach.
A product of the famous Sonnet Cricket Club that Sinha ran, Bhaskar was someone the coach had marked for exemplary success. The right-handed batsman soon joined the pantheon of first-class cricketers from Sinha's stable and scored over 5000 runs in domestic red-ball cricket. He came agonisingly close to an India cap on a number of occasions, but the 'failure' didn't deter Sonnet Club from churning out international cricketers such as Surinder Khanna, Manoj Prabhakar, the late Raman Lamba, Ajay Sharma, Atul Wassan, Sanjiv Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ashish Nehra, Aakash Chopra, Anjum Chopra, and most recently, Rishabh Pant.
"I owe everything that I have to Ustadji and Sonnet. He sacrificed a lot for the kids who he would simply pick from streets and coach,” said Bhaskar.
Sinha's tireless work ethic is as legendary as his knack to recognise special talent. In his younger years, Sinha, then employed as a clerk in Delhi's PGDAV College, would wrap up work by 2pm and begin his daily talent hunt across the city, visiting every nook and bylane he could.
“He would actually watch ‘galli’ cricket and visit random parks to watch kids play. Once he would spot a talent, he'd take him/her under his wings and nurture him/her. He was a once-in-a-lifetime soul, truly committed to his passion for cricket,” said Bhaskar.
Sinha's journey began in 1969, when he failed to make it to the Delhi team for the CK Nayudu Trophy. The promising wicketkeeper-batter was then a student of government-run Birla School in Kamla Nagar. Feeling slighted, he vowed to create a coaching facility for children from less privileged backgrounds and government schools who had little or no access to proper guidance. Sonnet Cricket Club thus came into being. After multiple change of addresses — Ajmal Khan Park (Karol Bagh), DCM ground, PGDAV College, Rajdhani College — it finally found home at the Venkateshwara College grounds in Delhi University's South Campus.
Sinha's coaching style was rustic. He wouldn't shy from giving wards a piece of his mind or the odd slap. "Oh, he was quite strict. I must be his only student who was never thrashed by him. Otherwise, even the likes of Manoj Prabhakar were slapped if they repeated a mistake. Probably because I played India juniors when I was 13, he could see some talent in me. He made me Sonnet Club's captain when I was 15. Whenever I would return from an India camp, he would sit with me and gauge what was I taught. We really shared a special bond," said Bhaskar.
"He was a NIS-certified coach, but wasn't big on data, analytics, biomechanics etc. Frankly, that's needed at a slightly higher stage of coaching. Sir used to pick raw talent and impart them skills. Once these cricketers reach a certain level, the advanced concepts come in and coaches like me end up polishing the product. But the product itself is discovered by coaches such as Tarak Sir. I don't think there will be another like him."
Another of Sinha's illustrious products, former India opener Aakash Chopra had said: "I would like to give a lot of credit for me becoming the player I was to Tarak Sir. Ustaadji made it very clear in the beginning that the opportunities will be very limited. Back then, there was only red-ball cricket, and no matter how good a cricketer you were, there were always enough people chasing you. The endeavour at Sonnet was to create a player who can play four-day Ranji Trophy games while being good in the 40-over format. It was a difficult thing to do, but that's where Ustaadji's teachings came in, that you have to aim to score big runs in days' cricket."
Sinha remains only the second cricket coach, alongside Sanjay Bhardwaj, to get a Dronacharya Award in lifetime category. Desh Prem Azad, Gurcharan Singh, Ramakant Achrekar and Sunita Sharma have won the Dronacharya in regular class. Sinha was conferred with the honour in 2018, a recognition that many believe arrived too late. Awards or not, his legacy will live on in the annals of Indian cricket.