One-man poem

S Santhanam

The story of Delhi's Sonnet Cricket Club is a testament to the power of positive thinking. For a private club to have survived against all odds for nearly four decades, producing over a dozen international stars, and plenty more who have represented various state teams, and to have done it with the barest minimum in the way of playing facilities and financing, is some feat indeed. It all boils down in large part to the dedication, determination, discipline, and perseverance of one individual - Tarak Sinha, the club's founder and coach.

Sonnet has been a labour of love for Sinha, who has juggled a day job as a clerk at the PGDAV College with coaching at the club for 25 years now. "This job in the college helps me run my family as well as my club,'' Sinha says. Oddly, considering his credentials as a cricket coach, he has never been asked to coach the PGDAV team.

Sinha's contributions to Sonnet have often extended beyond those of time and talent. "There have been many occasions when Ustadji [Sinha] put in his entire monthly salary so that the club could run without any obstacles," says Manoj Prabhakar, a Sonnet alumnus. "Some of the club members couldn't even afford the Rs 10 monthly subscription in those days. But for Ustadji's efforts, the club would have wound up long ago."

Sinha himself has never sought rewards for his efforts, although his trainees had him send in a nomination for the Dronacharya Award last year. "I did not get the award. Probably I didn't deserve it. But these things never bother me,'' Sinha says philosophically.

Born in the summer of love
It all started in 1969, when Sinha, then a budding wicketkeeper-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 centre where children from lower-middle-class families could learn the basics of the game came to Sinha. "I realised 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."

Sonnet was launched at the Birla school grounds with 20-odd trainees and bare-bones facilities. Initially the club did not get affiliation with the Delhi and District Cricket Administration (DDCA) as it was not considered up to competitive standard. "But slowly we forced DDCA to change their attitude after we scored victories over some of the prominent teams in the summer tournaments," Sinha recalls. "We started participating in the major tournaments, including the Mayor Shield, the Jain tournament, and the President's Estate Cup tournament. The performances of our boys caught the attention of the DDCA officials," Sinha recalls.

The club moved its base from Birla School to Ajmal Khan Park in Karol Bagh so that boys from other areas could enroll. It was here that Raman Lamba joined the club and came to prominence with his bold hitting displays.

In 1971 the club finally got its DDCA affiliation. That same year it moved from the D division to the A division. Sonnet has since won just about every tournament worth its name in Delhi, including the Goswami Ganesh Dutt Memorial, the Lala Raghubir Singh Memorial, the NN Mohan Memorial, and the DDCA Hot Weather Tournament. It has also participated regularly in tournaments outside Delhi, and won some prominent ones - among them competitions held in Moradabad, Haridwar, Lucknow, and Bareilly.

A star-spangled banner
Sonnet's roster has in the past included the likes of Prabhakar, Raman Lamba, Ashish Nehra, Ajay Sharma, Aakash Chopra, and Sanjeev Sharma. Most of those players make it a point to visit the club nets and give tips to aspiring youngsters even today. Sinha recalls with gratitude the financial help provided by some former members - Nehra prominent among them.

Chopra apart, the other present-day players who have been Sonnet members are Delhi's dependable middle-order Mithun Manhas, opener Shikhar Dhawan, Milind Kumar and Sunny Sehrawat. The Sonnet diaspora also includes a number of players who now represent various other state teams in domestic tournaments. Yashpal Singh (Services), Mayank Sidanha (Punjab) and Eklavya Diwan (UP) are among the Sonnet boys playing in the Ranji Trophy. And in the past, Sonnet graduates KB Kala and Sanjay Pandey (Uttar Pradesh), Yousuf Ali Khan (Railways), Rajeev Deora (Bihar), and Amit Sinha (Rajasthan) have played in the Ranji Trophy.

It is a tribute to the club's longevity and the loyalty it has inspired that the sons of old-timers Ajay Sharma and KP Bhaskar are now members of Sonnet and have represented Delhi in age-group tournaments. In fact, Ajay's elder son Manan represented Delhi in three ODIs last season.

The club has also lined up several of its members in the Delhi Under-22, 19, 16 and 14 age-group tournaments. Prominent among them are Samarth Singh (Under-22), Drone Chawla, Pratyush Singh, Bharat Gupta and Rahul Chauhan (all in Under-19), Yash Sehrawat, Ishant Chatterjee, Padam Sharma and Himmat Singh (all Under-16).

The great encounters
The final of the 1979 Padmaja Naidu Trophy at the Hansraj College ground saw Sonnet facing off against Universal. Batting first, Sonnet were dismissed for 130. In reply, Universal were 100 for 1.

"Celebrations had already started in the Universal Club dressing room. People were sent to get sweets," Sinha remembers. "We were depressed, to say the least.

"But from that hopeless position, we went on to win. Our left-arm spinner Arun Khurana took seven wickets, and Rakesh Suri took some unbelievable slip catches. It has been over 25 years since that game, but it remains in my memory as if it happened just yesterday.''

Bhaskar remembers another match from the early days. It was played on a damp wicket at the St Stephen's ground. Sinha, opening the batting, was hit on the face by a rising delivery, hard enough to make him bleed profusely.

"The next minute I saw Ustadji rushing out of the ground with his pads still on," Bhaskar says. "He got on a cycle-rickshaw and vanished. Later I learned that he had gone to a nearby hospital to get treatment. We were 100 for 8 when he came back to bat and made a stubborn 60. We lost the game but his fighting spirit remained in my memory. That incident helped me in my later years as a cricketer: even if one is injured, one should not run away from responsibility."

Repair Work
Not just cricket training, the rehabilitation of players has become something of a forte for Sonnet over the years. Ashish Nehra is a good example. Unable to find a place in Delhi's Under-19 side, Nehra was depressed and on the verge of quitting the game. It was then that Sinha made him play in a lot of summer tournaments. His performance in them earned him a call-up for the Ranji Trophy trials. Hari Gidwani, one of the selectors, was impressed with Nehra's bowling in the nets, and convinced his colleagues to pick the lad. Nehra duly made an impressive Ranji debut and then went on to play Under-19 cricket and internationals.

Manoj Prabhakar's first big break came when he was picked to play for India in a tournament in Sharjah. At the preparatory camp in Delhi, a senior member of the Indian team then told Prabhakar that unless he changed his action, he wouldn't go far in international cricket. A dejected Prabhakar approached Sinha for advice. After discussing the issue threadbare, Sinha told his favourite trainee: "You are getting wickets because of your unusual action. If you change the action, you may not be as successful." Prabhakar stuck to his natural style of bowling, and the rest is history.

Gen Next takes over
Sonnet faced no administrative problem when Tarak Sinha, who had earlier refused a plum coaching assignment offered by the Cricket Association of Bengal, accepted a two-year tenure from the Rajasthan Cricket Association three years ago. The club's senior members Devender Sharma, Shashikant (both of whom represented the state in Ranji as wicketkeepers), Harish and N S Negi took over the mantle of shaping the club's future in Sinha's absence. After a year's gap, Tarak Sinha has moved to Jamshedpur this July to take up the job of Director of Jharkhand Cricket Association, again a two-year contract.

``We now have about 150 trainees in different age groups practising at weekends and we are following Sir's schedules strictly,'' says Devender Sharma. Whenever he is free, Sinha will be available for his club trainees at Venkateshwara College nets, assures Devender.

Of course, financially the club is now much better off. Coaching fees is Rs 500 per month but a lot of children belonging to economically weaker section of society are still provided free playing kits.

S Santhanam is a journalist based in Delhi