Tarak Sinha's 40-year labour of love
Tarak Sinha's world is real, practical, regular, square. It is attached to the fringes of Indian cricket, like those of thousands of others outside the charmed circle of affluenza, and lived minus frills or embellishments.
These days, Sinha, one of the most successful but least celebrated coaches in the game, travels nearly 30km one way to get to where his club trains every weekend. Like most Delhi clubs, it owns neither ground not pitch. This time, they are at Venkateswara College in what is called Delhi University's South Campus.
It is the club's fourth location - one for each decade of its existence, maybe. The newest line of the Delhi metro, being constructed into existence, looms over the ground, swallowing up patches of sky. Close to the nets is a concrete platform where a group of young boys and girls are practising dance moves to Bollywood hit "Badtameez Dil" (rough translation "Insolent Heart").
In the middle of this, there's Sinha, greying, generous middle and stone-cut visage, with his beloved Sonnet Cricket Club.
Sonnet, which has taken a nomadic loop around the city, from Karol Bagh's Ajmal Khan Park, where it began, all the way to Venkateswara, where it has been for the last 12 years.
Sonnet, like the poem, 14 lines, the stuff Shakespeare made famous, iambic pentameter etc. "The word appealed to me," Sinha said of the club he founded in 1969. "Very few," he says, "can write a sonnet."
Very few cricket coaches, it must also be said, have a track record like Sinha's. His club has produced 11 India cricketers, starting with Surinder Khanna, who made his ODI debut for India in 1979, all the way to current India opener Shikhar Dhawan. As for the number of first-class players, they stopped counting a decade or so ago. Maybe a hundred? Sinha remembers the names, faces and his personal "grading" of the 250-odd cricketers he has worked with.
His coaching, however, doesn't end with the players turned out by the Sonnet factory. "For me, it's result-oriented. I am not a laptop coach, and I'm not seen. I don't do shor [noise]." Sinha's results are wide-ranging and cover generations.
It began by breaking the St Stephens-Hindu College stranglehold on inter-collegiate cricket in Delhi in the early '80s. Sinha coached DAV College, Srinivaspuri, where he was employed in what he calls the "clerical line", to its first title, and to winning three in a row.
As his wards began to make names for themselves at club, first-class, and some at national level, Sinha was appointed by the BCCI to work with the Delhi team, and under him they won the Ranji title in 1985-86. Each assignment has brought results. In 2001-02, he was appointed coach of the India women's team, which then won their first overseas Test series, in South Africa. He became director of academies for the Rajasthan Cricket Association in 2010, and travelled the districts in the run-up to the season in which Rajasthan scripted a dream run from the Plate division to the 2010-11 Ranji title. He stayed for two and a half years (Rajasthan retained their title) before moving on to work as coach of Jharkhand. Another Plate division struggler, Jharkhand made it to the knockout round in 2012-13.
There was an offer from the Kerala cricket association this season but Sinha has chosen to stay in Delhi to give his full attention to his club and to look after his ailing sister. The days of Sonnet's domination in Delhi cricket are not what they used to be. Once, it is said, a Delhi XI comprised nine Sonneteers, but while that is history, Sinha's energy and involvement in cricket have not abated.
His two most recent assignments - with Rajasthan and Jharkhand - contain, once again, the core of his life's work in cricket. To break into the centre from the margins and rewrite the scripts of those thought of as underdogs. It is how Sonnet was created in 1969, in the light of Sinha's own failed efforts to find his way into an under-16 inter-schools team.
He didn't belong to either of the two pedigreed schools that dominated the city's inter-schools cricket, and would spend far too long walking to practice, to the disapproval of his family. "It hurt me a lot - I wanted to help those who had no access and didn't go to the fancy schools but had talent. "
Sonnet today has a range of coaches, including a specialist spin coach, a trainer and a physio, the staff having expanded in sync with modern methods. Many remember the early days, particularly Sinha's toil and willingness to put in long hours. Ashish Nehra remembers him turning up earlier than anyone else all year round, in Delhi's biting cold and searing heat. KP Bhaskar, a first-class stalwart for Delhi in the '80s and '90s and now a coach himself, talks about the rigours of practice and participation in competitions. When Sonnet CC began, the fee was Rs 3 per child; when Bhaskar joined in 1977-78, it was Rs 10, and free for anyone selected for the state - at any age level.
Ajmal Khan Park was only an open field, where Sonnet would practise alongside people flying kites, playing marbles or gilli danda. The pitch was rolled out and flattened with stumps before the matting was laid out, thigh pads assembled from bits of sponge from discarded sofas. Bats were given to the team on credit by a friendly store owner, paid for from tournament prize money. Sinha remembers distributing "parchment" bats, rudimentary constructions held together with bands of thread and a membrane that the writer Mukul Kesavan has described as "probably some intestinal sheath".
Riding pillion on a friend's bicycle, Sinha and fellow coach Shravan Kumar would travel around local parks scouting talent and luring them to Sonnet. The two fell out later, but Bhaskar remembers their memorable partnership; Kumar's most famous ward today is Ishant Sharma.
In the '70s version of "10,000 hours" of preparation, Sinha entered his team into as many tournaments as he could. All over Delhi, in neighbouring states, in towns such as Agra, Ghaziabad, Moradabad, Faridabad, all the way to Allahabad. The teams would sleep in railway stations, travel crammed into unreserved compartments, and when falling out of trains be met by puzzled organisers.
"Who are these kids?" Sinha was asked. The kids once beat a strong Tata Sports Club whose line-up included Test and Ranji mighties like Sudhir Naik, Padmakar Shivalkar, Raju Kulkarni and Ranjan Baindoor. They played an All India State Bank team featuring the legendary GR Viswanath. "My boys were lion hearts. That's what you still have to be to succeed at the highest level in cricket," Sinha says.
It was around the late '70s and early '80s that Sinha acquired the name he is known by now: Ustaadji, or "maestro". "He was a young coach and many of his trainees were his age or even older." Bhaskar says, "As youngsters, teenagers, we used to refer to him by his name and we thought that wasn't right. He was our teacher." So Ustaadji it was and Ustaadji it remains.
When Sinha talks about coaching, his metaphors are earthy. He talks of his wards as "paudhe" (saplings), and when discussing talent, he uses an Urdu word, taraashna - to chisel. In regard to a club called Sonnet, it can sound very poetic, particularly in the light of what Bhaskar says was Sinha's hallmark: his rare "eye" for spotting players of ability.
After that, the poetry ended. In Sonnet, you busted your chops and learnt as you observed and listened. "No one is pampered or given special treatment," says Aakash Chopra. "There were no freebies," says Anjum Chopra, the first girl to sign up with Sonnet. It is a tough school that produces tough cricketers. Cricketers got ticked off, even given a few around the ear, Ashish Nehra remembers. Sinha clarifies: "I've become a bit mild. The new generation won't accept frankness."
Sonnet's India XI
Anjum was terrified like others her age of Ustaadji's toughness, but was never treated differently. She laughs at the memories of the boys running in to bowl with Ustaadji calling out in the background, "What are you bowling? Where are you bowling? The girl is bowling faster than you."
Along with managing men and organising the club's match calendar, Sinha's strengths, his students say, was applying his solid grasp of the game's fundamentals to individual and situational needs. Bhaskar says, "He wasn't a technical copybook coach but a very effective coach. He kept a player as close to their natural style and suggested adjustments to improve his game."
The current generation of Sonneteers still come from all parts, even from out of town - Jaipur, Bhiwani, Rohtak, Palwa - but are operating in a T20-centric world, which, Sinha says, makes young cricketers "crazy". The IPL franchise trials and clinics he hears them talk about make him roll his eyes. "These are tax-saving activities. They will pick up a few boys and ruin the lives of the rest." But for all his attachment to cricket's orthodoxy - long-form cricket is the "mother game", and training must always be in whites - Sinha is switched on to the modern game, even though he doesn't really approve of this "tattoo-vattoo" business.
He watches as much cricket as he can ("I still feel very bad when India loses," he says) and reads extensively to "update" himself, and speaks to his international players about what is going on in the wider world of cricket. At heart he is still the under-16 schoolboy-wicketkeeper-batsman who wanted to play and when he couldn't, railed against the order that stood in the way. It is what set him on the road to coaching in the first place. When Anjum Chopra handed him his India blazer as coach of the women's team, there were tears.
For all that is square, practical and everyman about Tarak Sinha's life, there remains something poetic at its centre: "Always, I walk through a door and onto a ground and I feel younger again."