It's June 2014. The Cricket Association of Bengal announces its ambitious Vision 2020 project. Waqar Younis, the Pakistan legend, is roped in as fast-bowling consultant. Trials are called, and as many as 200 - shortlisted from the districts and club cricket - turn up at Eden Gardens. One bowler, with torn shoes and shabby clothes, with "nothing extraordinary about him", according to Ranadeb Bose, manages to get the coaches interested.
Waqar isn't convinced, Bose thinks they can have another look. And he is eventually shortlisted. That bowler is Mukesh Kumar, one of the key reasons why Bengal are a step away from realising their Ranji Trophy dream in 2020, nearly three decades after they last won the competition.
In the semi-final in Kolkata, Kumar and Akash Deep, four years his junior, made a power-packed Karnataka batting line-up boasting of KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair and Devdutt Padikkal look pedestrian. Kumar finished with a match haul of 8 for 107, including 6 for 46 in the second innings, to give Bengal an incredible 174-run victory in front of their home fans. Bose, who is now part of Bengal's support staff, couldn't be happier at the turnaround.
"I saw him in the Vision 2020 nets with no spikes, in his trainers. Just roaming around," Bose remembers. "When I saw him bowl, I thought there was something (about him). Waqar was not 100% okay with that, but I requested him, 'bhai, rakh lo (let's keep him)'. He said, 'tere ko lag raha hai? Toh rakh. Tu sure hai? (You think so? Then keep him. Are you sure?)' And I said, 'mere ko achha lag raha hai(I like him)'. This is how Kumar came into the Vision 2020 squad.
"At the fag end of a long day, maybe even I could have missed him. But I just happened to go behind the nets to have a cup of tea. So I was able to watch him from behind the batsman. From far, he looked like he was 120kph, but off the pitch, there was skid. The loss of pace seemed less after hitting the deck. So I thought, there is something. I gave him a better ball, then he started bowling better. So after going back and forth, I picked him and Waqar nodded finally. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time."
Little did Bose know then that Kumar's selection would be the start of a challenging ride.
'Mukesh Kumar saved my job'
When Kumar came into the Bengal set-up in 2014, doctors pronounced him anaemic. He'd bowl a few overs with intensity and then get tired. He'd play one game, and miss three. It was the story of his first season as a Bengal cricketer trying to break into the Ranji Trophy set-up. He was later diagnosed with bone edema - accumulation of fluids - in his knees.
"Mukesh was suffering from malnutrition," Bose says. "His body wasn't ready to play 10-12 first-class games a season, and it has taken us a good three years to set him right - to get his training, food habits, sleep patterns in order. Within a year of him coming into the set-up, I thought of taking a punt on him in Lahli. I thought 'swing bowler, gets it to dart around, he's doing well in the nets, what can go wrong'? Again, there were voices both within CAB and outside that didn't approve of the call.
"In all fairness, they were right in their own way. Who would pick someone who keeps getting injured? He hadn't played any competitive games in the six-months prior to coming to the nets. They all thought 'how can you pick someone straight out of the nets that too at the start of a Ranji season?'"
"He [Mukesh Kumar] saved my job and made a career out of it. So four wickets there in Haryana in his debut game. I should thank him, he saved my job."
Bose remembers going to Sourav Ganguly, who was CAB secretary at the time, for a conversation. "It was a very short conversation," he says. "He had a bone edema. He had a malnutrition issue because he came from a humble background. Ganguly was the secretary and I requested him to keep this guy in the CAB circuit. I also asked him if we could look after his food and lodging. It wasn't easy to justify, the guy hadn't played anything. Didn't play much club cricket either. And Dada [Ganguly] said, 'are you sure?' I said 'yes'. Dada said: 'thik achhe, rakho (Fine, keep him)'.
"He said keep him in the CAB accommodation. So Mukesh was there for about two years. We looked after his food. His MRIs were expensive, so we took care of that. Bone edema it is not easy - the physio was there to help him out. He didn't play anything for six-eight months and then he played Under-23. He played a couple of games, did well. And then he was bowling in the Bengal nets as a net bowler. I again went back to Ganguly and said 'can we make him play this Ranji season?' Dada said, 'He hasn't even played club cricket'.
"I said 'I think he's good'. Thankfully, [VVS] Laxman (CAB's batting consultant) was there in that meeting and said he thought Mukesh is very good, 'let us make him play'. With Laxman saying and with me requesting, pleading, he said 'okay, go play'. It was not easy to convince Sairaj [Bahutule, the coach], he had his reservations. But thankfully we made him play against Haryana in Lahli. The first wicket he got was Virender Sehwag. He saved my job, and made a career out of it. So four wickets there in Haryana in his debut game. I should thank him, he saved my job."
In nine games this season, Kumar has picked up 30 wickets, the joint-most along with Akash Deep and Shahbaz Ahmed. Ishan Porel, who has featured only in five games this season, has 22 wickets. It's this combined output that has brought Bengal the rewards.
'Heartbreaks no setback for Akash Deep'
Hailing from Sasaram in Bihar, Akash Deep wanted to play cricket, but was dissuaded by his father, Ramji Singh, a schoolteacher. He left for Durgapur, a town in West Bengal, in 2010 with the pretext of finding a job, but found support from his uncle, who wanted his son to be a cricketer. So Akash Deep and his cousin went to a local academy, where he started gaining prominence for his pace. However, a family tragedy forced him out of the game for three years.
"My father had a stroke and then he passed away after a brief struggle with paralysis three years ago," Akash Deep remembers. "Two months after his death, my older brother passed away. He had common cold, fever. It hadn't come down for a few days, and we went to a doctor, who didn't diagnose his problem properly. We had to go to Banaras [Varanasi] for treatment, and he died on the way. I was emotionally and mentally down. There was no money in the house, I had my mother to take care of."
Akash Deep spent three years trying to reconstruct his life, but realised the cricket dream was too big to let go. He returned to Durgapur, and then eventually moved to Kolkata, where he rented a small room and lived with his cousin. Akash Deep was inducted into the United Club in CAB's Second Division League.
Unlike Kumar, Akash Deep was a natural athlete, "strong shoulders, good wrist," according to Bose. However, he was erratic and lacked direction. This was when a chat with Mohammed Shami, who was in Kolkata during his time away from the Indian team, turned things around.
"He spoke to me about his issues with fitness, what he did to improve, how he came back from injuries. That chat gave me a perspective," Akash Deep says. "I used to bowl mid-130s, but after following his advice, I worked on my fitness and I realised slowly I could bowl long spells without being tired."
"We don't hunt in pairs, we hunt in packs. We're like wolves. Nobody can be dropped from this team, they can only be rested."
Last year, Akash Deep was picked in Bengal's Under-23 team. A Ranji Trophy debut seemed far off at the start of 2019-20, but circumstances proved lucky. "A couple of years ago, Manoj Tiwary told me about him: 'There's this guy called Akash Deep, bowls quick but is very erratic'. So I rang up Sourasish Lahiri (Bengal's Under-23 coach) to ask about him," Bose remembers. "Lahiri and I have a great equation, so there's trust.
"I went over to the Under-23 nets to have a look at him and felt he was good, but we needed to work on him. I think we were in Vizianagaram for a match, and I requested the selectors to leave him out. Lahiri agreed, so we worked with him and played him next game against Mumbai and he took a five-for and scored a half-century. That is how he came into the senior set up." Akash Deep made his T20 debut last season, but was handed a first-class debut in December 2019 against Andhra in Kolkata.
Wolves under umbrellas and the Paddy Upton philosophy
At the start of the 2019-20 season, Bengal lost three bowlers to Railways: Kanishk Seth, Amit Kuila and Anant Saha, players they had earmarked for the future. The security of a government job was hard to forego. There were disciplinary issues that resulted in Ashok Dinda being left out of the squad altogether. Porel, at 21, became the leader of the attack, but he was to miss a good portion of games initially after being picked in the India A squad for New Zealand.
Kumar was the only bowler available, and an injury to him would have left the fast bowling cupboard bare until Porel returned. This is when Bengal decided to unleash Akash Deep, while also recalling Nilkantha Das, 12 years after he first came into the system. As a 31-year-old, he was handed a debut against Delhi in January 2020.
All along, Das played club cricket for Mohun Bagan. The presence of Bose, Shib Shankar Paul, Sourav Sarkar, Dinda and later Shami left him in the cold. He wasn't lost to cricket, though, and found a route back through Kolkata's club cricket scene. In only his second game, he picked up a four-for in the second innings against Rajasthan to trigger a collapse. Bengal held on for a narrow two-wicket win. Then in the quarter-final, he picked up three crucial wickets in the first innings, broke a threatening century stand and set Bengal up for a lead, which eventually helped them progress.
"We don't hunt in pairs, we hunt in packs. We're like wolves," Bose says. "Nobody can be dropped from this team, they can only be rested. If you see Neelkantha Das, he has done remarkably well the three games he has played. He has got crucial wickets against Rajasthan, crucial wickets against Odisha in a quarter-final. It's unfortunate that we had to rest him to fit in Akash. And what does he do? He walks in with three wickets and 44 crucial runs in the first innings [in semi-final against Karnataka].
"You just can't drop anyone in this side, you can only rest them and say 'sorry boss, don't mind'. And they're taking it positively, they're absolutely fine with that. I think we missed Ishan for a couple of games, but we didn't miss him because Neelu did the job. This is what the bench strength we've got and that is what is making this team good."
Bose believes until now all their bowlers were under an umbrella, waiting for guidance. Now, they have been given a free license to run wild. "We always had this umbrella, of a good bowler in front of us," he says, hinting at Dinda. "So guys like Mukesh, Porel and Akash were under an umbrella. So they think that is my world. When that umbrella goes, you see the sky, then you feel that you belong. Sometimes it is important to push them outside and under the sunlight, they realise this is my world. I think they have realised their worth now.
"My job is to make sure I open up their outlook; tell them the mistakes I've made and ensure they learn from that. These boys, Mukesh and Akash Deep especially, have surrendered completely to us, so it adds on to the responsibility. When they say 'I'll do whatever you tell me to', you feel extra responsibility as coach. But I've learnt from Paddy Upton, who I spent time with at Pune Warriors.
"He used to say 'when someone comes with a problem, just let them talk. Channelise that in the right direction, ask them questions.' Ask them why instead of giving him an answer. And invariably you'd find them coming up with answers, whether that is the solution is a different thing, but at least you get them thinking. Their thought process should be guided, and I've tried to follow that from Upton. I keep my eyes and ears open and learn stuff from these personalities."
Bose also spent considerable time with them just to make them consistent. "When I started working with Mukesh and Akash, I never thought of making them outstanding. My job was to ensure they did their basics: line and length. It took me three years for Mukesh, 18 months for Akash to make them understand the importance of bowling ordinary balls - which aren't bad balls. Just pitching on off, same spot, again and again and again. I told them 'forget swing, seam nothing. If you keep doing it, something good will happen.' Maybe that special ball will come after 30 balls, but if you're giving away runs, captain will rethink and you'll lose out on opportunities to bowl that good ball. Green top or pata (flat) wicket, their mentality now is 'I'm going to bowl 20 overs, give away 40 runs.'
"If you keep up with the consistency, on a good day you will take five, on an ordinary day, you'll take one or two wickets. But you will never go wicketless. We are Indians, it's important to have dal-chawal, so have it. On a good day, you will have mutton biryani, on an average day, you will still have dal-chawal, you won't go hungry at least. That is the way I try to pass on the message to the boys. Doing that, initially success doesn't come, but when they realise eventually this is how it is sometimes, they learn.
They also meet some good players, some good bowlers. I encourage them to go and speak to good batsmen and bowlers from the opposition. After the last game, they had a nice chat with KL Rahul. I would encourage them to go and speak to Jaydev Unadkat, he's got 65 wickets. He must be doing something very good. I pushed them to initially, but now they go on their own."
Stories of Kumar and Deep merely reflect the work done by a tireless backroom. Their sudden surge may merely coincide with that ambitious 'Vision 2020' programme, but such careful nurturing and empowering of a young group can only mean plenty of promise for Bengal's immediate future.