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Tarak Sinha, the father-figure coach, passes away

The Times of India logo The Times of India 07-11-2021 Arani Basu
© Provided by The Times of India

Nostalgia engulfs cricket fraternity with stories of how Ustaad-Ji produced top quality cricketers

NEW DELHI: Delhi cricket has lost its Ustaad-ji. Tarak Sinha, the man responsible for producing 12 international cricketers besides innumerable first-class cricketers since starting the Sonnet Cricket Club in 1969, passed away on Saturday morning after battling with lung cancer for two months at the age of 71.

Sinha remained unmarried. But when he left, he had scores of cricketers mourning like they had lost their guardian. Shikhar Dhawan turned up at the crematorium and performed all the rituals. Ashish Nehra took the first flight out of Goa to get a glimpse of his mentor. Former India pacer Atul Wassan stayed put and waited for the last rites to be performed. And then there was Rishabh Pant on a video call to his family from Dubai, inconsolable at the loss of the person for whom he once said: "Tarak sir is not like my father. He is my father."

Rishabh's words are true for every young cricketer who accompanied their 'sir' for his final journey from Sonnet club to the crematorium, dressed in their club outfits on Saturday. Rishabh's mother Saroj was right there through his last days and she proudly states: "Sonnet humara hi club. Sir ne kabhi kissi ko gair nahin samjha. (Sonnet is our club. Sir never treated anyone as an outsider)."

His other famous student Manoj Prabhakar was with the Delhi team as the bowling coach in Lahli for the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament where the teams observed a minute's silence before the start of their game.

He coached three generations of cricketers and earned the Dronacharya award, rather belatedly, in 2018. There is hardly a cricketer in and around Delhi NCR from the last decade who has not trained under Sinha in some way or the other.

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Over the last four decades, Sonnet Club, from based in PGDAV college to Rajdhani college and finally settling down at Venkateswara college, has become the nursery and the base of Delhi cricket. From Surinder Khanna to Prabhakar, Nehra and Pant, the club has stood the test of time. "There are a lot of differences between the players who came to me in the 80s and the ones who have been coming over the last decade," Sinha once told TOI.

"The players in the 80s and 90s were very sincere. They wanted to play cricket. Now you have to keep motivating them to keep coming back to the ground," he added.

"For example, Prabhakar would take a train from Ghaziabad, reach the ground, arrange the nets and the matting pitches and then practice. He would keep the things in his place and make sure he doesn't miss his train back. Now, the boys know they have the facilities ready for their nets," Sinha pointed out the basic difference before listing the most interesting one: "The players of 80s and 90s would be engrossed in cricket's history. They would love to listen about the Wally Hammonds, Bradmans, Ranjis and historical landmarks of cricket."

Even Virender Sehwag turned up at the Sonnet club when his mortal remains were taken one last time. He had sought Ustaad-ji's help many a times when he felt stuck. Sehwag later tweeted: "He was one of the rare coaches who gave India more than a dozen Test Cricketers & the values he inculcated in his students helped Indian cricket immensely."

Sinha's impact is spread over Delhi's neighbouring states. Any state team in UP, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi still has at least one player out of the Sonnet stable. Deepak Chahar, for instance, owes his career to Sinha who took over as director of Rajasthan cricket after Greg Chappell had rejected him from Rajasthan's system in 2009. Surendra Rathod, coach of Kamlesh Nagarkoti, was his disciple in Jaipur and he was one of trusted aides till the last day.

Other than coaching former India women's captain Anjum Chopra, Sinha played a huge role in grooming Jhulan Goswami in her younger days when he was given the charge of India's women's team. He would proudly talk about the day when Jhulan bought her first high-end bowling spikes.

As the rites were done, stories about Tarak Sinha were recalled. Former Delhi captain Mithun Manhas would emphasize whenever a player felt he was struggling for form, he would immediately squeeze out a time to spend a day with Ustaad ji at Sonnet and all the cobwebs would be cleared. Wassan would talk about how he brought a human touch to coaching and let the players be themselves.

Sinha was consumed by his passion to break down the technique and approach of every player. Manhas fondly remembers the smacks the players received on their arms if their front elbow dropped early while batting.

Tarak Sinha wanted to be a father figure first rather than a coach to someone. Former Delhi wicketkeeper Devendra Sharma, Sinha's closest associate and confidante in running the club, says: "When I first met him, he first asked me if I had eaten or not. He would first ensure the students who come to him are well taken care of."

"For him, everything was about his students. He would splurge on the needs of the students. Taking fees from students was the last thing on his mind. He used to pay from his salaries so that players got more tournaments to play. Even when Nehra was going to play for India, Tarak sir had paid for his bowling shoes," Devendra told TOI.

For Sinha, all-round growth of a player was critical. He would sit under the sun with a floppy hat on at Sonnet, have his notebook and take down details of every player. "When are your exams?" is the first question he would shoot to his wards by the end of January every year. The notebook came out and the matches were distributed accordingly for the rest of the season. The notebook had the waist sizes of each of his students. The kits would keep coming all-round the year. He knew every student's background like the back of his hand.

He was constantly noting down the requirements of the players, what infrastructure the ground needed and the finances to afford it.

"Tarak sir can tell how I exactly I must have got out even if he didn't watch me play in a certain match," Pant would say about the relationship of trust with his coach.

As a player grew in stature under him, he would inculcate the value of giving back to the club. Which is why a Rishabh Pant and Ashish Nehra would send over kit bags full of gear after every series or tour.

While distributing the equipment to the boys, he would say: "Yeh Rishabh Pant ka gloves hain. Toh usski izzat rakhna. Mehnat karna. (This is Rishabh Pant's gloves. So, honour it and work hard)."

"Gareeb bachche hi fast bowler bante hain. Unko zyada sambhal ke rakhna padta hain. (Underprivileged kids become fast bowlers. We need to give them extra care)," he would quip.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra stresses on how he shaped his life and not just his career. His Ustaad-ji was impressed by his academic bent of mind. "Aakash was a sharp boy. Padhne likhne wala. (One who was interested in academics). He never held grudges when he wasn't picked in the XI for club matches. But he would sincerely and meticulously do scoring for the match. The scoresheets were so neat and had so much clarity, I knew this boy very sharp. Those scorebooks were worth preserving. He understood his game and evolved to become a Test player," Sinha would say.

Sinha was an old-school coach but open to the new ways of cricket. He never tampered with a player's natural instinct. He believed in liberating the player instead. He understood the demands of the IPL generation but drilled it in their minds that 'a cricketer is a true international player only if he played Test cricket.'

Pant's emergence filled him with pride. Sinha had his reason: "This boy is very special to me," he would say when Pant made his debut three years ago. Now that he is also seen as a potentially good Test cricketer, I feel good that I could keep up with the changing times. I prefer the conventional ways of cricket. But I had to understand that these boys need to play IPL as well."

"Sir never stopped Rishabh from playing aggressive strokes in the air. He let him be. He just worked on his techniques so that he could bat long. Had he asked Rishabh to curb his game, he would have done it blindly but he would not have been Rishabh Pant," Devendra reckoned.

Sinha worked on a simple philosophy: "I am not a highly qualified coach. I have just observed the game closely. And I am fortunate I have got wards like Prabhakar, Nehra, Sanjeev Sharma, Aakash Chopra and now Rishabh. They have always come back to me even as they played the highest level of cricket."

Not just Pant, that Dhawan, who has spent his initial years at Sinha's club, had dominated all formats gave him a lot of joy. Sinha acknowledged that his ageing body could barely cope with the rigours in the past three years. He barely got up from his chair during the practice days at the club but picked up the minute flaws in techniques of his students.

He was only thinking about grooming young talent during this battle against cancer. Even at the age of 70, he was enthusiastic about getting to the field and working on young cricketers.

The mantle of grooming boys needs to be carried on. Davendra Sharma was his trusted aide, someone who has shaped Pant from his early teens. "I have spent all my life at Sonnet. Tarak sir has only talked about how a talent could reach its true potential. Rishabh is the first boy whom I have groomed and always kept Tarak sir in the loop. Sir has been flexible and understood the needs of young boys of this day and age," an emotional Sharma reckoned.

"The number of stories kept growing with the success of each of his students. It's our job now to carry forward his legacy," Devendra mentioned.

Sinha is known by the players he has produced but the players live by his name.

The stories are countless. If only one had a few more weekends to spend with Tarak Sinha at Sonnet. You never leave Ustaad-ji's turf without learning a new thing!

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