Indian cricket lost one of its brightest coaching talents, Tarak Sinha, last week. Sinha coached 12 pupils to India colours. There is a much longer list of students from his Sonnet cricket club who played first-class cricket for various state teams. He was a mentor to many many more, including me — I had the privilege of learning from him at Delhi’s Sonnet club.
My mind has been stuck 40 years in the past ever since I heard of his passing. All of us, his cricket pupils, will have our personal memories of the man. His single-minded focus on his club and its cricketers was maddening for many of us with non-cricketing hormonal teen interests at the time. But it explained a lot of the cricketing success of the club and many of its members.
His habit of ferreting out his handkerchief to cover his mouth anytime games became close or he got upset was a quirk that was tattooed on the collective consciousness of all his players. Every Sonnet player knew that self-preservation required maximising one’s physical distance from Ustadji (as he was popularly called) once the white handkerchief was sighted.
His love for Australian cricket and its approach to the game left its mark on the choices of colour and design of Sonnet club caps and sweaters. His obsession with the cover drive created many generations of Sonnet batsmen for whom that stroke was the leitmotif of good batsmanship.
He, along with a few others like Sarwan Kumar, built up Sonnet club from obscurity and without establishment support. The practice facilities were improvised in local parks with trainees scrubbing down relatively flat pieces of land and laying a mat on top. It drew mostly kids from ordinary, non-entitled backgrounds. The club’s growth and success were underpinned by his messianic devotion to instilling and celebrating the status of an underdog in the system. As a result, each game appeared to be an opportunity to “stick it to the establishment”. Of course, by the 1990s this was somewhat anachronistic since Sonnet was the Delhi cricketing powerhouse with six-seven players routinely in the Delhi Ranji XI. But till the end, in his mind, the underdog status never ended. And neither did the fire inside him.
His eye for spotting talent and for identifying chinks in techniques was phenomenal. Even more impressive was his ability to design solutions for technical flaws. He loved the classical approach to the game but was careful while adjusting people’s techniques to not impede their natural style. This explains why the same coach could produce three international batsmen with such contrasting batting styles as Raman Lamba, Aakash Chopra and Rishabh Pant.
Sinha’s coaching methods went way beyond drills. A big focus of his was on analysing opposing bowlers or batsmen and ways to adapt one’s own game to the opposition. This led to many generations of match-savvy cricketers emerging from the Sonnet stable. He employed a remarkable variety of methods to motivate the under-achiever, ranging from encouragement to tough words to the silent treatment, all carefully curated to the particular personality of the student concerned.
But above all, he had an abiding affection and personal interest in the well-being of his pupils, which extended way beyond their cricketing days and often to the next generation. A few years back, I was in India with my son who was 14 years old at the time. Ustadji learned that my son was playing cricket in Canada and immediately insisted that I bring him to the Sonnet nets that very day. What followed was personalised coaching sessions that summer and the next for my son with Ustadji. My visits to the club during trips to India would invariably conclude with gifts of club apparel.
Despite the Dronacharya award that he won in 2018, he was seriously under-appreciated by Indian cricket. For one, the award came way too late. For another, the BCCI could have used his skills way more than it did. Sinha was his own man with strong beliefs and pride. As a result, he wouldn’t go about seeking positions or publicity. This probably explains why Sinha did not become as famous as one might expect from the number of first-class cricketers he produced. Some of this started getting redressed due to the efforts of people like Ashish Nehra, Aakash Chopra, Anjum Chopra and Rishabh Pant to publicise their coach.
The relative lack of greater demand for his expertise did, however, have a silver lining. It left him with more time to obsess about his club and students. And they were all much richer for it.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 10, 2021 under the title ‘The unsung teacher’. The writer is Royal Bank Research Professor of Economics, University of British Columbia