Two days after his surgery that lasted for over 14 hours, when he finally managed to gulp down some liquid, the doctors at the Tata Cancer Hospital & Research in Kolkata clapped. That was when it dawned on Arun Lal what he had been up against. Even doctors were not sure he would ever be able to eat again. Lal had shed a tear when the doctors said he was out of danger. That was 2016.
Four years down the line, as Bengal trounced Karnataka to reach the Ranji Trophy final under his charge, Lal’s eyes were moist again. “It’s more gratifying to achieve success as a coach. It’s like a father watching his children achieving success in life. I won the Ranji Trophy as a player in 1989-90. But if this team goes on and wins the title, I would be happier,” sitting in his back garden, Lal dips a biscuit into tea, while discussing life and cricket.
Adenoid cystic carcinoma is a rare type of cancer. A minor toothache served as an early symptom. Eventually, when malignancy was detected in early 2016, after an MRI, surgery became an immediate requirement.
“Somebody told me, before going to the operation, ‘you write at least a small will; five-six points’… That I did on compulsion. Now I don’t even remember it. Maybe, I have purposedly forgotten it. There’s no point thinking back. Now I have a different perception about life. I’m the happiest now.”
The renaissance man of Bengal cricket, who brought the winning mentality to the team as a player in the 1980s, has now worked his magic as a coach. A process that started with a gruelling pre-season, with players doing 25 rounds every day, is very close to coming to fruition. Without Lal, it wouldn’t have happened. Even Sourav Ganguly knew that.
As a young player, Ganguly looked up to the fighter in Lal. The former India captain and the current BCCI president still calls Lal his ‘role model’. After bringing him to the Bengal fold as the team mentor last season, Ganguly, as then Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) president, made him the head coach this term. He knew only this man was capable of uniting a fractured dressing-room. Only Lal could turn a bunch of also-rans into a champion unit.
The fighter in Lal stonewalled cancer. It was a triumph of his will. “I have forgotten it yaar. One thing I remember is that it never occurred to me that I’m not going to live through this. Not once did it enter my mind that it’s not going to work out. Never. Don’t ask me why, but just that the fear of not making it never happened with me.”
Easier said than done. Post-surgery, Lal was taken to a non-AC room virtually wrapped in tubes. He wasn’t breathing from his nose. He was, in fact, breathing through a machine through his gullet.
“That night was very tough. There were eight-nine tubes in me. You are like a living dead body. You are not breathing yourself. You are not urinating yourself. You are not talking. Your mouth is closed. You are not defecating yourself. You can’t move. My right arm was paralysed. My left leg was gone, because they removed everything from there to make my face. There I remember I was trying to breathe and it was appearing very hot. I didn’t realise, even though I was trying to breathe, it wasn’t going in. Because they make a hole in your trachea and put a tube inside into your lungs and they feed the lungs separately.”
Inside four months of his surgery, he was back commentating, as the CAB hosted its Super league final under lights, with the pink ball – India’s first-ever multi-day day-night fixture.
Lal is known to be brave. Consider what he did at Chepauk 32 years ago. He stood at silly-point without wearing the box. Narendra Hirwani, a debutant, was bowling to Viv Richards. Lal didn’t want to upset Hirwani’s rhythm as he was spinning a web around the West Indies batters. Even after so many years, Lal doesn’t think the decision was foolhardy.
“I tell everybody, it’s only pain yaar. Pain will not kill you. If you have split webbing and you have taken stitches and you say, ‘I can’t bat’… Why can’t you hold the bat? It’s only pain. It’s not going to get worse, it’s not going to get septic, it’s not going to kill you. It’s only pain. What’s the problem? We used to bat without a helmet, and even if we had helmets we never had a grille. Players didn’t get hit very often then.”
There’s no surprise that a man of his toughness will snide at “too much mollycoddling” of the modern-day cricketers, which has given us words like ‘workload management’ and ‘optional practice’. “If you can’t do it here (at the nets), you can’t do it there (out in the middle) also.”
With him as the head coach, this Bengal team has kept those words in abeyance in a by and large injury-free season.
Dr. Anup Sarkar is a super specialty gastroenterologist at the PG Hospital in Kolkata. Ashwini is a doctor at AIIMS in Delhi. Sanjit is an IT professional in Sweden. Bikash is now a top honcho at JSW Steel. The common thread is that all of them were underprivileged and had been ‘fathered’ and ‘mothered’ by Lal and his wife Rina.
“Bikash was a part of our family because he lived with us. The others would come and when we would sponsor their education, we made it a point that we paid the fee monthly so that we could meet them at least once a month, we could go for lunch, could buy them gifts and we could spend time together.”
Bikash’s biological father did the laundry at the Lal household. He wanted his son to be enrolled at Julien Day school and approached Lal’s wife, who was Bikash’s English teacher. That started the association.
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Ashwini stood 24th at the Joint Entrance exam. Little wonder then that Lal has always been fatherly to his wards at the Bengal team but it’s tough love, which worked.
“I came (to the Bengal fold) mid-season last year. I was mainly observing, trying to understand the psychology of the team and the guys. Not to offend anybody. But this season I decided I would do it my way. I may be wrong. But when I have been entrusted with the job, I’m allowed to make mistakes. There was absolutely no interference from the CAB.”
Lal talks about his approach of toughening up cricketers to help them reap the rewards when the going gets difficult during a cricket season.
“I felt we weren’t fit enough. I felt that mentally we weren’t believing in ourselves enough. Belief doesn’t come on its own. I always believe that in my life, when I work hard and when I become stronger and stronger, I get more confidence. My body language improves. I feel stronger and stronger and then my confidence starts coming. So when you run the hard yards, it’s not so much for your physical fitness. It’s more for your mental fitness. It’s like a prayer. One day you aren’t feeling well, you haven’t slept well, but still you do that; one hour running. It adds to your dedication and discipline. I decided we were going to do that. And you can see, the guys who did it for two months really benefited.”
Anustup Majumdar is the best example of what hard work can do. Until last season, he had just 50-odd first-class games over a 15-year period. He has been a revelation this term, arguably the best batsman in the Ranji Trophy, with back-to-back match-winning hundreds in the quarterfinal and the semifinal.
“See, a coach is as good as his team. The material was there. The potential was there for all to see. Last season, jokingly and to annoy him at times, I used to call Ishan Porel an ‘old woman’. Because, his body language was always like stooping. Now he is; bloody hell. When I look at him I feel so proud. Until last season, Mukesh Kumar was bowling dibbly-dobbly medium pace. Now he is bowling unplayable deliveries. He made Karun Nair and Manish Pandey look like novices. Some of the deliveries bowled by Porel, Mukesh and Akash Deep (in the semifinal) were actually unplayable.”
The CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) once asked Lal to give the keynote speech at a symposium on environment. “I was very frightened. There were scientists from Norway, England and god knows where… I spoke from my personal experience. I signed off by saying, if we want to save the world, we save one sparrow (at a time). I got a standing ovation.”
A bird-watcher by passion, Lal worked to save the migratory birds at Santragachi in Howrah. Not one to collect birds, he now has orphaned birds – three parrots and three eagles. “The other day I returned an owl who was injured. He was with me for a while and then I returned him to the wild.”
Add to this, the seven-eight dogs that he has in his farm. He has planted 4,000 trees. “My major passion is planting trees. Then cricket.” A monologue on bird-watching is probably overdue. When a man of this background walks into a dressing-room, also carrying his degree in Economics from St. Stephen’s apart from his cricket exploits, players feel comfortable to place trust in his methods. That’s exactly what has happened with the Bengal team. Someone like Ashok Dinda, who fell out, got the axe. The team moved on, unearthing the young Akash Deep as his replacement and in the process, forming a pace trio who have been running through opposition batting for fun. Not a single 250-plus score has been registered against Bengal in this Ranji season yet.
Calcuttan at heart
Originally from Kapurthala, Punjab, Lal came to Kolkata in 1978 after getting a job at a tea company. Along the way, he became Mr Bengal, as far as cricket was concerned. As a player, he had to play the waiting game, because India had Sunil Gavaskar. Kris Srikkanth was getting into the groove as his partner. Lal’s two overseas tours had been against Imran Khan’s Pakistan in 1982-83 and in the Caribbean in 1989. Rub of the green didn’t go his way, a reason why his Test appearances stopped at 16. His team mates knew that and always respected Lal.
Kolkata’s ‘soul’, as he describes it was the reason why he became a permanent resident of this city. “I had never been to Bengal before I got my job. Initially I didn’t quite like it. Then, within about three-four months, I really started loving Bengal and Calcutta. See, to me, a city is not only about the roads, lights and cleanliness. A city has to have a soul. It has to have warmth. It has to be forgiving.
The people have to be loving. That Calcutta stands out even now. In the appreciation and understanding of art, culture and sport; you will not get what you get in Calcutta anywhere else. Life is not only about making money. Life is much more than that. I’m more Calcuttan than anybody else.”
Irrespective of the outcome of the Ranji Trophy final, and Saurashtra are a wonderfully consistent team, this season has been a success for Bengal. A team that has unquantifiable heroes and a titan in Lal. But at 64 years of age, he might call it quits after the season.
“See, my house at the moment is running in sort of autopilot. My wife is sick, my mother is sick. When Sourav offered me the job, I didn’t know it would be so rigorous. Let’s see what happens (next season).”
This Bengal team aren’t a finished article yet and Lal still has some way to go before he hangs up his boots. But the journey so far has been fruitful.
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