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Perfectly side-on, as coaches & gentlemen Never too old to coach

- The Telegraph School Awards salutes cricket gurus

A packed Science City auditorium rose to applaud a troika of unsung cricket coaches on Saturday as they went on stage to receive The Telegraph Education Foundation Special Honour at The Telegraph School Awards 2012. Metro met the three septuagenarians for whom no reward is greater than seeing a ward hit a sweetly timed cover drive or rattle timber with the perfect yorker.

ASOKE MUSTAFI

“Hit the ball with your right toe pointing towards the popping crease, and finish in a side-on position,” says the coaching manual.

Asoke Mustafi played his first perfect square cut in a veterans’ match at the age of 51. A contemporary, batting at the other end, was stunned to see him play a shot he never could execute in his playing days. “I learnt it while teaching children by following Don Bradman’s The Art of Cricket,” smiled Mustafi, now a sprightly 78.

When he was learning to play the game, he didn’t have a coach to point out right from wrong. “I would ask my cousin Sisir Mustafi (who represented Bengal in both football and cricket) why the shot never came through. He would only tell me to watch others play. That was the only coaching I got — watching Pankajda (Roy) in the nets. Since then, my dream has been to train beginners,” he said.

As a railway employee, he played for BNR from 1955 to 1976, barring a two-year break. “I also played two Ranji matches in 1958-59,” the former all-rounder reminisced.

In those days, there were no organised coaching camps. “Kalyan Biswas would train a motley group at Deshbandhu Park and the under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy squad practised on the concrete wicket in Kartick Bose’s residence on Amherst Street,” he said.

In 1979, former Bengal captain Kamal Bhattacharya asked him to join the new Dukhiram Memorial Cricket Coaching Centre at Aryan Club with Sanat Kumar Mitra. The first edition of the U-15 Vijay Merchant Trophy began later that year. “The Cricket Association of Bengal then neither had the infrastructure nor the space to hold trials. Chandi (Ganguly) was the assistant secretary. He called me for help,” recounted Mustafi.

In response to an advertisement, about 170 kids turned up at Dukhiram. Bengal went on to become the East Zone champion, contributing seven players to the zonal team. The list included Snehasish Ganguly, Saradindu Mukherjee and Ranadip Moitra.

The veteran coach doesn’t like talking about how many stars he has produced. Sourav Ganguly was part of his camp as a 10-year-old.

Ask him to compare the two Ganguly brothers and Mustafi’s vote for talent goes to the elder one. “Snehasish was an artist. But he lacked Sourav’s iron will.”

Mustafi, who stays in Salt Lake, used to train kids at FD Park until two years ago. “I am still willing to offer advice. My goal has never been to earn money or fame but to teach the grammar of the game. Cricket has given me a lot...but the people had forgotten me. I never expected to be on such a big awards stage,” he signed off, as always with a straight bat.

SANTOSH BHATTACHARYYA

He would stand for hours outside cricketer Kartick Bose’s Amherst Street house to watch the best from Bengal — and the occasional visiting Test star like Lala Amarnath — practise on an adjoining pitch. “One day I got the chance to throw back the ball,” Santosh Bhattacharyya recounted. “My throw caught Kartick Bose’s attention and he asked one of his aides, ‘Who is this boy? Let him in’.”

Bhattacharyya, now 77, never quite made it to the charmed circle of top cricketers as a left-arm spinner and southpaw batsman. What he managed to do was translate the sum total of his experience as a player and of watching the finest play into a walking coaching manual.

For Bhattacharyya, who played club cricket for Aryan and Mohun Bagan from 1951 to 1968, still loves nothing more than teaching a young cricketer the importance of technique. “The hand and the bat should be in a straight line and the shoulders should not slouch,” said Bhattacharyya, who regards Virat Kohli as a player worthy of emulation.

It was while playing for Mohun Bagan that Bhattacharyya discovered he had a knack for coaching. Raju Mukherjee, then a star, was among those who benefited from his experience.

Bhattacharyya himself learnt about coaching from Kamal Bhattacharyya, under whom he took up an assignment with Aryan Club around 1973. One day, Chandi Ganguly took his then teenaged son Sourav to Kamal Bhattacharyya at the Dukhiram Coaching Centre, organised by Aryan Club.

“Kamalda pointed towards me and said to Sourav: ‘You are a lefthander, so go to Santosh’. I started bowling to him and out of 10 deliveries, he struck at least seven with the meat of the bat. He always had it in him to be a star,” recalled Bhattacharyya, smiling at the thought.

Bhattacharyya still travels from his Amherst Street home to the Maidan to train boys every Saturday and Sunday. Not all the boys work hard but once in a while a tenacious kid lights up the coach’s face.

“There is this 10-year-old boy who comes from Konnagar by train, takes a bus to Akashwani and walks to the Maidan. His mother escorts him with a two-and-a-half-year-old in her arms. There is no certainty that her son will become a good cricketer but I salute her spirit,” he said.

SANAT KUMAR MITRA

“Why do you want to interview me?” protested Sanat Kumar Mitra.

He is more at home throwing balls at his wards during fielding practice, which he continues to do at age 72 with the enthusiasm of someone 40 years younger. “A sportsperson’s success lies not just in playing well but also in training players to be good,” Mitra said.

He should know, having been a coach at the Dukhiram Coaching Centre for 20 years.

Mitra himself started playing cricket later than most kids do. He was 15 then but good enough to be “spotted” by the venerated Kamal Bhattacharya, who saw him playing on a Shyambazar street.

He went on to represent Sporting Union and Eastern Railway between 1956 and 1975 as a wicketkeeper and right-hand batsman.

From 1979 to 1982, Mitra was the assistant manager of the Indian Railways Ranji Trophy team, selector in 1984 and chief coach of Eastern Railway in 1991.

He still loves coaching, travelling from his home in Baishnabghata, on the southern fringes, to Dum Dum every Saturday to train young players of a little known club. “Parna Pal is one with great potential. Watch out for this player,” he predicted.

Mitra’s wards who have played for Bengal include Arindam Sarkar, Sanjay Das, Pulak Das and Abhishek Jhunjhunwala.

Do you know an unsung coach? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com