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regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

Swing and seam, Bengal dreams again with new battery of fast bowlers

A Cricket Association of Bengal initiative under the aegis of Sourav Ganguly is reaping merry harvest of pacers with the likes of Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep and of course Mohammed Shami

Sanjeeb Mukherjea Published 02.05.24, 02:21 PM
Mohammed Shami,  Akash Deep and Mukesh Kumar

Mohammed Shami, Akash Deep and Mukesh Kumar TTO graphic

An otherwise nondescript news item that recently appeared on the website of a Bengali daily created quite a flutter in the Indian cricket community. Cricket Association of Bengal's (CAB) plans to redraw the future of honing talent with a lanky Indian pacer (read OG) from yesteryears fronting the idea, got people in and around the cricket community excited. After all, Bengal, noticeably or not, has been producing very good fast bowlers for a while now, with three pacers in Indian colours at around the same time!

As Bengal’s metronome Mukesh Kumar dismantled the Gujarat Titans for Delhi Capitals the other day (April 17) in Ahmedabad, Titans fans were surely thinking of another magic Bengal bowler who had provided yeoman service for them in the past two seasons – Mohammed Shami.

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Oh Shami, perfect of seam, supple of wrists, oh boy, what a travesty of justice Titans had their pace ace cooling his heels post-surgery at home, as one of his successors from Bengal started picking his team apart.

India pacer Mohammed Shami on crutches as he is recovering after surgery to fix an injured ankle

India pacer Mohammed Shami on crutches as he is recovering after surgery to fix an injured ankle PTI

And possibly a few minutes away from the Kolkata Maidan that houses the clubs that nourished and nurtured the duo, sitting in his hotel room as part of the RCB unit, another Bengal pace weapon, Akash Deep wouldn’t have possibly realised the irony that unfolded at the game that saw the mighty Titans crumble below 100 and crash to a heavy defeat.

In 2006, Tousif Ali, owner of a spare parts store for tractors in Sahaspur, 20km further from Moradabad, took the risk of sending his 15-year old kid who only knew how to bowl fast on an unattended strip of grass bordering a brick kiln in his village, to Kolkata to pursue the game.

A year went by for the scrawny kid at the Dalhousie Athletic Club, till someone called Debabrata Das, then an office-bearer with Town Club, one of the better-known institutions for the game in the city, took note. Enamoured by what he saw, Das took a punt, giving the young boy a contract to play for his club, and then took him home, as he had nowhere to stay. A boy who he knew nothing about, except that he was a bright prospect for fast bowling.

Six years on, after some very good seasons with Bengal, a dream test debut alongside Rohit Sharma would come Shami’s way at the hallowed Eden Gardens in what was Sachin Tendulkar’s penultimate (199th) appearance in white flannels, as he repaid the faith his family, Das, and Bengal cricket had placed in him. And there has been no looking back ever since.

A year before Shami would make his India debut, another strapping lad from Gopalganj, Bihar would also end up in Kolkata in a strange quirk of fate. Clearing the written exams for the Central Reserve Police Force after preparing for 36 months, a strapping Mukesh Kumar would be rejected on fitness grounds. Taking to tennis ball cricket seemed to be the only way out for Mukesh who would soon attract attention as he played to earn his daily bread.

But a bike accident during one of his cricketing soirees and a vigilant father’s decision to call him to Kolkata would provide the twist in the tale. Running a taxi service in the city, Kashi Nath Singh swayed his son to try out club cricket in the city, thinking the hardships would finally send the young boy on the right path.

And it did, as Mukesh quickly rose through the ranks, emerging as a fine prospect from the second division league. Another opportunity came knocking soon as he got a chance at trials, part of the CAB’s much vaunted Vision 2020 programme, a brainchild of Sourav Ganguly.

"Dada" envisioned the idea of finding the best talent in Bengal and had among others, the Pakistan pace legend Waqar Younis as one of the mentors for the programme. Turning up at the trial that had more than 300 hopefuls, Mukesh failed to get Younis’ nod initially, but an earnest nod from former Bengal paceman Ranadeb Bose who was helping out with the trials helped Mukesh get in.

Such was the youngster’s talent that the CAB took Mukesh under its umbrella even after he was found to be anaemic and suffering from fluid accumulation in his knees. Soon enough, the years sped by and Mukesh, the pace spearhead of Bengal, galloped his way into the Indian team in 2023, making his debut in all three formats of the game within a fortnight in the West Indies.

Earlier this year in February, the Bengal cricket fraternity felt their hearts swell with pride as Mukesh’s partner fronting the new ball attack for the state team, Akash Deep, steamed in to take three wickets in a very enterprising spell of seam bowling on debut in the 4th Test match between India and England in Ranchi.

For Akash Deep, life just turned full circle as he had Ben Duckett caught behind for his first international wicket barely 300km away from Sasaram where he was born. Moving to Durgapur to pursue cricket, Akash Deep faced tragedy back home losing his father and brother in quick succession.

More than a couple of years were lost as the youngster tried to pick up the pieces, gradually making his way into the Bengal Under-23 team. The warmth of succour and support came from many within the Bengal cricket family as the likes of Manoj Tiwary and Ranadeb Bose backed the strongly built lad to get to the next level.

Pairing up with Mukesh, he formed one of the best pace attacks in the country along with Ishan Porel, as Bengal rediscovered its merry bunch of ‘seam-an-swing’ bowlers, a breed that had once made the state proud.

(From left) Bengal pacers Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel and Akash Deep celebrate Bengal’s win at the Eden

(From left) Bengal pacers Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel and Akash Deep celebrate Bengal’s win at the Eden File/ Santosh Ghosh

And they haven’t been the only ones. Bengal cricket has had countless tales of very immensely talented bowlers who made a name for themselves in the day. And as it is with a country where myriads play the sport, the state has had its share of compelling chronicles of ones who nearly made it to the Indian team, and ones who made the bus, but faded out soon enough.

The nearly forgotten medium-pace of Tom Longfield who led Bengal to its first Ranji Trophy title in 1938. The lively Shute Banerjee with his terrific inswinger, snaring four wickets in his debut test match at the age of 37 against the West Indies after which India didn’t play a single test for three years, thus consigning him to the pages of history. Mantu Banerjee, Premangshu Chatterjee, Samir Chakrabarti, Subroto Porel, Barun Burman, Ranadeb Bose, Ashok Dinda, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Bengal has had its tryst with Indian cricket, with men competent enough to hold their place in the national squad, but never having the happy stories to tell their grandkids.

None more than the genius of Subrata Guha though. Still considered to be the best seam bowler Bengal has ever produced, Guha, his first class bowling average of 20 and a bucketful of wickets against quality opposition notwithstanding, didn’t end up playing more than four Tests for India. Old timers still raise a din over how the venerable Vijay Merchant, then chief selector, had in 1969, held sway over the in-form Guha, impressing upon him the need to play a spinner in his stead in the Mumbai (then Bombay) test against Bill Lawry’s Australians at the Brabourne Stadium!

And like with many other states, Bengal cricket too has perhaps suffered the misfortune of seeing its best pacemen fade away without getting proper opportunities to perform in national colours. The times though have changed as Shami, Mukesh and Akash Deep, with their exploits convey.

An Indian pace attack without Shami is unthinkable in the present day even as he recovers at home post-surgery. The ongoing batter friendly TATA IPL has Mukesh Kumar in the top 5 wicket-takers' list, even as Akash Deep purses his lips, awaiting proper game time with the RCB franchise. And soon enough, we could be seeing all three play together as part of an Indian pace quartet in test cricket too.

For a state that produced one of India’s greatest captains who still remains its most iconic figures, it is time now for Bengal to unleash its fast men, who run in with wind in their hair, hurtling down those unplayable deliveries that once made great cricketing nations masters of the game.

Sanjeeb Mukherjea is a sports television personality. An award-winning anchor-journalist, Mukherjea now doubles up as host and commentator for major sports broadcasting networks in India. He’s part of the IPL 2024 commentary team.

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