The Ultra Plus Devang Gandhi Cricket Coaching Camp at Northern Park in the southern fringes of Kolkata is renowned for being the first floodlit cricket coaching camp in eastern India. It was around five in the evening when I reached the ground a few days ago and saw heaps of people over there, busy sweating it out on a typically humid Kolkata evening. The floodlights are not exclusively confined to the students of the cricket coaching camp (the academy is the brainchild of former Indian cricketer Devang Gandhi) but are also extended to the local inhabitants. Most of the youngsters present at the ground were playing cricket and the sheer exhilaration of the game between India and Pakistan which took place in the city the previous day had naturally sneaked into the discussions of the older people who were sitting on the edges of the park benches.
As I moved closer to Gandhi’s coaching tent, I finally found former Indian wicket-keeper and Bengal Captain Deep Dasgupta who looked quite relaxed and extended his warm greetings to this correspondent before advancing to have a conversation with www.cricfit.com. Unperturbed by the muggy weather, the 38 year old cricketer turned commentator spoke on a wide variety of subjects involving his international career, several gossip stories of the Indian dressing room of the early 2000s, the happenings of contemporary cricket and of course the marque clash between India and Pakistan at Eden. Dasgupta had featured in 8 Tests from 2001-02 in which he amassed 344 runs at an average of 28.66 with a century and two half centuries to his credit. Although his international career was cut short owing to a poor run of form, he impressed many in the short time he represented India in the international arena. Dasgupta, now an active commentator and media personality visited Kolkata last week in order to fulfil his commentary obligations for the on-going ICC World T20. As the conversation was about to set off, a man came in with two cups of tea and imparted a rather formal essence to the discussion. After all, why should only coffee be associated with interviews all the time?
Q: You were part of an iconic spectacle at the Eden Gardens last Saturday. To be up there in the commentary box, share it with stalwarts like Sunil Gavaskar and listen to Amitabh Bachchan singing India’s national anthem are things that don’t happen every day. To top it all, the match between India-Pakistan turned out to be a stirring contest. How was the overall experience?
Dasgupta: Let’s just start with the commentator’s part. It seemed like a dream come true for me. I love commentating. For me, it is the best job in the world. To be able to sit there in the commentary box, discuss various facets of the game; express my opinions about the game alongside legends like Sunil Gavaskar, Wasim Akram and Virender Sehwag is in itself an incredible feeling. And, then you had such a nerve wracking game at a full house Eden Gardens. What else could you ask for? At times I feel so blessed to think about it and my commentary stint has been a wonderful experience so far.
Q: OK. So let’s turn back the clock and talk about your boyhood days. You spent the initial years of your childhood in Delhi before shifting to Kolkata. What kind of adjustments did you have to make at that time? It doesn’t have to be necessarily from the cricketing perspective.
Dasgupta: I did make a few adjustments after coming to Kolkata. Obviously, shifting to Kolkata was never a plan and it was more accidental. That said, staying here and playing Under-19 cricket for Bengal and then continuing my studies in Delhi was not that easy. It was not just at school but I had to continue my higher studies in Delhi as well. So, that was a tough phase. The credit goes to my family who stood by me and told me to go ahead and pursue my ambitions and also to my teachers at school. They were very lenient. I remember I hardly went to school in Std. XI and XII owing to my cricketing commitments. Whenever I went to Delhi and attended my classes, they helped me out with study materials. All my teachers at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya were absolutely brilliant and never ever did they question me for my absence from school. In fact, they even asked me if I would opt for Humanities instead of Commerce because in that way I could concentrate more on cricket. The bottom-line is I got plenty of support from these people.
Q: What kind of a person were you like in your childhood?
Dasgupta: I have always been a very sporting person. I played various kinds of sports like Basketball and Table Tennis at school. So, it was never solely cricket. I started playing cricket seriously only after the age of 14. To be honest, my childhood was regimented. I woke up at 7 am, went to school and attended my classes till 1:20 pm and from there I used to go for my cricket practice which generally began at 3 pm. After my practice got over around 5:30 pm, my dad would pick me up from there and drive me home. And after returning home, I would become busy with my homework. Then on weekends, there were matches. So, there wouldn’t be any time left to hang out with my friends which I actually don’t regret because all my efforts were for a good cause.
Q: Having female coaches in male dominated sports is a sporadic example. Although tennis is a unisex sport, one such instance became evident when Andy Murray appointed Amelie Mauresmo as his coach last year. You were also supervised by a female coach in Sunita Sharma. Kindly talk us through your experience of training under her supervision.
Dasgupta: It was a brilliant experience you know. I learnt all my basics from her. Till the age of 18, she looked after all aspects of my game. She was my second mom you can say. From school, I used to go straight for my practice and she would make sure that I had my lunch and was ready for practice. Whenever I made any mistake, she would yell at me and sometimes she even seemed harsher than my mom (Grins). I am blessed to have such a strong woman in my life. She was a vital force in shaping my career.
Q: I remember you had written a column in ABP on the occasion of Dravid’s retirement from international cricket in 2012, where you said that once while India was playing an away series against West Indies, Brian Lara came up to Dravid who was standing in the slips and exchanged a few words with the latter. You were the wicket-keeper in that game. May we know what had actually transpired between those two?
Dasgupta: See, there are some players in international cricket who absolutely love to talk. Perhaps the biggest example in contemporary cricket is Virat (Kohli). We have heard of several such anecdotes involving Javed Miandad from the past. He actually enjoyed when people walked up to him and sledged him even while he was batting. Brian was something like that. He loved chirping around and in that way he made the game more challenging and interesting. We knew about it. So, he was batting in that innings and I was keeping wickets whereas Rahul was standing in the first slip. Every time he faced a ball, he would turn back in order to speak to us, and both of us would turn around and try not to look at him. He said a lot of things. The fact of the matter is he wanted to talk to us; something which always kept him going. It’s a part of gamesmanship. Either you talk or you don’t talk depending on what the opposition wants.
Q: In that case, what do you do as a player when a rival from the opposition camp indulges in sledging?
Dasgupta: I have always liked it to be pretty honest. The fact that an opponent is talking to you indicates that he considers your wicket to be an important wicket. Else, he wouldn’t waste his time talking on a broken line. That’s my outlook.
Q: Let’s talk about the Bloemfontein Test of 2001 where you made your debut for India. What were Deep Dasgupta’s feelings when he received his Test cap?
Dassgupta: It happened so fast that I was able to realise that I had made the cut for the Test team only a couple of days after I had received my Test cap. I was not supposed to play that Test match as Sameer Dighe was the first choice keeper prior to the commencement of the game. Then, he had a back spasm on the morning of the Test and as Sourav (Ganguly) was going for the toss, he tapped on my shoulder and informed me that I was playing. If you are not playing, normally what happens is you are helping others prepare for the game and get ready. I exactly don’t remember whom I was giving catching practice to but I was helping out somebody. On the way out, Sourav patted on my back and said, ‘’Deep, you are playing’’. So, I quickly put on my keeping gloves and started preparing myself for the game. We were batting first in that match and we were in a crisis situation after our three wickets fell early. Before I could realize that I had my pads on, Sachin and Sehwag stitched a fabulous partnership between them. As I mentioned earlier, it took me a couple of days to actually believe that I had become a Test player.
Q: Since you have shared the dressing room with some of the greatest players to have ever played for India, how did those individuals motivate you when you were inducted into the side as a youngster?
Dasgupta: It was an astounding experience! See when I was young, we didn’t get to play alongside them or against them in the domestic circuit that much as they neither had the time nor the energy to play domestic cricket in between the series breaks. So, what it did was it widened the gap between the domestic dressing room and the international dressing room. Obviously things have changed since the advent of the IPL as nowadays youngsters are able to share the dressing rooms with their idols even if they haven’t played the Ranji Trophy. When I first walked into the Indian dressing room, I felt as if I had entered a constellation with people like Rahul, Sachin, Anil and Laxman around. It was initially a bit nerve wracking but it was really nice of them to embrace me with open arms. The day we landed in South Africa, it was either Srinath or Anil who asked me out to dinner. In a way, I was lucky that my first series was an overseas one because in that way I got to spend a lot of time with them.
Q: Any interesting anecdote that you would like to share with us pertaining to that tour?
Dasgupta: I remember the Mike Denness episode which actually served as an eye opener for youngsters like me and Sehwag as to what is soaking pressure. There were allegations about some of our players from Denness’ end and right throughout the tour the seniors ensured that youngsters like me and Viru (Sehwag) were insulated from the issue. Denness had called us for an excessive appealing issue and Sourav had asked us not to bother our heads for such unnecessary glitches. The manner in which the seniors dealt with the proceedings was absolutely commendable.
Q: So, the Bloemfontein Test was that match where a butterfly named Virender Sehwag broke out of his cocoon and set the stage on fire with a dazzling century on debut. You were at the other end. How was it observing all the action from the other end?
Dasgupta: Batting with Virender Sehwag was like a walk in the park. He kept things humorous, kept them very simple and in turn kept his partner at ease as well. When you have a partner like Sehwag at the crease, he makes life look so simple for people like me. He would sing songs and laugh his way through. It was while commentating during the India-Pakistan game that I reminded him of an instance from that South African tour of 2001. Perhaps the bowler was Ntini who bowled a bouncer which I subsequently ducked. My bat was in the air when I ducked and the ball hit the back of my bat and went for a boundary. Then at the end of the over I walked down the pitch and expressed my regret for having attempted that duck which could have resulted in my dismissal to which Viru simply shrugged his shoulders and commented, ‘’How does it matter? You have still got 4 runs’’! That comment typified Viru’s approach towards the game.
Q: You are one of those distinct persons who have seen Sehwag evolve both as a cricketer and as a commentator.
Dasgupta: Yeah (Laughs). Again, in commentary as well he brings in a certain kind of freshness, sense of humour and vitality. He is a happy-go-lucky kind of character.
Q: The match saving fifty that you scored in Port Elizabeth in the second Test of the 2001 South African tour is still fresh in Indian fans’ minds. Talk us through the experience of getting to your maiden Test fifty.
Dasgupta: I scored the fifty in the second innings of that game and even in the first innings I had scored 30 odd runs (For the sake of statistics, he scored 29 in the first innings). I knew I could notch up a good score in that game. Interestingly, it was the first instance in the history of Test cricket when the floodlights could be turned on due to insufficient light. I had butterflies in my stomach as it was my debut series. I kept my task simple actually. I had set various checkpoints regarding how I would pace my innings. That really helped me as I was able to negotiate their fast bowlers. I relished batting against quick bowlers because I was never a big hitter of the ball, so I preferred using their pace more than hitting the balls by myself.
Q: You might have played just 8 Test matches, yet you have 2 Test fifties and a century to your credit. Despite hitting a ton at Mohali, you were dropped from the side soon after. Don’t you think you could have been given a longer rope?
Dasgupta: Listen, I don’t think about it. I look at it from a different angle. When I started playing cricket if somebody would have prophesised that I would go on to play 8 Test matches, I would have taken it. At times, I do feel that I could have done better because after playing the initial few international games I recognized that I was way better than what I had been exhibiting at the international level hitherto. But, then it was a big learning curve for me. I always attempted to rectify my mistakes and whenever I see a youngster going wrong somewhere, I try to share my experience with him.
The second part of the conversation will be coming up shortly. Stay tuned..