A few weeks into my career, I was looking forward to reporting a Ranji Trophy semifinal when, out of the blue, I was asked to go to Kolkata to report the inaugural Jawaharlal Nehru international football tournament. I hadn’t even reported Bengaluru’s local league at that stage, but I carried with me the confidence of youth. I quickly realised I needed more than that. I was new to the city, new to the sport and new to the profession.
P. K. Banerjee — Pradip da to me and legions of his friends — hand-held me through my first major assignment. He was the national coach, a passionate, articulate, energetic man at the height of his coaching career. He was my coach too.
He introduced me to players, to international coaches and officials. I was let into his charmed circle. It was a privilege. He let me travel in the team bus. It was an amazing show of generosity and kindness towards a youngster he was meeting for the first time.
We met often after that. During national camps, at other tournaments, on his visits to Bengaluru, and later when I travelled to Kolkata to report cricket. I once wrote a piece criticising him, especially his remark that Indian players didn’t know how to trap the ball. This was a strange thing for a coach to say. Someone sent Pradip da a clipping.
It didn’t make the slightest difference to our relationship. He never mentioned it, conscious that he had his job to do and I had mine.
Over the years as cricketers showed their displeasure in various ways after I had criticised them in print, I always remembered Pradip da ’s reaction, or lack of it. There was dignity about the man, and an understanding of the rules of the game. I can’t think of anyone in sport who took criticism with such equanimity, and I include all the great Indian sportsmen of the last three or four decades.
I never saw Pradip da play, but it must have been a treat. Old-timers spoke of his powerful right foot and an equally powerful left in an age when Indian players tended to favour one over the other. He played for the unfashionable Eastern Railway and led them to the league title in Kolkata. He was an Olympian twice over and an Asian Games gold medallist. It was no coincidence that his playing days saw the golden age of Indian football.
He loved to talk. And he could swing from the depths of knowledge to the edges of gossip without any effort. He knew everything and everybody in football, and had the magnanimity to share easily what he had worked hard at acquiring. In his passing, I have lost a friend and an early mentor — for not only was Pradip da India’s ‘Mr. Football’ for decades as player and coach, he was also someone who lived a seamless life between the sport and his life. Life lessons bled into football and vice versa. Go well, Pradip da …