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Cricket news - The shy boy from Sathkira
Akhinur Zaman faced a unique problem as a coach in 2006. Working at the Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan (BKSP), the country's largest sports academy, the student he greatly admired in his latest batch didn't want to stay.
Soumya Sarkar instead wanted to become a teacher, just like his father who teaches Bengali in a government school. Born in the small district of Sathkira, Soumya was the youngest of three brothers and grew up in a close-knit family. And for someone who still dials up his mum before every cricket match, the temptation to never leave his hometown must have been compelling.
He wound up with cricket though, largely on the insistence of Pushpen Sarkar, his eldest brother, but the hardships of staying 500 kilometres away from his home made little sense to him at the time. He was only 13 years old.
"Homesickness was the only reason I wasn't too keen on cricket in the beginning. When I was admitted to BKSP, the feeling of staying away from my family made me uneasy," Soumya said. "I always try and stay close to them because they inspire me a lot. They say all the positive things."
Which is why Soumya was persistent on leaving BKSP - to the extent that his father wanted him back in Sathkira too. But Zaman wasn't going to give up on the fight so easily. Here was a potential international cricketer, absolutely bubbling with talent. And who, although very shy, was anything but that with the workload he had to endure.
Soumya was a very different student, Zaman repeatedly stressed, who didn't know mischief, who stayed sober and who never bought into the revelry of hostel life.
"I still have that document where we predicted about where these guys will end up in the future. We believed Soumya would play for the Bangladesh A team while still studying here at BKSP, and that speaks volumes of his ability," Zaman said. "From the very beginning, I had a great liking for this kid. He was immensely talented and a very shy person. He remains that even today."
But the reticence, as endearing as it seemed then, was proving to be a bit of a roadblock. Zaman couldn't bully Soumya into continuing with cricket at BKSP, so he had to come up with something that was as arm-twisting as it was subtle.
"I just used to stop him from practising when he wanted to go home," Zaman said. "I told him he couldn't because he wasn't mentally prepared to take part in the practice. Even his father had started calling to tell that his son didn't want to stay. I had to manage both the parties in this regard.
"In those situations, I used to call his big brother [Pushpen], who would convince both Soumya and his father. Once Soumya understood why I was insistent, he would return to the training with more focus."
Taking cricket practice away did the trick for Soumya, who had switched to batting left-handed only because he adored Sourav Ganguly, Brian Lara and Yuvraj Singh. And cricket, away from home, was the only option on the table.
Zaman's painstaking efforts towards Soumya went a long way in fostering trust between the two. That is why he still approaches "Bishu Sir", who reminds him of his good old days at BKSP.
"As you coach, you like to work with guys who have complete trust in you and my relationship with Soumya developed due to this fact. I can tell about his mental state by just observing him. We are that close. My job now is to make his life less complicated, help him find confidence again," Zaman said.
Tempered by his training days at BKSP, it was a blockbuster start for Soumya in international cricket. He was picked for the 2015 World Cup as a 21-year-old, with just the one ODI behind him. During the tournament, he'd graduate from a back-up opener to being Bangladesh's regular No. 3. He even made a half-century against New Zealand but it was his 40-odd against England that vibed with him.
"That innings of 40 made me feel more confident. There were so many things going around in my head during that innings because of their strength as a cricketing nation," Soumya said. "Playing in front of a large crowd and playing under pressure was a big deal for me back then. This time, it will be different but I will try to go back to those feelings. They inspire me."
An unreal stretch of run-making against Pakistan, India and South Africa followed. Soumya didn't feel the heat of fame, except being recognised in the middle of a crowd, which was kind of alright for him. He tallied 497 runs in nine matches against more fancied opponents, spurring Bangladesh into one upset after another on home soil. But just as his team set sights on larger goals, Soumya failed to match up. In fact, his place in the ODI side has seldom been a certainty since 2016.
"Nothing was going right at the time," Soumya said of his post-2015 lull in cricket. "At that point, I decided that it's useless to seek advice from others. I only wanted to stay alone or with my close ones. They helped me feel confident, and didn't find faults with every move I made. 'Bishu Sir' advised me to discover my own way to get over that low and stand on my own."
Zaman couldn't afford to be the hard taskmaster that he once could be. He had to be a guardian and a friend to Soumya, especially when "everyone else was trying to teach him how to bat."
Zaman did advise him against playing flick shots but there was a difference in how he made his point. "I was careful that I didn't make him feel he cannot ever play the flick shot again. You can't take them away from the strengths. Instead, I told him how the shot was not worth trying in that moment, and assured him that we will work out a way so that he can master the stroke again."
And in the middle of this recession of confidence and cricket, the final of Nidahas Trophy happened. Soumya wouldn't just concede a last-ball six to Dinesh Karthik - losing Bangladesh the title and sinking to the ground in despair - but also found himself dropped from the side after the Asia Cup later that year. But Soumya, who will be expected to bowl a few overs in a World Cup fetishising all-rounders, felt that that final, though a bit of a "trauma", would hold him in good stead.
"I have been given the ball on quite a few occasions in the past, and as a result, I have developed the nerve to handle pressure. I am looking forward to take up the challenge. It will be important to complete my spells in England. The opposition batsmen will approach me a certain way, because of the pace I bowl, but I have worked on my cutters as well as on the mindset of not trying too many different things."
Worried about his chances at the upcoming World Cup after his ouster, Soumya took up meditation. He even worked doubly hard on his fitness. But he was still getting out early, still without runs that would win him a World Cup berth. The fact that he only had two ODI hundreds since his debut in December 2014 was starting to pinch hard. That's when he came across Wasim Jaffer, his coach at Abahani Limited in the Dhaka Premier League. After yet another indifferent start to the tournament, he finally made a hundred. And then a double hundred. Soumya was suddenly the only Bangladesh batsman with a List A double hundred.
"I liked how Wasim Jaffer didn't advise me about what he would have done," Soumya explained, "but instead focused on how I can improve my cricket my way. Like when I reached my hundred in the 24th over, I slowed down a bit to calculate my innings and Jaffer certainly had a part to play in me doing that. I cannot bat in the same flow all the time, he had told me. And that there is no point batting aggressively when things can be achieved by batting sensibly.
"Starting the tournament, I had a lot of doubts. 'Why am I getting out? What am I doing wrong? Did I get out while playing big shots or defending?' I started calculating everything. It was an important process, as I was making peace with getting out to good deliveries. Sometimes, there's not much you can do."
Soumya's other coach, Akhinur Zaman, predicts great things for the 26-year-old, just like he had in 2006. Knowing Soumya better than most coaches, he's aware of his tendency to run amok with a flurry of good scores. "I feel he has the potential to be one of the top five run-scorers in this World Cup. His strength is his positive frame of mind, the seniors should back him to bat up," he said.
Zaman believes Soumya can tear through any bowling attack on his day but there's a caveat, something bigger, more personal at play. "Confidence is the only thing he lacks at times."
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