Ask any kid in Sasaram about Sher Shah Suri’s tomb and there will be one generic answer: “Humare yahaan ke raja ne Mughalon ko haraya tha aur duniya ki sabse badi sadak banayi thi (Our king had defeated the Mughals and built the longest road in the world). “
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Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan warlord from Sasaram, defeated Mughal emperor Humayun at the Battle of Chausa in 1539. It was during his reign that the famous Grand Trunk Road, also known as Sher Shah Suri Road, was built.
Cut to the present, the hospital nearest to Sasaram is in state capital Patna, 150 km away. And because of this distance, Bengal pacer Akash Deep, who hails from Dehri village in Sasaram, first lost his father di lui in 2015 and, six months later, his elder brother di lui. Both of them failed to reach the hospital in time when they needed urgent medical attention. Years later, during the vicious second Covid wave, while he was in the Indian Premier League bubble, he lost his aunt and sister-in-law while almost losing his mother.
“My father suffered a paralysis attack in 2010, was bedridden for five years, and passed away in 2015; six months later, my elder brother too passed away. In my native place, there is a dearth of medical facilities, I lost both of them due to medical negligence, “Akash Deep tells The Indian Express from Alur, ahead of Bengal’s Ranji Trophy semifinal against Madhya Pradesh.
Over the last seven years, Akash Deep has gone through a lot. Trials, tribulations, fame, accolades. “Apne gaon ki sadak jaisi journey rahi hai bilkul, ubad khabad (My journey has been like the road in my village, topsy-turvy), ”he says.
‘Playing cricket a crime’
As a school teacher’s son, cricket was never an option for Akash Deep. “Cricket khelna toh crime hai humare yahaan (Playing cricket in our part of the country is a crime). Even if you manage to sneak out and play, there are no facilities. Till 18, I had only played with a tennis ball, ”the pacer recollects.
“My father was a teacher, and when he came to know that I play cricket, he passed his verdict saying that I won’t be able to do anything in my career. He was not entirely wrong, actually. There was no cricket in Bihar, and those who had tried their hand at cricket were left unemployed. “
Akash Deep’s first tryst with Kolkata maidan cricket took place in 2012. He was in the city to get his father some medical attention and managed to play a few games. Back then, he used to be a batsman, not a fast bowler and the experience, by his own admission, was terrible.
“In Bihar, I was a proper batsman. I picked up bowling very late. When you face the red ball for the first time and that too without any practice, you will get exposed. So, I started bowling, and by 2015 I became a decent bowler. I had natural pace and used to get more bounce because of my height. I got selected for United Club in Bengal as a pure fast bowler, ”says the 25-year-old.
The move to Bengal
In 2016, Akash Deep shifted to Delhi, where his elder sister lived. He stayed there for a couple of months before a friend asked him to come to Kolkata and play club cricket.
“Once my father passed away, the financial condition of my family was very bad. When I moved to Kolkata, I started playing local cricket, and was paid for it, which was quite new for me. Whatever money I used to earn, I tried to save as much as I could for my mother. But it used to be a nominal amount, ”he says.
From living with four roommates in a 12’x12 ‘room in Kolkata for four years to being able to play for the state, Akash Deep’s story is an example of human will overcoming obstacles.
“Kolkata is my home now. I have played for two clubs (United Club and Mohun Bagan), and never felt like an outsider. People love me and respect me a lot, and that is why I am able to perform well, ”says Aakash Deep, who had a breakthrough Ranji season in 2019-20 claiming 35 wickets in nine games.
Arun Lal’s backing
Bengal head coach Arun Lal rates his bowler highly. “He has the potential to be a Rs 10 crore cricketer in the IPL. He can be a great prospect as an all-rounder in T20s, because of his six-hitting prowess di lui. He just has to work on his self-belief about him, ”says Lal.
In the recent Ranji quarter-final against Jharkhand, the Bengal team became the first team of which the top nine batsmen scored at least 50 runs in a first-class innings. Akash Deep smoked 53 not out off just 18 balls, including five sixes.
“Arun Lal is like a father to me. He has played a big role in my development as a cricketer and a person. If not for him, I won’t have realized my potential also. And not only in cricket, he is my life coach too. No one has motivated me to do well more than Arun sir, ”he says.
Losing family members to Covid
After joining Royal Challengers Bangalore as a net bowler for IPL 2021, things didn’t go smoothly for Akash Deep. He had to leave mid-season as most of his family di lui was down with Covid.
“We were at practice at (Mumbai’s) Bandra-Kurla Complex when I got a call from home that my aunt was in quite a serious condition, as were my sister-in-law and mother. I returned to the hotel, hoping that the situation would improve. But after five days, my elder aunt passed away, and then my sister-in-law died too. My mother was in quite a critical condition too. I felt that I had to go back because family is very important, ”he feels.
“After going home, I took care of my mother’s medicines, getting her injections. The hospital in Sasaram did not have anything – there were no doctors, no medicines. I arranged oxygen cylinders and injections myself. Thankfully, my mother recovered, ”says Akash Deep, who was later drafted into the RCB squad for the second half of the 2021 season in place of the injured Washington Sundar.
Before joining RCB, he had a long conversation with Bengal veteran Manoj Tiwary, who told him to impress Virat Kohli in the nets.
“Manoj bhaiyya said, ‘Virat is India’s captain, and if you manage to impress him, you will get to play in the IPL next season, and might play for India as well because you have all the ingredients to become a good fast bowler. ‘ That was my goal, and I managed to do well in the practice matches and was later picked in the auction, ”says Aakash Deep.
Before receiving his IPL cap from Kohli, Akash Deep’s best cricketing memory was watching MS Dhoni hitting the winning six in the 2011 World Cup final. He says, “That World Cup moment stirred interest in me.”
“As a kid, when we used to watch the likes of Kohli and Dhoni on TV, I used to think whether I would ever get a chance to meet them in my life. In my mind, they were like superheroes. And from the place I come from, in my wildest imagination, I never thought that someday, I would end up sharing the dressing room with Kohli. Sat sapna hai (Everything is a dream), ”says Akash Deep.
What surprised him the most was that when Kohli gave him his IPL cap, he shared his journey with other teammates in the team meeting.
“I was shocked that he knows where I am from, my journey, struggle and everything. While giving me the cap, he said, ‘You deserve to be here. Just keep doing what you have done in the past. Just enjoy yourself, stick to your process. ‘ It was a very emotional moment, ”says Akash Deep.
Valuable tips from Hazlewood
Akash Deep was on cloud nine when RCB bought Josh Hazlewood in the IPL auction. The Australian quick is his hero di lui and someone who he has looked up to for a long time.
“Entire IPL 2022 was a learning experience for me, and the moment we were out of the bubble, I followed Josh everywhere. I spent most of my time with him. It was surreal because I used to watch his bowling di lui on YouTube and now I was bowling in tandem with him. “
“Most of the discussions used to be about fast bowling. The off-stump line, his mental strength of him, how he sets up batsmen, his game preparation, workload management, how to deal with injuries, ”says Akash Deep.
“Josh told me that the Test cricket length will always be more effective. That off-stump line has given him so many wickets in all formats. My biggest takeaway was the way he stuck to his strength di lui and waited for the batsmen to commit mistakes. Kabhi kabhi aisa lagta tha jaise wo chess khel raha hai batsman ke saath (Sometimes, it seemed like he was playing chess with batsmen), ”he says.
Giving it back
Akash Deep has started a cricket academy in his village – a dream he always had at the back of his mind.
“There are 200 kids in my academy. The most satisfying aspect is that girls are also taking up the sport, ”he says.
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“In our village, a boy playing cricket was not a good thing, forget about girls. I consider this as one of my achievements. I am able to change the thought process of people back home. Hopefully, a few of them will even go on to play at the professional level, ”Akash Deep signs off.