He could advise a national-level swimmer on the underwater dolphin kick. He could talk cricket with Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly.
My first meeting as a reporter with PK Banerjee was more than 22 years ago. He was the Mohun Bagan coach who readily agreed to an interview request from a cub reporter. We sat across the table at the Bagan tent and my approach was obviously reverential.
Within 10 minutes we started to develop a bond, notwithstanding the age gap and Pradip da’s status as a legend. He was recounting his encounter with a tiger; many, many moons ago at Mainaguri in north Bengal and how his presence of mind had helped him avert the danger. It is an offence for a reporter to become a fan-boy. In Pradip da’s case, I was happy to transgress.
Until the turn of the century, dressing rooms weren’t off limits to reporters. Pradip da was Mohammedan Sporting’s technical director that season and had been having a one-on-one session with his centre-half Madhav Das ahead of a Federation Cup match against Bagan. Sporting’s success depended on neutralising Jose Barreto and Das was to man-mark him. Pradip da recited a Kazi Nazrul Islam poem to Das and asked him if he understood the meaning. When the defender said ‘no’, Pradip da retorted: “It’s simple; if Barreto gets past you, you will get a kick up the backside.”
A few months later, Pradip da was the pundit at a programme at a city hotel, arranged on behalf of the Premier League’s official broadcaster. Pradip da would analyse the game between Manchester United and Leeds United during half-time and after the final whistle. The match was beamed live on a big screen. It was the season when David Beckham had made an acrimonious departure from Old Trafford, while Sir Alex Ferguson replaced him with a Cameroonian midfielder, Eric Djemba-Djemba.
During the break, Pradip da’s opening gambit had an extra stress on the double Ds in Djemba-Djemba. Sitting next to him, I whispered, ‘Pradip da, you have to drop the double Ds, as the pronunciation is actually Jemba-Jemba’. His greatness allowed us, the hacks, that extra leeway.
Pradip da turned to me with mock anger and murmured: “H… ja bolchi chup kore sono (you naughty boy, listen to what I’m saying).” Then he told his audience, “Aapnara kichu mone korben na. Amake sneho kore toh, tai pechone lagche (please don’t mind. He loves me and that’s why he is pulling my leg).”
He went on to analyse the game; how United had been missing Beckham and that Djemba-Djemba wasn’t a Ferguson player. The midfielder was very early into his United career, but Pradip da didn’t back him to be a success. Djemba-Djemba only made 20 appearances for the world’s most famous football club.
The PK-Amal Dutta coaching rivalry was a part of Kolkata football folklore. The tipping point was the 1997 Federation Cup semifinal, where apart from talking up his diamond formation, Dutta, then Mohun Bagan coach, had thrown barbs at Bhaichung Bhutia, calling him ‘chung chung’ and derided East Bengal centre-half Sammy Omello as ‘omelette’. PK, as he later revealed, took a leaf out of Sir Matt Busby’s book to stoke the fire. He threw the morning newspapers in front of Bhutia. The latter’s response was a hat-trick in a 4-1 rout of Bagan in front of 131,000 fans at Salt Lake Stadium. Pradip da’s team gave a masterclass in counter-attacking football. “Played one of my biggest matches under PK Banerjee,” Bhutia said after Pradip da’s passing.
As a footballer and a coach, his successes have been well-documented. The Fifa Order of Merit was the ultimate recognition. Along with Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram, he had formed the Indian football’s holy trinity. They were the Indian team’s bedrock in the late 1950s and early 1960s — a period that saw a fourth-place finish at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, world-class performances against Hungary and France at the 1960 Rome Olympics and a football gold at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta.
Pradip da once told us that the Indian government was reluctant to send the football team to the Jakarta Asian Games because of forex shortage. Only after former West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee president Atulya Ghosh had convinced then finance minister Morarji Desai about the team’s success, the go-ahead was given. The football team’s reward was a tea party at the Congress office in Calcutta upon their return.
Pradip da, though, was a lot more than his football and coaching exploits. He could discuss the finer points of gymnastics with Nadia Comaneci. He could advise a national-level swimmer on the underwater dolphin kick. He could talk cricket with Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. He could discuss tennis with Leander Paes. Both Ganguly and Paes did fitness training under him when they were young. From William Shakespeare to Satyajit Ray and a session on method acting with his friend Soumitra Chatterjee, a Legion d’Honneur recipient and a Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner, Pradip da always had his audience totally in thrall. Pradip Kumar Banerjee was one of a kind.