a year ago

Story of world debating champions

Sourodip Paul (left) and Sajid Asbat Khandaker (right)
Sourodip Paul (left) and Sajid Asbat Khandaker (right)

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In the World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) 2022, the bright minds of Bangladesh, Sajid Asbat Khandaker and Sourodip Paul, represented BRAC A team and brought the championship trophy home. These two well-known debaters in the circuit had already won titles in debating competitions, such as Cambridge IV, Australs, ABP (Asian British Parliamentary), and more prestigious international debate competitions, some jointly and the rest separately. In his early days, Sajid also represented Team Bangladesh at the World Schools Debating Championship.
After BRAC A team stormed into the global debating aristocracy followed by an ESL (English as Second Language) championship in WUDC 2013, Bangladesh debating community was awaiting the cherry on top -- the open championship. Coincidentally, it was again BRAC A who did the honours.
Sajid Asbat Khandaker and Sourodip Paul, the recently crowned world champions in debating, sat with the writer last week and shared their journey, insights into debating, and advice for the next generation.
Reuniting at BRAC University: Running for the WUDC spurred Sajid and Sourodip to pursue a master's degree in Economics at BRAC University. "It was quantitative and would supplement Sourodip's theoretical economics backing from Australian National University. It would teach me skills like forecasting and regression that would be helpful for the line of work I'm in as well,'' Sajid added.
Sourodip points out that the competitive nature of the Applied Economics master's programme at BRAC nudged them to enrol there.
BRAC or IBA-DU: Ever since the news of Bangladesh winning the world cup debate swept the internet, there has been an apparent controversy among people regarding which institution should be given credit. Some saw it as a victory for BRAC University, while others attributed it to IBA-DU. Both the champion debaters gave full credit to both the universities as IBA- DU was their home for the longest time and BRAC honoured them afterwards. "It's not just about BRAC or IBA. It's a win for the country. There were efforts of countless individuals, both locally and internationally. Harish Natarajan, one of the best debaters in the world, takes time out of his busy schedule to help us improve,'' Sajid informed. Sourodip named a few individuals, "Ratib Bhai (Ratib Ali), for example, had a huge role in shaping what we thought was good debating in our early days. Saad Bhai, Wasifa Apu, and Taosif Bhai had a huge role in shaping our career. Even our friends like Adi, Miraz, and Nawed contributed and pushed us to be the best version of ourselves.''
The secret recipe of the unrivalled team chemistry: They have been an iconic duo in the Bangladesh debating fraternity, debating together for about five years. Sourodip confirmed at this point, "Sajid is great at construction, matter dumping, and structure. I'm very good at illustration, framing, and making sure to outweigh others' cases. Also, we have never panicked and never blamed each other. We win as a team, we lose as a team. That's have been our motto.''
"We didn't let ego get in the way. As it is in Bangladesh, there were spicy sensational questions like who is the better between Sajid and Sourodip, whose speaker points were higher. Both of us were very clear from the get-go about prioritising team success over anything,'' Sajid echoed.
To the future flag-bearers: Numerous high school debaters either minimise or quit debating altogether, followed by the agony of getting rejected from Team Bangladesh national campaigns or not even reaching there. Sajid and Sourodip have set a blazing example for them. Sajid was denied entrance to Team Bangladesh two years in a row and Sourodip was not even in the top 10 in the national camp. "I got nine points in ABP in six rounds, to put things into perspective. If you tell a random debater in Asia that someone who got nine points in ABP will one day win Worlds, they will laugh at you. I also happen to hold the most points in six rounds in ABP, we did it together. I've seen both sides of the coin,'' said Sourodip.
The road was not smooth for someone like Sourodip either who contemplated giving up on certain occasions, including the time when he and Sajid stood as the second last team in a local tournament -- BRAC Masters. Yet, he stuck around because of his genuine love for the activity and the people involved.
"The most fun moment for me in WUDC was when I got to debate whether or not dollar should be a global currency and I could present my thoughts in a crystal clear way. If you tell me you'll need to go to a Worlds final to do this, I want to go to a Worlds final to be able to talk about this. I'm an econ and IR nerd, I like talking about these issues. Sajid loves talking about principle-heavy topics."
"Even if we got knocked out at quarters, we'd say we had a fun ride. If you find debating goes with your interests, then by all means you should stick to it. Success and failure become secondary at that point. Do it for the love of the game,'' Sourodip urged.
Eureka moments: On the voyage, there come certain moments when people can sense their destiny. In his career, Sajid had two such epiphanies -- IUB Ascension 2019, and IBA Nations League.
Sajid went on to win IBA Nations League defeating the likes of Ashish Kumar in the final, his lifelong idol. "I thought, if that just happened, what's stopping me from beating any of the current debaters if I can beat the greatest of all time?'' he reminisced.
Sourodip attributed his enlightenment to Victor Phinkel, his debate idol.
Interestingly, they both now ended up with similar career trajectories -- winning australs, becoming overall best speaker, and then winning worlds.
The biggest barrier: Apart from the language barrier, the majority of Bangladeshi debaters experience financial strain when it comes to hiring a coach or even attending tournaments, posing a threat to the pipeline of debaters and their grooming. However, Covid-19 restrictions worked as a blessing in disguise as they took off the burden of airfare, accommodation and other expenses, though transiently. As the debating world is gradually shifting back offline, both Sajid and Sourodip urged the need for institutional and corporate funding and lamented that inaction would hinder further development

The writer is a debate enthusiast.
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