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December 16, 1999


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The question is academic

Amrit Mathur

For cricket officials, the fashionable thing nowadays -- besides globalisation of course -- is setting up an academy , a grand finishing school that picks up raw talent, then systematically readies it for the top level .

The idea is mouth- wateringly attractive because Australia has already shown the way, its Adelaide- based Commonwealth Bank facility contributes a sizeable chunk to the Test team. In india, MRF 's track record with it Pace Academy is equally impressive , its trainees have made Test sides in many countries .

If Indian officials talk about similar academies, it shows they too are on the ball, they understand contemporary reality, and can recognise a good thing when they see it . The Board Secretary has his priorities, and views on cricket subjects ( which, allegedly, change frequently) ; others may be preoccupied with more pressing non-cricket affairs. But one hears correct noises emanating from the Board about an academy, which is nice because it is needed; anyway , why argue about something which is unbeatable, a sure winner?

But wait, there is a minor snag -- nothing is simple , implementing an idea is more difficult than thinking it up. This is a point any cricketer will confirm: a generous bowler might present a juicy half volley but that still has to be hit to make four . Likewise, it is one thing to try bowling a yorker in the death, quite another to pitch it right. Assessed on this score -- of successfully executing a sound idea -- the concept of the Indian cricket academy has yet to make a start , the bat hasn't made contact with the ball . Till now , sadly , it is only playing and missing -- there is sound intention, but little concrete to show as result.

Progress , to date, has been painfully slow. It reminds you of Rajiv Nayyar -- endless occupation of the crease, but the scorers are untroubled , they only register dot balls . The matter is discussed and debated to death, but movement is lacking , mainly for want of clarity about scope of the project .

Initially, the proposal was to collect the brightest youngsters, house them in one place for a long period and provide intensive coaching / training by identified experts . But when detailing started ( raising questions about where? who will be in control? how many players? what age group?) much heads were scratched to search for the right answers .

This head-scratching has finally produced some results, and the story at this point in time is, yes, the academy is or soon will be a fact of Indian cricketing life, it will kick off on May 1, Bangalore is the chosen venue, keeping in mind its excellent facilities and weather and its proximity to the Sports Authority of India's traning facilities.

Bombay was considered, keeping in mind Sunil Gavaskar's convenience, but then shelved for varioius reasons. Also shelved is the initial concept of a year round academy -- instead, players will come in for short spells and then return to competitive cricket.

Administratively, and from the cricket standpoint, this makes more sense. In Indian conditions, uprooting youngsters from families for extended periods causes a major upheaval, and moreover, attending to their health/clothing and shelter/insurance/education and all the other responsibilities that ome with taking long-term charge of a young man is a huge task, requiring an army of officials to keep things under control. On the face of it this might appear a minor task, but it takes an enormous amount of doiong. So much so, in fact, that the main thrust area -- cricket training -- could well take a backseat.

Among the issues that have been resolved is the structure of the academy, which will operate at two levels. Bangalore will polish players on the fringe of Test cricket, while five zonal academies will groom talent coming up through the Ranji ranks. This two-pronged approach is in keeping with India's size and existing cricket structure. Both academies -- the national, and zonal -- will operate only during summer and other off-season periods, to ensure that the wards, during regular periods, attend to their school/college education and participate in competitive cricket programmes.

Thus, some issues have been sorted out, happily. The overall success of the academy, though, would depend on a lot of other things. The selection of trainees is a potentially tricky area, as is the question of linkages with the national selectors, and the assessment of the various players after training. Can he handle pace on foreign wickets or is he merely, as Imran Khan said of Salim Malik, a flat track bully? Is his attitude right, does he fit into a team as a person and player? How fit is he or, horrors, is he, as Lele reportedly said of Ajit Agarkar, a frail, dainty lil darling?

Basically, success in an enterprise of this nature hinges on vision and the quality of inputs. Fortunately, there is a basic understanding that an academy is an institution, and not merely a hyped-up net session. Which is why, besides solid technical inputs and modern fitness training, there must be emphasis on other cricket-related subjects . Exhaustive exposure to umpiring /laws of the game /ICC code of conduct is compulsory cricket education nowadays.

In addition, emerging players should be tutored about tackling stress, coping with success and failure, handling commercial aspects (negotiating and managing contracts), and trained to interact with the media. These are necessary skills of professional sports. Many giants of today have realised, the hard way, that it is easier to tackle a Shoaib Akthar thunderbolt than go through the experience of having 10 microphones thrust under your nose at the end of a hard day on the field.

To produce alert pros, fully prepared for all on/off field responsibilities, will also entail giving instructions on conducting themselves socially, on dressing and behaving appropriately at official functions, and such. These small points impact on team image and by extension, the image of the country and it is no wonder that South African players sign a contract which prohibits them from refusing autographs to kids, while the English team attends refresher courses to re-learn vital social graces .

Devising a detailed curriculum is only half the battle, the trickier question is who will teach what needs to be taught? Ultimately, the man in control matters -- top quality teaching and total commitment is essential, hence the need to select the right person. This important point awaits a decision, and the board is slated to make a choice soon. But this is only one aspect -- before the May 1 kickoff, millions of other details have to be nailed down and the entire infrastructure put in place and tested for snags. An academy is an institution of learning where cricket technique and theory must be married to all manner of scientific inputs, players require the support of specialists in psychology, nutrition and bio-mechanics, and you don't put together a project that size over a whisky and soda at the club.

Attention to detail will decide the effectiveness and ultimate utility of the cricket academy. MRF is respected due to its committed officials who slog under Dennis Lillee. The Board requires a similarly respected guru, and equally focussed support staff -- only then will the dream of a cricketing IIT materialise. The objective is not merely to make players play to potential, but to enhance skills and strengthen Indian cricket.

Amrit Mathur

Mail Prem Panicker/Amrit Mathur