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They come half an hour before the team arrives, as they can't be late. They warm up on their own, for the team can't be fiddled with; they bowl their hearts out while the rest go through the motions because there's a match round the corner.
A rather nonchalant "well bowled" means the world to them and that's what keeps them going till they drop. They hope to catch the coach's eye if he finds the time after he's done with the main guys. Then they will be mere spectators while the team goes through its fielding drills or stretching sessions; they must do it themselves, for they are the supporting actors and not the main lead. These are the guys who make practice sessions possible, for no team carries more than a few bowlers in the squad and it's almost certain that the main guys won't bowl for long, let alone at full throttle between matches. Welcome to the unknown world of the anonymous "net bowlers".
Every team, national or international, relies heavily on these supporting actors to make their sessions possible. But, unfortunately, very few teams understand their importance, let alone make them a part of their set-up. Often they are treated like second-grade citizens with no right to demand any luxuries. And that's where, I think, teams need to develop compassion. In small places it doesn't cost them much to commute from their home to the stadium but in places like Delhi and Mumbai, every practice session means a few hundred rupees. But I don't know of any association that pays these guys to turn up day after day. The obvious question might be: why do they still come? It's not surprising because it is perhaps their only chance to come close to the big guys. Bowling to the known players in the nets is their only possible break to impress them and perhaps get noticed in the future. It's a gamble they are willing to take and what makes it worse is that there are always people who sell them the idea that they're in the mix.
But let me tell you that I haven't seen any of these 'net bowlers' getting picked, if and when the opportunity arises. It's always the guy from outside, who's smart enough to understand that bowling in the nets is only tiring and not rewarding, who makes the cut. Ironically, the main cast changes a few times in the same season, but the supporting troupe remains the same.
It may not be a bad idea to ensure that they're paid for every visit. Every association gets crores from the BCCI to spend on cricket and justifying a few thousand rupees for these kids won't be too tough.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.