Is the era of the factory-produced cricketer upon us?
On a visit to Hyderabad, I'm basking in the warmth of meeting old cricket friends after years, some after decades, and exchanging memories of altogether more innocent, less frenetic days under the sun than the IPL-dominated present. We are, of course, looking at the past with nostalgia-tinted glasses, but we agree that though we did compete fiercely on the field and not always with the best sporting spirit, we mostly owed our careers to serendipity and happenstance rather than to any great planning.
In sharp contrast, young cricketers today have their futures systematically mapped by anxious parents, coaches and academies. I have even met parents on sabbaticals taken in order to focus entirely on their son's cricket career, guiding him through the aches and pains - and no doubt moments of exhilaration - of traversing the path of age-group cricket to reach the ultimate goal of national honours.
Several top-notch Indian cricketers have got to where they are today by similar routes, by concentrating on cricket to the exclusion of everything else. Sports hostels have produced excellent cricketers of the likes of Suresh Raina and Sanjay Bangar.
Cheteshwar Pujara is a sterling example of parental devotion that helped shape him systematically into a world-class cricketer. His father, Arvind Pujara, a former first-class cricketer and Cheteshwar's first coach from when he was still a toddler, mentored him all the way, from the days spent using the rough-hewn facilities available in Rajkot, to regular visits to Mumbai. There, helped by friends and well-wishers, Mr and Mrs Pujara braved hardships to provide him frequent and quality exposure to competitive cricket. It goes without saying that all their efforts would have been futile if their son had not breathed and lived cricket.
There must be other cricketers guiding their sons in different ways, with varying degrees of involvement. Though former greats like Vinoo Mankad and AG Ram Singh were responsible for a veritable assembly line of cricketers across generations, and tutored their offspring meticulously in the niceties of the game, they were not constantly hovering presences.
My Hyderabad friend, who laid a practice wicket in the backyard for his son, took a calculated risk when he became a full-time mentor-manager to the teenager. While the sacrifice has been worth it so far, it understandably keeps throwing up challenges: having to choose between specialisation and all-round development, for instance. Will attention to sharpening bowling skills diminish the focus on batting? In this era of instant cricket, is being a versatile allrounder a better option? These are questions with no easy answers.
According to my friend, preparing for a career in cricket is as organised an industry as training to crack the exam for admission to the Indian Institute of Technology. People from villages sell their property and migrate to cities to enroll their children in cricket academies, because they see in the game a ticket to a prosperous future. The result of this trend - which is certainly not confined to Hyderabad - could be the mass production of well-equipped but one-dimensional young cricketers, deficient not only in academic education but possibly also in knowledge of the history of the game they play. Remember how Virender Sehwag said he was unaware of the world-record opening partnership he and Rahul Dravid came so close to breaking?
When asked about his son's education, Arvind Pujara once said that Cheteshwar was a brilliant student and that he would have distinguished himself as a doctor or an engineer had he not become a cricketer - a claim not every cricket parent can honestly make.
The Mankads, Ram Singhs and other parents of yesteryear made sure their boys had a proper college education. Happily, university cricket enjoyed a popular following and produced many stars. For decades, cricket lovers watched the exploits of the likes of Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, S Venkataraghavan and Kapil Dev with great interest.
Today university cricket is pretty much dormant. It is perhaps time for patrons and sponsors to revive it and promote it for the sake of the overall health of cricket and cricketers. Cricket scholarships, with some measure of emphasis on academic performance, could be the way forward.
V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s