India's medium-pace tradition must not be allowed to decay
It was an uncommonly cold, windy and wet day in Kochi recently when I visited the Marthanda Varma Used Umbrella Emporium Medium Pace Foundation, popularly known to cricket fans as the MVUUEE Medium Pace Foundation. My guide for the trip was the founding director of the Medium Pace Foundation, and dab old hand in the art of Indian military medium, Dheerendra Singh Dheerey.
"The Medium Pace Foundation was a direct response to the atrocity that is the MRF Pace Foundation," Singh explained as he unlocked the main gate and ushered me inside. The foundation is usually open every day of the week, every week of the year. But not today. "Today, I have given my students a day off," explained Singh. "All this wind and cold and moisture will unnecessarily increase their pace and bounce and make them more effective, and that would undo all the efforts we have made with them for so many months," he said, looking at the sky and nodding sadly.
Singh led me down the tree-lined Gavin Larsen Avenue, and through the doors of the Foundation's main building. In front, emblazoned in large aluminium letters were the words: "Abey Kuruvilla Memorial Administrative Block And Laundry". I gently reminded Singh that Abey is very much still alive. "Yes, that was a misunderstanding with the architect," Singh explained, "but eventually one day Abey will…" He mouthed a silent prayer with his eyes closed.
Singh started the Medium Pace Foundation in 1992, he says, in order to save the essential Indian art of slow-medium-pace bowling. "These MRF fellows started that pace foundation along with Dennis Lillee in a blatant attempt to destroy many decades of established Indian expertise in slow seaming."
What if, Singh suggests with a conspiratorial look on his face, the MRF Pace Foundation was a surreptitious plan by Australian and English administrators to undermine Indian cricket by striking at its very heart - the military-medium-pacer?
Having seen bowler after bowler destroy their careers in search of pace and bounce and aggression, Singh decided that he could no longer watch idly. "Instead of wanting to be the next Eknath Solkar or Madan Lal or Mohinder Amarnath… these boys were trying to become Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh and Waqar Younis!"
The first few years were hard, Singh says. But then once he found a sponsor with deep pockets in the form of Kochi's famous Marthanda Varma Used Umbrella Emporium, operations have scaled up substantially. Singh pointed at the foundation's logo on his t-shirt: two large black umbrellas crossed like swords, with the official motto in Latin underneath: "Pone in terminus omnibus." (Translation: Put everybody on the boundary)
Any aspiring bowler in India between the ages of 12 and 16 with a height not greater than 5ft 9in, and a Body Mass Index of between 27 and 33 is welcome to apply.
What follows is a carefully designed three-year programme of classroom courses, physical training, mental conditioning and skill development, followed by refresher courses and post-season workshops.
The course spares nothing in pursuit of the perfect Indian slow medium-pace bowler. For the first eight weeks of the course students sit in the Roger Binny Hall and do nothing but watch video clips of Indian spin bowlers. "This is simply a reflection of real life," Singh reminded me. The ideal medium-pacer will spend the vast majority of his life in an Indian uniform watching the spinners bowl and take all the wickets.
"Sometimes the medium-pacer will feel like stepping up, asking for the ball, and bowling his heart out in order to save the game for India," Singh said. "And with that his career is ruined. Look at Agarkar." The first eight weeks are meant to crush this tendency out of the bowler.
The next few weeks are dedicated to all-day net sessions against talented batsmen, which is normal for a bowling foundation. Except there is a twist here… the MVUUEE MPF staff removes all the stumps from the nets before each session. "Under no circumstance are any of the students allowed to take any wickets while they are on the Foundation campus for the duration of the programme," Singh read out from a rules and regulations handbook.
"Did Solkar take wickets? Binny? Did Venkatesh Prasad ever take any wickets intentionally? No. Never. And that is why they are legends of medium pace to this day!" Singh said emphatically. "This is a culture that must be deeply ingrained in every Indian medium-pacer."
It is only after all ego and ambition has been ground out of the students that the Medium Pace Foundation embarks on the more comprehensive programme of moulding them into bowlers of the future.
The Foundation leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of physical perfection. Diet, for example, is an area of particular emphasis. And one that is becoming increasingly challenging. "Because of all this IPL and media influence, even young players are now beginning to eat very healthily," Singh lamented. "Last week, during Unlimited KFC Night, one student asked me if we could arrange for gluten-free and low-glycemic-index items." That student has since been transferred to the nearby sister concern: Bahrain Saloon Foundation for Second Reserve Wicketkeeper Development.
Similar diligence is applied to fitness programmes, clothing, mental conditioning and leadership development.
Right now, Singh says that his brightest student is one Sanjay Sathe from Maharashtra. "He is truly a once-in-a-generation player. In August during an Under-19 match he conceded 78 runs in 10 overs, dropped two catches and was run-out without facing a ball." The only blemish on this performance, Singh said, was that he took one wicket. "But that was due to a stumping, and that is one area of his bowling that is still weak," he explained.
Ultimately, Singh says, the goal of the Marthanda Varma Used Umbrella Emporium Medium Pace Foundation is to create an assembly line of mediocre medium-pacers who can play in any conditions in India or abroad with little to no impact on the outcomes.
Singh is adamant and optimistic. "People, especially MRF fellows, can laugh at us all they want. But can you imagine an Indian team without a poor medium-pacer capable of turning the game with a single over of short balls?"
I just stood there contemplating this question.
"Exactly," he said with tears welling up in his eyes.