It's rather ironic. At a time when most Indian states are busy embracing modern training methods, hiring highly qualified coaches, and setting up plush academies, the spectacular rise of Uttar Pradesh can be traced to a phenomenon that has nothing state-of-art about it: a government-run initiative in a state known for its administrative lethargy; one that has a chief minister who is publicly opposed to cricket.
Uttar Pradesh's sports colleges and hostels, with facilities ranging from the basic to the modest, have become the breeding ground for a vibrant and energetic cricketing culture that has found fitting expression in the state winning its first ever Ranji Trophy title this year.
Consider this. In Mohammad Kaif, RP Singh and Suresh Raina, UP now have three regulars in India's ODI team - the most from any single state. Ravikant Shukla, who captained the Indian Under-19 side in the recent World Cup, is from Rae Bareilly; Piyush Chawla, the 17-year-old legspinner who impressed Greg Chappell at the Challenger Trophy earlier in the season is from Moradabad. The numbers have been rising over the last decade. From 1997 till date, a total of 21 players from UP have played for the country in various age groups. UP won the Under-22 National Championship earlier this year. And at the moment no other state sends as many youngsters to the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore for special training as UP does.
The hows and the wheres
UP's sports hostels and colleges were the brainchild of KD Singh Babu, the 1950s Olympic hockey player; the idea was given shape in 1975 by the then sports secretary Raj Bhargava when the first sports hostel was set up at the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow to train players in hockey and cricket. The following year cricket was moved to a new hostel at Kanpur. In 1994 another hostel was built at Gomti Nagar in Lucknow.
The first sports college came up in Lucknow in 1976, on a plot of land donated by Ajit Pratap Singh, the minister for forests. Cricket made it to the curriculum the following year. Another college was built at Gorakhpur subsequently. Both colleges currently offer training in seven sports in addition to cricket. Admissions are open to all comers over the age of 14. Once a student has chosen his sport, cleared the trials and secured admission, he only needs to pay a nominal fee at the beginning of each year; the government foots the bulk of the bill, which amounts to about Rs 75,000 per student for boarding, lodging, food, books, and of course, kit.
The tenures for the colleges and hostels are different: a student at one of the colleges stays four years, and one at a hostel six. Students of the sports colleges have the option of spending two years at a hostel after they graduate, and the ones who are serious about sport as a career often choose to do so. Raina, for instance, moved to Lucknow's Gomti Nagar Hostel after his term at the college; RP Singh, junior by one year, followed suit.
One area where the colleges score over the hostels, though, is the non-sports education: a student at one of the colleges goes to a school that's part of the campus, whereas a hostel resident has to go to a public school elsewhere, and thus runs the risk of not being able to concentrate on his education. "We think the all-round development of a boy is more necessary than anything else and that is why the state government is supporting the college scheme widely," says Deepak Sharma, senior cricket coach at Lucknow's Guru Gobind Singh Sports College, who joined the institution as a 23-year-old back in 1978. At both the hostels and the colleges, if a student fails to make it to the state squad in his age-group level at the end of each year, he faces suspension; the same fate awaits him if he fails twice in the same class.
The living conditions in the hostels are basic. The Gomti Nagar facility, situated in one of Lucknow's posh neighbourhoods, is the better maintained one. About 25 students stay on the two floors of a grey building overlooking the sports ground. Most live two to a room that's 10 feet by 12 in size; seniors get a room each of their own. The building has an in-house mess and a TV room. A short stroll takes you to the swimming pool, gymnasium, and a complex housing indoor badminton and squash courts.
Kaif's alma mater at Kanpur is not as well appointed. Situated in the Green Park Stadium complex, the hostel is surrounded by a small garden, and looks more like a two-storey house. Two students share each small, cramped room. "Living is not comfortable; you've got to struggle a bit," Kaif says. "At times you've to sleep without electricity, but these are small things. You learn to live with them from a young age, and accept them and adapt well. Not many parents will accept that in the bigger cities."
Hostel students learn to live responsibly, making their own decisions and managing their time from an early age. "From washing your clothes, to going out for nets, to going out with friends, everything is decided by you and no one is there to help you. More importantly, you become mentally stronger." says Kaif, who moved to Kanpur from Allahabad at the age of 12 (in time for selection for the under-13 level).
Raina hails from the small town of Moradabad and it took some convincing before his parents agreed to let him come to the hostel. He missed his family initially but soon got over it thanks to a supportive bunch of seniors who took good care of him. "As an under-15 during my first two years I learned so much from my seniors like Shalabh Shrivastava and Mritunjay Tripathi, who were part of the 2000 Youth World Cup winning squad. They kept me focused on cricket and made me feel less homesick," he says.
Discipline is a virtue that is learned quickly. "If you are at your house, even if you skip a nets no one will say anything, but in the hostel it is important to do things at the proper time," Praveen Gupta, a left-arm spinner at the Kanpur hostel, says. Students have a time-table laid out for them. They assemble at six in the morning for two hours of exercise and training, and in the evening for three hours of nets and fielding practice. School hours fit between the two sessions.
The boys learn to be self-reliant. The Kanpur hostel doesn't have a permanent coach at present. Gupta points out that this doesn't matter as much as it may seem to. "Even if there is no coach we can do our work and at whatever time. We know what is to be done, so we go and do that." Be that as it may, the coaches play a vital role in the success of their students. The ones at UP's sports colleges and hostels are graduates of the National Sports Institute and are well trained in tapping talent at the grassroots level. "Firstly we see the basics of the kid and based on how good they are, we select him. Then we work on his fitness, mental and physical attributes, and try and perfect them," says Pramod Gupta, coach at the Lucknow hostel.
Besides being breeding grounds for talent, the college and hostel system provides players with an important advantage when it comes to selection for the state squads. As Ashish Winston Zaidi, the veteran UP medium-pacer and alumnus of the Lucknow sports college points out, players at the colleges and hostels are always on the selectors' radar. "When you go for trials it works in your favour because to choose from hundreds is a difficult task but already having seen us it becomes easy for them."
Springboards to success
In an interview to The Telegraph recently, Kapil Dev said that the future of the country's cricket depended on the smaller towns. It is an opinion many knowledgeable cricket insiders share. Among the reasons for this belief is the fact that in the bigger cities the enormous amounts of time spent on commuting rob would-be cricketers of time that they would otherwise spend playing or practising.
Therein lies the key to the success of UP's hostel and college system. The proximity to grounds and easy access to equipment help students practise and play as and when they want. This way, even if the coach is not present at a given time, there are always seniors around for a youngster to go to for advice.
There's no doubt the system works; the conversion-rates, so to speak, are impressive. Pramod Gupta says: "When a kid comes to us he is around 14 or 15 and within one year of training at the hostel he normally gets selected for the UP age-group squad." In the 2005-06 season, of the 25 students at the Lucknow hostel, 21 had played for the state in various age groups. There may not be a selector from UP on the national panel currently but that isn't hurting the state since the players emerging from the hostels and colleges are so hard to ignore. "If one fails, another player is ready to stand up and perform," Gupta says.
It's not all rosy though. The system's biggest drawback lies in the fact that students' basic non-sport education invariably suffers. Kaif speaks of the unemployment among hostel graduates and how the lack of education is to blame. Players need options to fall back on since many of them clearly will not be able to make cricket a full-time career. It is a shortcoming that the hostel system needs to address. These sports hostels and colleges put youngsters on the road to success. It is a small but vital first step.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo