February 11, 2009

Latif's labour of love

Rashid Latif's cricket academy, which has been close to a decade in the making, is an epitome of Karachi's unique cricket ethos

Rashid Latif: perhaps the only person to run a cricket academy who believes he shouldn't be coaching youngsters at all © Rashid Latif

To the right, as you enter the Rashid Latif Cricket Academy (RLCA), are well-constructed practice pitches - cement, matting and turf. Fifteen, maybe 20, years ago, so go the tales, this very patch was a killing playground, a piece of land notorious for "encounters" between police and young political activists. The ground, for football and hockey, was owned by the city government, but disused and grassless. In the now-demolished old dressing rooms, prostitution shared space with illegal car-parts trade.

The area within which the academy sits - Federal B Area - was originally designed for those entrusted with the running of Pakistan, in the days when Karachi was the capital. The country is not run from here anymore, but the roads are wide, the houses old, and here a neighbourhood is still a neighbourhood, not a random collection of houses. It is one of Karachi's many beating hearts.

As is Rashid Latif. More than an academy, his RLCA is a way. It is the way of Rashid Latif, the way of Karachi cricket, a city where is bred a peculiar cricketer. This cricketer is largely self-taught, self-sufficient and rough-edged; when times are tough he fights hard, but he can just as readily regress to a victimised martyr. Disputes are never far, neither is politicking, but loyalty is cherished. The most successful are like gangsters: many people sustain themselves off them; they have flaws, but believe truly what they are doing is for good, in a Robin Hood kind of way. Usually the good outweighs the bad, but not by much.

Though the academy has been operational since 2000, the official inauguration was only last week, a Karachi shindig through and through. Most of the city's cricket grandees were there; Hanif Mohammad, Sallu bhai (Salahuddin Ahmed), Tauseef Ahmed, Mohammad Sami, Azeem Hafeez, Asim Kamal, Saeed Anwar and Moin Khan. Younis Khan - an RLCA alumni and acolyte - who has rooted himself in Karachi, was also there, as was Mohammad Yousuf. The chief inaugurator was Karachi's man of the moment, Mustafa Kamal, the wildly popular city mayor.

It was a warm occasion, egalitarian in spirit. ICL bans meant nothing, as Younis chatted and laughed with Yousuf, Sami mingled with one and all. Ex-players joked with current, and all the while Salahuddin's poetry flowed. Moin, competitor, rival and contemporary of Latif, had done his bit by donating an expensive bowling machine to the academy. No more suitable an inauguration, in short, for such labour.

"Nobody is big or small here, they are all the same… We are about broader things, a way of sitting, standing, a way of being" Rashid Latif

It has been almost exactly nine years in the making. The idea initially, says Latif, was to just have a place where he - and others - could practice in the off season. In his early years, the struggle was to find a ground with facilities he could go to for practice and to keep fit. The problem was that there wasn't such a place. So he got a group of 20-odd first-class cricketers together at the UBL ground and began a regular session of sorts. The location would often change but practice wouldn't.

Latif is of a restless mind, so one thought led, naturally, to another. "We just called it an academy, even though at the start it wasn't one. I used to practice, others did also, and whatever I understood, or knew, I used to tell them. There was nothing proper about it. Then I got into coaching and learnt many things that, had I known before, I might've been a better player. After that I decided that this needed to be more solid, more worthwhile, and something that could carry on after I was gone."

There was more behind it, something resembling blue-collar, populist rhetoric. Private cricket academies in Pakistan are mostly commercial entities. Like private schools they represent both a way of making money and a failure of public institutions. A few, like the RLCA, are run on nothing but unrequited love, like boxing gyms in ghettos. "My kids study in a private school but I am against it," Latif says. "Education is being sold and it shouldn't be. Inflation is high and if you look around, mostly players come from lower-middle-class families. They can't afford to play. So I thought something should be there that is free."

It took four years before a home was found, in which time mass open trials were held and somehow a tour to England was organised. The Karachi City Cricket Association (KCCA) pointed him to this 7.5 acre ground, next to which they have their own ground. In October 2004 he got a 10-year lease from the city government. "We tried really hard to get a ground at a couple of locations. Until then we used to divide time at whichever ground. Once we got this land, then people knew we were pretty serious."

Over four years and more than Rs 50 million (his own and that of a few other investors) later there are 15 practice pitches alongside the main ground. There is that bowling machine, a comprehensive multimedia set-up, and new dressing rooms, without prostitutes. Soon there will be a gym and a biomechanics lab and then a hostel of 12-14 rooms. The plan is for cricketers to come from around Asia, stay here and use the facilities. Flavour of the season Afghanistan are due soon to do just that - in future, hopefully they can also stay here. Plans are afoot to try and revive the city's moribund club cricket scene, using the ground as a fulcrum.

If you build it, they will come: Latif's academy arose out of the lack of places to practise in © Rashid Latif

Four days a week, kids from four age groups (U-13 through U-19) come for coaching, plucked from open trials and recommendations. Senior cricketers come in to iron out kinks whenever time permits. What they pick up here is nothing if not unique, for Latif's take on coaching is, well, a take. Obviously it isn't bookish; instead it is simply drawn from what he always knew, what he has learnt, what he has seen, those he has worked with. Daryl Foster and Richard Pybus are in it, as well as Latif's annual bash with Lashings. "That helps my coaching a lot. I get to meet the world's best players and develop my own methods from that. I take in ideas from Australia, England, New Zealand and West Indies, and you don't see those things or that approach here."

Not for him is coaching in the nets, and he prefers batsmen to practice without a ball. "It is the start, working on their movements, working backwards in a way, until you finally come to enacting that with a ball in nets." He doesn't believe he should be coaching youngsters at all, which, logically and alarmingly, defeats the point of his own academy. "I am 40 and I look at things from that angle. We should get a kid two years older ready and get him to work on the 15-year-olds. Kids teach kids quicker. If I teach U-15s something, I have to tell them 10 times and sometimes they are still not picking up. So it's better if guys closer to their age do it."

The RLCA will not, Latif insists, produce national cricketers; that isn't the purpose of an academy. It may be true, but you don't expect to hear it from the head of a privately owned academy. But it will provide a way - a way not just about high elbows and good wrist positions. Asim Kamal, Khalid Latif, Khurram Manzoor, Younis Khan, Fawad Alam, Danish Kaneria, Sohail Khan: these men represent an ethos.

"Nobody is big or small here, they are all the same; but if a player from here goes and does something bad, then the academy gets a bad name. Cricketers have watered grounds, built it from nothing to what it is and run it. We are about broader things, a way of sitting, standing, a way of being."

On balance, it isn't a bad way to be.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • letsplay_1 on February 12, 2009, 16:58 GMT

    Last december I was visiting karachi and I had a chance to visit His Academy a few times and I saw him everytime I was there for a friendly game or practice with my friends. It was a pleasure to meet him, I found him really down to earth and easily accesible. The KCCA ground and the academy is an amazing facility for all the young and upcoming cricketers, no red tapes if you just wanna join the practice nets, If you are good enough you get picked up by local clubs. Saw some really promising young cricketers.

  • touqeer on February 12, 2009, 5:16 GMT

    great efforts from Rashid Latif, love and respect for him. A very well written article from Osman as well. however, in comments somewhere someone has asked the government to contribute it. I will humbly request to Rashid that please do not let this happen.

  • Dishant on February 12, 2009, 2:20 GMT

    Nicely written.............. Good information

  • sameer on February 11, 2009, 22:30 GMT

    very interesting article Osman Saahab,

    grassroots need to be worked on and we need the government to make kids focus on sports rather than the other ills of life such as politics and drugs.

    We need more people like Latif Bhai to make a grassroots cricket prosper in Pakistan, where a ordinary man has access to good facility.

  • Rezaul on February 11, 2009, 19:40 GMT

    I appreciate the good article depicting the good works of Latif. I am an admirer or Latif due to his high class and out spoken character. He is the one deprived of regular chances which he truly deserved. However, it remains as a black spot to his clean career when he was banned for 5 matches due to cheating (claiming a catch of Kapali which he dropped and claimed the catch) against Bangladesh at Multan in 2003. Otherwise he is a good man in a chaos of politics in Pakistan cricket!

  • Mohamed on February 11, 2009, 19:06 GMT

    Kudos to Rashid. I especially like the fact that he said it's not about producing national cricketers and also he does not have an ego about coaching. He seems to know his limitations and that cricket mirrors life for many Pakistanis. The young men and women need sports as an alternative to teh calling of the extremisis. I am West Indian and Pakistan has always been my 2nd favorite team. So It's great to hear something good and right about Pakistan and cricket in Pakistan for a change. The Holy Qur'an says: God does not change the condition of a people, until they (themselves) change.

  • Fahad on February 11, 2009, 18:40 GMT

    Very nice article. Always good to read about positive developments in Karachi. Kudos to Rashid Latif, Mustafa Kamal, the MQM city government and everyone involved in this and other projects throughout Karachi.

  • Andy on February 11, 2009, 17:32 GMT

    Kudos here to Rashid Latif. For those of us in the west it's fantastic to read a good news story about real life in Pakistan and the everyday heroes like Latif who make such a great contribution.

  • Fasih on February 11, 2009, 17:12 GMT

    Nicely cut Osman!! Reminds me of the days when I used to smell like a circket ground without much grass on it..:) Bravo to Rashid Latif and his boys

  • M on February 11, 2009, 16:13 GMT

    Excellent effort and should be appriaciated. Shame to all the politicians those are filling thier own pockets by ripping people's off and this gentleman spending from his own pocket. You are great Rashid.

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