April 5, 2013

The problem with Indian cricket academies

Increasingly young players (and their parents) look at them as ways to generate returns on investment

A few years ago my son was protesting about the way he had to prepare for his ICSE exams. "I won't be tested on my knowledge anyway…" he started. "They only want to check if I can reproduce the answers that someone has already written." He was right, our education system seeks to produce homogeneous masses, production lines of identical students. This reduces us to excellent followers of a particular system.

I was reminded of that when I read Greg Chappell's thought-provoking article in the Hindu about how modern batsmen are struggling to "survive, let alone make runs, when the pitch is other than a flat road where the odds are overwhelmingly in the batsman's favour". He thinks it could be a result of academies that "do not produce the creative thinkers that become the next champions", and whose "highly intrusive coaching methods… have replaced those creative learning environments".

Even as academies mushroom everywhere, there is little proof that they are enriching Indian cricket and not merely providing another source of income to retired cricketers. It is a good exercise at social events to say, "You know, my son goes to such and such academy run by so and so former cricketer", but it does little else. My fear is that it thrusts eager children into another school of regimented learning; instead of the unfettered joy of hitting and chasing and bowling a cricket ball, they are checking out their stance, their foot movement and the alignment of the shoulder. That is like answering a question on five aspects of the architectural layouts of 16th century temples, instead of learning history. Sport can run the risk, as my friend Shyam Balasubramaniam says, of "becoming an industrial time and motion study".

You can see why academies flower in urban jungles like Mumbai, where playgrounds are cruelly encroached upon. With no place of your own, you get pushed into camps; cramped, crowded factories where you pay to become nobody. When you pay a stiff fee, you very quickly start looking for returns on it. Playing cricket becomes an exercise where returns are sought on monetary investment. Mumbai understands that language well, and so, caught between no space, long journeys and expensive gear, potential cricketers become insecure and feel the need to produce results quickly. The fun goes out of it, and fun is such a vital ingredient in producing a champion. When you are growing up, when you are learning, you have to play for no reward, and it is my thesis that that is where a financially driven city like Mumbai loses talent early.

And so as playgrounds vanished, as time began commanding a premium, as academies flourished and as experiential learning diminished, Mumbai started going downhill. They still win the Ranji Trophy but the only genuine international Mumbai have produced since Sachin Tendulkar is Ajit Agarkar in one-day cricket. One in 24 years is poor.

Chappell also talks about MS Dhoni, and of how he evolved his own style, unfettered by a curriculum. That is how it should be, with a player free to play in the way that comes naturally to him. Academies can then become finishing schools where you nudge a player a bit here, prod him a bit there but largely let him remain the natural player he is. I think that is best done when a player is around 16. I know that is the age when Tendulkar played international cricket but he was a freak; you cannot hold him up as a product of a system. Critically, Tendulkar was not over-coached; his heavy-bat, bottom-handed style would never have survived otherwise. What Ramakant Achrekar did was make him play matches, face different bowlers, different situations, and though his arm was on his ward's shoulder, though they talked cricket, Tendulkar learnt to play it by himself.

And so, accepting that Tendulkar is an aberration, and almost from another era, I am convinced that the best talent will come out of the small towns, where time and space are not rapidly perishable commodities; where a young Harbhajan Singh wants to bowl late into the evening with a revved-up scooter providing light. There are academies there too, but players who emerge from those places seem to talk fondly about their coaches, amateur sports lovers who give freely of their time.

If academies can retain joy, and provide time, they will give themselves a chance of producing unique cricketers. But if coaches and parents are looking at academies for a quick return on investment, they will continue to gobble up talent.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter and writer, and a commentator on IPL 2013. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on April 7, 2013, 4:08 GMT

    Having lived in two metros of India for over the past three years and twenty two years before that in a very nondescript sleepy town, I have observed an important difference between 'life in a metro' and 'life in a small town', and it quite aligns with Harsha's tenor here: youth from the smaller towns of India are a more positive bunch.They are not overly cynical and more important they are willing to give their time and stay patient.Maybe that comes naturally to them because life in small towns does tend to move rather slowly,and time does not just fleet by with a million things vying for your attention.They are more likely to take disappointments in their stride,to learn from it,and to get back at it, than the kids in urban centers who have a million avenues to try and have attention spans of three year olds.Cricket emulates many virtues of life;it's one of the most important charms of the sport.At the moment those virtues are more in vogue in the smaller towns of the country.

  • Dummy4 on April 6, 2013, 6:47 GMT

    Cheers for your son Harsha for the revolutionary thought. However, one's greatest coach is one himself and his ability to learn. No matter how you are taught, the thing which matters is how you perform. In Cricket, you can have coaches to guide/teach you skills but at the end you have to deliver. There comes your ability and will power which is vital. With regards to Sachin, even Achrekar can now not help him from his current poor run...it is Sachin who has to learn from his mistakes.It's not only reflexes but shot selection. With Cricket growing and new bowlers coming in with great/innovative skills...Sachin and others will always be tested. Cricket is not about Mumbai/Delhi/Bangalore......it's everywhere in India.....it was just not explored. Now with players coming in from all regions, competition has grown.....which is EXCELLENT for the growth of INDIAN CRICKET.

  • Suman on April 5, 2013, 20:07 GMT

    Wonderful article and absolutely to the point.

  • Sridhar on April 5, 2013, 17:50 GMT

    The fact that Mumbai does not produce that many international cricketers anymore may have nothing to do with the increase in number of cricket coaching academies. It probably has to do with better talent scouting in far flung areas of India, less prejudice from BCCI towards non-metro areas, more available money hence more overall participation, etc. After all, Kohli, the new kid on the block, is from Delhi. I don't know if he attended any academy or not, but certainly Delhi has no fewer academies than Mumbai? My point is that true talent will come out - academies or no academies.

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2013, 16:48 GMT

    Its same everywhere.... whether its cricket or education or music !!!! Its same .... you want to learn cricket come to us.. you want 99%,... home tutor ... you want to be singer come to us ....its everywhere...if a person is really good at something he should be encouraged to do that ...that is not happening ... we are forced to do everything so that once we pass out we at least get a job!!!! I remember i had a friend once who was really good in maths but very poor in all other subjects...I wonder if people like him who are really good in something are allowed to pursue that than mindlessly following a curriculum we might see more of Tendulkas, Rehmans, Einsteins and S.Jobs... Who knows ..but its all fantasy..:):):P:P

  • Cricket on April 5, 2013, 16:02 GMT

    The sub-title of this article and the bragging rights that going to the right academy gives to the parents are right are spot on. A redistribution of the money generated by the IPL into test cricket and an uneven balance of reward in favour of test players would soon sort the wheat from the chaff.

  • rahul on April 5, 2013, 15:59 GMT

    The notion of "fun", in most professional sports the fun part comes from personal ambition and career goals, the idea of professional athletes/ trainees playing with the glee of a teenager on a holiday is not realistic. As for natural style vs technique, I think it depends on the individual player. The very best in any sport are always gifted people who play their natural way. But there are also those who hone skills through years of training. So what style of coaching works for a player depends on where he/she is on the bell curve.

  • Kalyan on April 5, 2013, 15:05 GMT

    i wonder what the batting coaches of today would have said of lara's high backlift...:-)

  • Jayan on April 5, 2013, 14:44 GMT

    Great article! We may never see a Kapil Dev, Krish Shrikanth or Virendar Sehwag, lete alone Tendulkar in future! The mere remembrance of the emergence of Lakshmanan Sivaramakrishnan, Chetan sharma and Narendra Hirwani still gives goosebumps!

    But gone are those days and this is bound to happen. When money flows in billions and even an average cricketer gets contracts to tune of crores, what else we could expect in country like India! Each parent wants his son to make billions like Sachin or Dhoni. Yes! Huge majority of them want their sons to become batsmen, not bowlers let alone good fielders!

    This is very well timed article and if the cricket administrators and experts can sit together and choke out a strategy on how to facilitate the evolution of natural players that would be great. We can formulate guidelines for cricket academies. Academies will no doubt, flourish in this country especially after the phenomenal success of IPL!