It takes a district
The pace bowler runs in, gathers speed and delivers on off stump. The batsman responds with lightning reflexes, getting down on one knee and square-driving it through the off side, with the crispest of cracking sounds as bat hits ball.
There's good bounce off the pitch, and the outfield is a refreshing green, but as the ball nears the boundary, the lushness ceases to exist, replaced by fiery orange earth that, save for the neighbouring cricket ground, extends for a few thousand square kilometres.
This is Anantapur in south-western Andhra Pradesh, India's second-driest district, one of the country's more poverty-stricken and violence-ridden regions.
We're at the Rural Development Trust Sports Village, a multi-sport coaching centre and live-in academy, whose lushness and plenty contrast starkly with the surroundings. The Rural District Tournament is on: an annual high-school competition played soon after the summer holidays, this is one mammoth fixture, featuring 340 teams in its current edition; over the course of a month, the tournament travels across most of the 19,000 sq km of the district; over its 14 editions, about 70,000 boys have taken the field.
Today the batsman and bowler are two scrawny, agile 15-year-olds, facing off for a place in the tournament's final. For Venkatesh, the batsman, and his team-mates from Zilla Parishad High School in Kambadur, it is the first time they are playing on a turf pitch. Kambadur is a village on Andhra's outskirts, one that not so long ago was caught up in the militant communist Naxalite movement, whose violent uprisings resulted in it being declared a terrorist organisation by the Indian government.
These kids have travelled 90km to be at this tournament. The other team has an "advantage": they are from a village just 20km from Anantapur, and have played on turf before, "two or three times".
Venkatesh follows up his first-ball boundary with some sharp running between the wickets, a clean pull through midwicket, and a couple of delicate pats down to the third-man boundary. He's fighting to keep his team in the game, after his openers got off to a slow, unsteady start in pursuit of a middling 120 off 25 overs. With seemingly little effort, he knocks off 40 in five overs.
Seated beside me in the pavilion, Moncho Ferrer, whose Spanish father Vincente and English mother Anne founded the Rural Development Trust (RDT) in 1969, nods his approval. "If these boys pull off a win here, they'll be the talk of their village. It isn't a very big place, and not much happens there," he says.
RDT works for the betterment of the district of Anantapur, and creating a sports culture here is part of the process, Ferrer says. "Sport is part of life. It contributes so much: colour, spirit, discipline, team work. Being together, playing together, understanding each other. Young people like this should not just sit with books, they should live life, they should enjoy, they should run, jump, compete, win, lose... Sport is a useful part of life and we blend it with our education programme."
On cue, a yellow school bus goes by at the far side of the ground. "That'll be the academy children," Ferrer says.
The sports village's live-in academy caters to 115 boys and girls from low-income groups from across the district who are skilful at and interested in cricket, hockey and football.
"This is more like a sports scholarship - we pick the kids based on their sporting promise, but then look after their education, stay, everything," Ferrer says. The sports village has three cricket grounds, seven cricket nets, a football field, two hockey fields, five tennis courts, a gymnasium, an auditorium, a dormitory and three sets of guesthouses. The main cricket ground has hosted Andhra's Ranji matches, and the academy has produced two first-class cricketers: Syed Sahabuddin and Prasanth Kumar.
Apart from this academy, RDT has 20 sub-centres across the district for cricket with a coach each, 12 of them with nets. "We have a league, the kids go everywhere, they play each other," Ferrer says. "They're playing almost half the year, there's a lot of exposure." Of the four high schools that made the semis this year, three are from villages where RDT has sub-centres - Kambadur is the exception.
Venkatesh is dismissed with his team needing 40 off ten overs. They seem to panic and lose a couple of quick wickets. Out walks 14-year-old Guruswamy (who looks 11), and puts on an exhibition à la AB de Villiers. In between playing technically correct drives and flicks, he moves around in his crease, walking across off stump to pull a delivery to the square-leg boundary, and moving outside leg to slap through point. He puts his team in the final.
The following day, I catch up with Kambadur's two batting stars. Venkatesh talks about where he lives, Mandukurle, which borders Kambadur village. The hamlet has about 45 houses, but no buses serve it. His parents are groundnut farmers. "My school's physical education teacher [PET] coaches us," he says. "We learn a lot off television. I especially observe the batsmen's footwork."
In such demanding living conditions, why even bother about sport, I ask the PET, Murali.
"We love sports, we know we can compete, this is how we can make our village known, how we can begin to develop it," he says. "Besides, it's from the rural areas that you get the most gutsy players." His wards are quick to point at the likes of MS Dhoni and Umesh Yadav as examples.
Guruswamy laughs when I draw the comparison between him and de Villiers, and says, "That's all part of modern batting, so I practise it all the time." They talk of how good fielding is central to playing good cricket, and how they had a 15-day "fielding camp" in the lead up to the tournament.
These well-informed replies are not what I expected from these small-town kids. They are echoed by the boys on the other finalist team, Valmiki High School from Kadiri, which has won the competition two years running and is one of the big names in school cricket in the state. Their team made it to the final phase of the BCCI's inter-school tournament earlier this year, having been district, zonal and state champions on the way there.
Ajay Rahul, Valmiki's 14-year-old captain, says there is now a "balance between sports and studies in our school". Not just cricket; volleyball, badminton, kabaddi and kho-kho are played. "Sports keeps the kids mentally tough and physically fit, and we see sports as a means to secure good college seats," their PET, Chennakesava, says.
Rahul reiterates the important role television - most villages across the district have access to cable TV now - seems to play. "On TV, we observe field settings and how bowlers set up batsmen. Our coach sets assignments where we need to watch the games and make notes on them and share it all with the team. This is how we learn new things."
This is the kind of commitment that allows RDT to make a difference, Ferrer says. "The important thing is, you've got to involve the locals. In Kambadur, the children's interest is there, the teachers' interest is there, the general public there will be very keen. So basically what I will tell them is, 'Okay, show me some space [to set up a sub-centre]', and you see how fast they will show you that space."
There have been challenges, of course. Among them are girls (they had their own high-school tournament for the first time this year, with 45 teams taking part) who are too shy to wear training shorts, and boys who don't have underwear to wear box guards under. Ferrer is firm on the children wearing full kits, provided by RDT, once the tournament moves to the sports village for the knockouts, following the league phase, which is played in the villages of the 340 participating teams.
The biggest problem, he says, is poor nutrition. "If you look at them, they are all malnourished in sports terms," he says. "Thirty years ago, three meals a day in Anantapur was a luxury. Now almost everyone eats three meals a day, but it's not balanced. It's all rice and a little dal. They're all full of energy but skinny bags of bones. If you see our academy kids, we feed them up and within a year they start looking like sportspersons, muscles and all. Sadly, this is not the case across the district."
Ferrer says the district's many needs were what drew his parents here four decades ago, and, satisfyingly, their NGO has made something of a difference. "RDT's impact has been quite big - it has helped get people into a different mode, into development mode, displacing the traditional thinking of Anantapur being backward. Housing, village ecology, health, education, new opportunities in agriculture, like dairy farming, horticulture, we're into many things."
With sport, RDT favours a comprehensive developmental approach. Not only are the children trained, the coaches, scorers and curators are encouraged to pursue formal training as well; many have BCCI accreditation. This helps especially when it comes to the high-school tournament.
"This is very likely the biggest district tournament in the world, and the logistics are huge; thousands of players, umpires, scorers, markers, grounds, scoresheets, balls, equipment... You need around 100 umpires minimum, because it's spread out all over the place. Before this tournament, we had one or two qualified umpires, now we have a large number of qualified umpires in the district and it helps us grow even more."
RDT does coordinate with the district sports associations, and the Andhra Cricket Association "has helped somewhat over the years by providing materials, lawn mowers", but the majority of the funding comes from donors.
"We've got to raise money for sport, like we raise it for everything else, and we've put the sports village together part by part over the past ten years," Ferrer says. "The high-school tournament, I'd say, is sponsored by the general public of Anantapur. Each year we send out a letter to all the commercial enterprises, banks, individuals, asking for their aid, and this year we raised Rs 11 lakh [about $18,350] for sports. We also get a lot of help, for the other sports, from Spain."
The Spanish connection is strong, and that comes down to his father being from Spain, Ferrer says. The tennis courts are funded by Rafael Nadal's foundation, and Nadal flew down himself to inaugurate them in 2010. His mother will visit in October, to inaugurate the court's newly installed floodlights. For the summer, David Costa, who is a tennis coach in the Canary Islands, is at the sports village and he's arranging to have a small group of young tennis players come over and play. The hockey project is also totally funded by a Spanish donor. Andreu Elrich, who has played hockey for Spain's senior team, was down in June and he's a frequent visitor, as is his team-mate Santi Freixa. There are also the two academies Barcelona FC set up in Anantapur about six years ago, their only two in Asia at the time, in partnership with RDT.
The high-school tournament, though, remains the main draw. Anantapur's support for the tournament is on display on the day of the final, when villagers arrive in lorries. Drummers from the villages that have made it to the final go crazy for everything from wickets to dot balls by their team.
On the whole, it's a very cosmopolitan affair: the PA blares out Shakira and "Gangnam Style", "Jai Ho" and "Kolaveri Di", the commentators let the frenzied crowd know what is going on in English and Hindi, and Valmiki High School team, as it closes in on a hat-trick of titles, brings out Usain Bolt's lightning-bolt celebration. Yes, there has been much progress in Anantapur.
Nikita Bastian is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo