Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Even seen a 17-year-old bowl fast or hit monstrous sixes and wondered if he was "at least 20-21"? If you felt the same watching Rasikh Salam, the Jammu & Kashmir fast bowler who played for Mumbai Indians in IPL 2019, your worst fears are true.
Documents have proved Rasikh is two years older than he claims to be. This became public after a BCCI investigation pointed to a mismatch between two "original birth certificates" obtained from different sources. There were also discrepancies between these and his school-leaving certificate.
Rasikh has now been banned for two years from all cricket under the BCCI. That, by extension, means no IPL or even exposure to corporate cricket - he was to train at Reliance's own training facility in Navi Mumbai as part of a scholarship programme, and be fielded in the city's robust corporate and league system. He has also been withdrawn from the India Under-19 squad that is to tour England. A promising career has come to a grinding halt.
Can't he undergo an age test to prove his innocence?
The emphatic answer is "no." Since 2012, the BCCI has been using the Tanner Whitehouse 3 method that determines the age of a child based on the growth of the bones in the wrist. This test, however, is accurate only up to the age of 16, since the "long bones in the body fuse," according to Dr. Abhijit Salvi, BCCI's age test and anti-doping consultant. "As such, the tests can't ascertain the specific age. But there have been cases where a player's documents prove he is below 16, but his bone maturity indicates otherwise.
"The BCCI and the state associations are bound by a legal agreement that prevents them from fielding players deemed 'overage' by these tests. Because the physical abilities of those with bone maturity far greater than many others could provide them with unfair advantage. Therefore, even though their age verification may be authentic, they may have to miss out. But this crops up only at the Under-16 level." In this case, since Rasikh's documents already prove he is 19, the test is ruled out.
What are the BCCI's challenges during this verification process?
Verifying those players who directly come into the system at the Under-19 or Under-23 level can be tricky, although such cases are rare. For date of birth, the BCCI's primary documents for verification are the birth certificate, hospital birth records and school mark sheets. Passport and passing certificates of Class X and Class XII are additional supporting documents.
This method, however, has proven to be a challenge especially because there have been cases of players from rural areas being unable to furnish documents such as school-leaving certificates because they haven't undergone formal schooling. Hand-written panchayat birth certificates haven't been easy to verify either. As a first step, from the upcoming season, the BCCI will accept only digitalised certificates issued by Birth & Death Registry.
Is there scope for tampering at the state level?
Yes, this was a challenge until a few years ago, when the BCCI depended on the hospital chain it had tied up with to conduct document verification. However, over the last four years, the board has appointed independent medical practitioners who aren't connected in any capacity with state associations to conduct this process of age verification.
"The officer first conducts the ID verification and the players are sent for bone testing only if these documents are authentic," explains Dr. Salvi. "The local hospitals only do a digital X-ray of the player's hand and wrist and email the image with the player's headshot, name, etc directly to BCCI's Age Verification Department and the TW3 bone age rating is done by Radiologists on the BCCI's panel. This has helped bypass potential cases of tampering of documents at the state level."
Has the issue been spoken about widely by respected voices?
It was in the headlines in 2016 when Rahul Dravid, the current India A and India Under-19 head coach, said in his MAK Pataudi Lecture that the "scourge of overage players in junior cricket" was no different to "fixing and corruption." As a first step, Dravid put in place a process with the BCCI to limit players to appearing at an Under-19 World Cup only once, even if they were eligible to play a second tournament.
"Like the issue of bowling actions, it is a similar emphasis on short-term results that has led to the scourge of overage players in junior matches," Dravid said at the lecture. "That entire exercise begins when a coach alters a player's date of birth so that he can take part in a local tournament. The parents are happy to accept the value of an extra year or two, particularly in junior cricket and, academically, at middle school.
"The truth is that the player who has faked his age might make it at the junior level not necessarily because he is better or more talented, but because he is stronger and bigger. We all know how much of a difference a couple of years can make at that age. That incident will have another ripple effect: an honest player deprived of his place by an overage player, is disillusioned. We run the risk of losing him forever."
A former BCCI match referee, who retired in 2014, remembered how a number of associations in the north moaned about their inability to field overage players upon learning of his appointment to oversee games. Having been away from the system, he now hopes the new methods the BCCI has adopted will not only help prevent rampant age-fudging but also set an example for the nine new state associations.
How have state associations dealt with the issue?
Overage for Under-23? No problem, play state cricket without any reprimand. This in a nutshell has been the attitude of a number of state associations where discrepancies in documents have cropped up. A seasoned coach in the domestic circuit believes the BCCI needs to introduce retrospective action for players tampering with their documents.
Manjot Kalra, who struck a match-winning century in the Under-19 World Cup final last year, is in the dock for providing an incorrect date of birth. In 2017, he was cleared by the BCCI but was hauled up by the Delhi & Districts Cricket Association (DDCA) after disgruntled parents of fellow Under-19 cricketers in Delhi alleged that Kalra had provided false information. An investigation by the Delhi police has revealed Kalra is a year older than furnished, which made him ineligible to participate in the Under-19 World Cup.
In the same year, Nitish Rana was among 22 cricketers barred by the BCCI for representing Delhi in age-group tournaments after discrepancies were discovered in their dates of birth. Rana, already an established member of Delhi's senior team, is yet to incur any reprimand or fine, since the BCCI is seeking a legal opinion to ascertain if the complainant has to be the board or the state association. The case is ongoing.
In September 2011, Ankit Bawne was removed from the India Under-19 squad after the date of birth in his passport didn't match the one in his birth certificate and the BCCI's records. Bawne protested that the agent who arranged for his passport had messed up the date. The selectors, not wanting to take a risk, left him out and Unmukt Chand took over the captaincy.
So what can the BCCI do to counter this?
Bishan Bedi, the former India captain, says cases like those of Kalra and Rana have "destroyed the fabric of the game."
"The onus is squarely on the BCCI," Bedi says. "They must put a stop to this. You can't turn a blind eye to this problem, which has always been there at least in Delhi. As the parent body, it's the BCCI's responsibility. It's short-sightedness. There is no honesty or integrity anywhere. It's not what cricket stands for. BCCI must - they must - take cognizance of the situation."
Bedi believes doing away with the Under-23 tournament, the CK Nayudu Trophy, will be a good first step. This, he feels, gives cricketers a second line of opportunity should they not make the senior state side. "Why do we need Under-23 cricket now?" Bedi asks. "If at 23 you can't play first-class cricket, then you're not good enough. Why do you need to play age-group cricket at 23?"
With the new season imminent, the board's steps for age-verification are laudable, but given that the number of registered players in India is significantly higher compared to Australia or England, the BCCI is challenged by a number of factors. Unlike in most developed countries where births are documented immediately and leave little scope for tampering, there are several cases in rural India where a foolproof system doesn't exist.
While there isn't yet a full-fledged programme to rehabilitate players banned for age fraud, the BCCI is beginning to help out those seeking counselling to prevent many such cases going forward. It is also looking to spread the message that age-fudging, a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code, can ruin careers, Rasikh's being an example.