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Indian cricket's greatest nursery

In search of the new Kohli

Anand Vasu
01-Dec-2020
An aerial view of the Karnataka Institute of Cricket Academy  [KIOC]  on Commercial Street  •  Tina Nandi

An aerial view of the Karnataka Institute of Cricket Academy [KIOC] on Commercial Street  •  Tina Nandi

Early on an October morning in Bangalore, southern India, the skies are dark grey, and rain has collected in muddy puddles by the roadside. Over a hundred children - some in whites, some in coloured clothing, some under umbrellas held by anxious parents, some blissfully drenched - wait at the gates of the Karnataka Institute of Cricket. They will open, as they always do, at six.
Anywhere else, there would be no queues, for the unseasonal all-night downpour would have made cricket impossible. Here, it's just another day. The rain has stopped for the moment, and the groundsmen are doing their bit, refreshing the run-ups on the artificial turf with gravel chips, removing the covers, and mopping up the edges where water has seeped in. Then, as if receiving an invisible sign, a choreographed dance begins. There are never enough nets for practice - and there are more nets here (36 in all) than at any other private facility in the world. Even most Test grounds do not have 36 that can be used simultaneously.
KIOC opened on April 19, 1996, and have not shut for a single day since. This is not an exaggeration: there are no holidays, no Christmas, no Eid, no Diwali. For nearly 25 years, they have operated day in, day out. The average daily footfall is over 1,500, though never more than 2,000, which feels too crowded. There is nowhere quite like it in India (Mumbai's Shivaji Park is more of a shared public space), and almost certainly nowhere quite like it anywhere else.
It's a serious business - as serious as cricket gets. KIOC employ 75 fulltime coaches, and usually have between 15 and 20 on call. Over the years, they have produced more than 100 players who have gone on to represent Karnataka at various levels, and international cricketers, male and female, for India, the United States of America, even England.
There is a delicious circle in operation. Young hopefuls come here because they believe the institute can set them on a path - competitive club cricket first, then age-group representative cricket, eventually first-class cricket. As thousands churn through, the cream rises. And when they succeed, they become poster boys or girls (the split is roughly 85-15, which is less one-sided than most Indian coaching centres). They in turn drive ever more young aspirants back in the institute's direction. So much so that KIOC need to downplay expectations: every child walking through the door dreams of becoming the next Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli.
The man behind it all is Irfan Sait, a Level 3 certified coach who has been involved with cricket in Karnataka - the state of Erapalli Prasanna and Gundappa Viswanath, Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid - since the 1980s. He is also the gatekeeper.
"We sit parents across the table, and tell them not to put pressure on the child about selections, Karnataka and India and all that," he says. "Let the child enjoy the game first. A time will come when we will be able to sit back and say that this boy has the potential and the skill to play at a higher level.
"As they say, if talent doesn't work hard, hard work will beat talent. There will be someone who is less skilful, but he can overtake. A time comes when you have to push further with fitness, speed, skills, agility. Till such time, enjoy your child's cricket. It's a sporting event, not some kind of race to be selected."
Irfan needs to maintain a balance, for he cannot talk his academy down. After all, kids do not come here for recreational sport. The hope of being picked by the Karnataka state team, who have won the Ranji Trophy eight times (only Mumbai have won more), or for the Twenty20 Karnataka Premier League, is on the minds of ambitious youngsters and pushy parents alike. "We keep them grounded," says Irfan. "Not everyone who wears pads and picks up a bat is going to play like Kohli."
While that should be obvious, for parents who funnel their children into such institutes, there is a certain roll of the dice. "I was told my son has the potential to go far," says I. B. Raj, father of 12-year-old Rakshit, who is enrolled full-time. "But we had to test this. The only way to do that was to put him in a place like this. He'll get thrown in the deep end, and soon we will know if he can swim or not."
Rakshit appears to be enjoying the experience. "See, I never got a chance to play cricket all day before this," he says. "From morning to evening I am here. In other places, I would do a net or two, then go home. Here, I finish my session, then hang around. Even if I can't bat, I can bowl in any net. And there is always someone watching me and helping, even when I'm bowling my left-arm spin rather than batting. I'd rather bowl than simply sit at home."
The financial investment is significant. A child enrolled in the weekend classes alone will pay Rs22,000 (about £235) a year. Those who push harder, taking in two sessions a day, five days a week, pay double. This may not sound like a fortune, but in India it is not easy for middle-class parents, especially when your child may never reach the heights. Throw in the cost of kit, which probably exceeds the coaching fee, and it is quite a commitment.
KIOC have found ways to ease the burden. Once a cricketer is earmarked as a serious prospect, the fee is removed. And if he or she is from outside Bangalore - and many are, even from outside Karnataka - accommodation and meals are free too. The idea is that the investment will eventually payoff: successful and recognised players stay loyal to the academy, promote it on social media, and attract the next crop.
Irfan concedes cricket has become an expensive sport, but adds: "There is no sport today that is cheap, if you pursue it seriously. Any coaching comes with a cost. There are ways we can help, if a player is good. We have our own equipment store. All the manufacturers and dealers are with us. We speak to one of them, and explain that so-and-so is good, but comes from a background where he can't afford the best of equipment: can you sponsor him? When we tell manufacturers a player is likely to make it to a certain level, we are taken seriously. Not a single manufacturer has said no to us."
KIOC can also offer the enticement of teams in all five divisions of the Karnataka League: in total, they own, manage or run 13. And they have multiple grounds in the city, so they can organise practice matches for their wards, giving coaches a chance to assess players in game situations.
The other thing KIOC have done well is to rope in big names. Not long after he finished as coach of the Indian team, Gary Kirsten ran a half-day session, followed by interactions with the players and the media, bringing the academy profile and stature. Cynics may dismiss this as a marketing ploy, but it can take unexpected turns. When the former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe was working in Bangalore as a media pundit for ESPNcricinfo, he agreed to run a session. And what was meant to be a one-off turned into something else altogether. Crowe was so taken with the sheer number of players, and their enthusiasm, that he began turning up for whole afternoons, free of charge, just watching batsmen, offering a word here and there, and sharing his knowledge with youngsters still finding their feet.
"Martin Crowe was always floral in his compliments," says Irfan. "The day he walked in here, he told me he had never seen anything like this, anywhere in the world. What struck him most was the intensity and passion of our youngsters. The word he used was awestruck. Someone like Crowe had gone around the world, but the passion, the way young kids work, some of them training and practising the whole day… he really was awestruck."
While thousands of cricketers have passed through KIOC, several high profile internationals have publicly acknowledged its contribution to their own careers, including Indian women internationals Mamatha Maben, Karuna Jain, Nooshin Al Khadeer, Veda Krishnamurthy and Vellaswamy Vanitha. Then there are USA captain Sindhu Sriharsha, Akshatha Rao (also of the USA) and Sonia Odedra, who played a Test for England in 2014.
In the men's game, the biggest names are Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey, Mayank Agarwal and Shreyas Gopal; from the current crop, Devdutt Padikkal and Shubhang Hegde are making waves. Agarwal, who was averaging 67 from his nine Tests by the end of 2019, put it like this: "The sun never sets on KIOC." He was referring to the fact that when the gates close at 10pm, the first ball is being bowled in a satellite academy, more than 8,500 miles away in San Francisco. Whether anyone will say so explicitly, the hunt for the next Kohli is well under way.
Anand Vasu has written about cricket for 20 years.