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