Venkat Ananth

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Cricket Academies: The Way Forward

 

This is the second part of Yahoo Cricket's coverage of BCCI's specialised academies. [Read Part 1.]

 

Part I of this piece was about the specialised academies that the BCCI has put in place to enable talent development, according to their skills - pace bowling, spin bowling, wicketkeeping and batting. The piece was concluded with the view that these academies are not quite the way forward, primarily because they limit the scope of talent development based on perceived excellence in specific skills, rather than a wider range of qualities that eventually separate the chaff from the grain.

 

“Skills” refers to the inherent ability of any cricketer to play the straightest of drives, elbow facing the bowler. Or even that rare display of intent by a spinner to deceive a batsman with flight, loop and dip. These are things you’re taught at a young age. Surely, that’s not enough, or is it?

 

What about the qualities required to make the cut? For a batsman — the ability to plan his innings in a particular manner, depending upon the conditions, the opposition, the situation and so on. For a bowler, it becomes the ability to bowl to set batsmen, work the batsman over, outthink him or even do the donkey job of bowling for the lad from the other end. These qualities aren’t taught with bowling machines and speed guns.

 

Where Indian cricket could learn from football than simply aping a club tournament concept would be in the strong emphasis on scouting, and not through tournaments like the Indian Premier League or the Champions League T20, or any T20 tournament for that matter, where the format conceals a lot more about a player than it reveals. Importantly, the academy structure deserves a thorough review and it needs to get centralised than delegate their responsibility to these specialized academies.

 

Too Much Coaching

 

Fundamentally, the failure of the BCCI’s Specialized Academy stems from two important factors — multiplicity of coaches and the selection of players. The huge number of coaches and techniques a player is exposed to by age 18-19 leaves him confused.

A cricketer is exposed to at least six levels of coaching techniques before he enters the specialized academies, where the number increases to 7. Confused?

Levels of exposure? School, state academy, state age groups (14s/16s/19s - all separately), National Cricket Academy and finally the specialist academy. All this, at an age where the young lad simply wants to play as much cricket as he possibly could.

 

So what’s the way forward, you ask? Here are some possible solutions.

 

 

Bring back the TRDW

 

Firstly, there is an urgent need to bring back the concept of the Talent Resource and Development Wing of the BCCI, which was designed and recommended by veteran cricket journalist and administrator Makarand Waingankar, initiated by the then BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya and executed to perfection by former India batsman Dilip Vengsarkar, who headed the body.

 

Sadly, it became a rather unfortunate victim of regime change (like everything good the BCCI does) and was virtually abandoned in 2006 by Sharad Pawar & Co. The concept, per-se is fairly simple — it provided Indian cricket with a mechanism which enabled an intensive, systematic player scouting and identification process of quality talent across the country, from the sport’s traditional hinterlands to the nondescript districts of the country, which were otherwise neglected by successive cricketing establishments due to various reasons.

 

A stand-out feature of that set-up was a degree of objectivity in the assessment of a talent by more than one scout for a definite period of time. This went a long way in temporarily doing away with the concept of zonal and state-based selection fiefdoms and brought a certain degree of centrality to both talent identification and development. In fact, it is to this system’s credit that the World Cup-winning Indian squad had as many as 6-8 members who had been through the TRDW regime.

 

This concept aimed to remove the inevitability of bias in selection of players across levels. How did they do this? There were 20-25 TRDOs (or Talent Resource and Development Officers) in place, former first-class cricketers or internationals. Their job was to watch almost 350-400 matches played annually in the country, across age group levels, across formats and assess players independently.

 

Every player who played the BCCI-qualified tournaments was being assessed by multiple TRDOs at different stages during different matches, without being given an opportunity to share their assessments. The reports were compiled and calculated and analyzed annually through a talent and performance criteria, and the cricketers coming through this process would be picked for further development at the National Cricket Academy.

 

The pyramid here would have a stronger, broader base covered from all sides, thus helping the top, unlike its inverted form that Indian cricket was following pre-TRDWs and is also in place with the specialized academies, where instead of broadbasing, there’s an element of narrowing and shortlisting  on fairly subjective criteria.

 

The Problem of Academy Intakes

 

Secondly, the concept of selection as far as academy intakes go needs to be revisited. In 2001, the National Cricket Academy introduced the Colonel Hemu Adhikari Trophy, which was essentially meant to be a four-day competition played in Bangalore, usually around the first three weeks of June to help assist the NCA with their intakes.

 

The five zonal academies — East, West, North, South and Central and the Rest (players ignored by the Zonal teams) — with a squad of 25 each played against each other and again, through intensive scouting the top 30 or so from this tournament are awarded scholarships with the National Cricket Academy.

 

This tournament was last played in 2009 and subsequently, the BCCI replaced the zonal academies with these specialized ones, because it felt the state associations with supposedly “world-class” facilities were doing the job rather well. Fair enough.

 

What the BCCI doesn’t get is that in the process, selection of players could depend on variables than constants like performances and ability, and that you’re not too sure if the right talent is coming through. The Hemu Adhikari trophy played a big part in giving the age-group players a worthy platform to get noticed and win a scholarship. It incentivized performances and didn’t guarantee a scholarship spot.

 

Today, as an East Zone association member told me when working on Part I of this series, “If a bowler concedes 80 runs in 12 overs, because he comes from a powerful association, his name is recommended to the junior selection committee.” What is the justification?

 

On the contrary, doesn’t the selection of an ordinary talent due to non-cricketing reasons become unfair to a promising lad, trying to firm up his best in every opportunity? Glossing over the “only-30-can-be-picked” excuse that we seem to have mastered, can we please ask if those 5 of those 30 really deserve to be there?

 

Fix the National Cricket Academy

 

Thirdly, are these specialist cricket academies undermining the larger role of the NCA must play in Indian cricket? Possibly. The problem lies in the prism through which we see the NCA today. For some, it’s a glorified rehabilitation centre for contracted cricketers. For others, it’s just another cricket academy. Sadly, it needs to reinvent itself to find a relevance in today’s cricketing ecosystem.

 

How? Here are some suggestions.

 

Use the NCA more as a graduating school, or a finishing school. Specialist academies have no business to operate separately. A functional academy should consist of specialist units, with dedicated coaching staff. Rather bizarrely, the specialist academy committee, isn’t even a sub-committee (like the IPL conveniently is) under the NCA Committee headed by Anil Kumble.

 

We can revitalise the academy structure and make it relevant, but not simply by upgrading facilities and calling them world-class. At the end of the day, it is the personnel and not the bowling machines that help mould a cricketer and I think this is where the BCCI could learn a thing or two from, say, England or Australia.

 

Effectively, the National Cricket Academy should be a graduation school, much like universities — a three-year programme where the cricketer doesn’t just learn about the perfect out-swinger, but also effective communication skills and lifestyle development.

 

Additionally (and Part III of this story will have more on this), the academy intakes should feature as the sixth team in the zonal tournaments and could easily replace the India Greens in the Challengers and some of the better wards could represent India in the Emerging Players’ tourney (along with India A regulars).

 

Yes, the existing talent development narrative in Indian cricket goes back and forth to the need for more ‘A’ tours and better domestic standards, which is a bare minimum considering the churn India might go through rather soon. But what is equally, if not more, important is the urgent need to evaluate and reform our feeder setups — much of which are in shambles (as much as the BCCI will deny this) and focus a bit more on streamlining our talent scouting and development mechanisms, so that in years to come, the pipeline won’t dry out.

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