Yahoo! Cricket's Venkat Ananth spent weeks trying to make sense of BCCI's mysterious expenditure on three specialised academies. It proved difficult.
The attempt to unearth any positive work by these academies was thwarted by administrators who refused to speak on record. This forced us to approach players and other sources who didn't wish to be named. They told us that while these academies did exist, their roles left much to be desired.
This first-person account also explores the possible reasons behind BCCI choosing to shroud the academies in secrecy.
The Curious Case of The Annual Report
Recently, the BCCI uploaded their meticulously-prepared annual report to their website, perhaps for the first time in their history. The stated objective was to bring about a level of hitherto unseen transparency and accountability with an inherently corporatised outlook which the Board's President N. Srinivasan embodies in his capacity as the managing director of India Cements.
Good start, one thought. The report's contents, all of 79 pages, were embellished with photographs of officials and cut-outs of cricketers. In this gimcrackery were some numbers worth crunching.
A certain expenditure of Rs. 9 crore stood out in the report, invoking curiosity. Things didn't add up, so thus began the pursuit of this story on the specialised academies that the BCCI has put in place in three centres - Mumbai (batting), Chennai (spin and wicketkeeping) and Mohali (pace bowling).
The stated objective of these academies is to enable a feeder system for the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Equally, the virtual abandonment of the Talent Resource and Development Wing (TRDWs) by the BCCI for a system like this was something that was also explored, and will be explained in the second part of this story.
Are These Academies For Real?
Curious details emerged from the Annual Report. For example, the timing and duration of the camps at these academies during the off-season in Mumbai and for a period of only 21 days defies cricketing logic. This short period isn't good enough to either enhance a cricketer's skill or even change it completely.
Then, we have the facilities.
By all counts, these facilities were put in place by host associations like Tamil Nadu, Mumbai or Punjab Cricket. Basically, no new infrastructure was procured, except say a speed gun in Mohali and a set of personnel - mainly the support staff - which by all means gave the academy an impressive outlook.
At first, one had the sense that these were phantom academies since the BCCI have fallen shy of promoting them adequately. I was surprised to learn they actually exist and are functioning. But keeping to the ways of the current BCCI regime, the representatives of the academies refused to field any questions about their programs, the cricketers trained by them, or even the sort of facilities they had - ostensibly because they didn't want any negative publicity for the employment created for them by the Board.
The reporting trail began with a mandatory call to the BCCI HQ and subsequently to all the respective associations where these three academies are located. Not surprisingly, I was told in no uncertain terms, "We are not allowed to speak to the media. If you want more information, please ask the BCCI president for more information".
I realised that a story on these academies - even a positive one highlighting their works - will not survive this stone-walling. Hence the story's objectives were restructured. A workaround was needed. So sources within the academy coaching and support staff were contacted. Some of their responses were bizarre.
The Shroud of Secrecy
Sameer Dighe, former Indian wicketkeeper and a coach at the wicketkeeping academy in Chennai said, "We are not allowed to speak to anyone from the media. Please speak to the manager of the academy."
That person, R Venkataraman, wasn't a let-down when he repeated the same line. "We are not allowed to speak to any journalists. You have to take the permission of the state association before talking to us."
Even a towering figure such as Karsan Ghavri (who took 109 Test wickets) wasn't above this blanket ban. But he did offer a reason why nobody within the setup wanted to speak on record.
Ghavri, now the pace bowling coach at Mohali said, "The BCCI hasn't allowed us to speak to the media after India's disastrous performances in England."
From what may have been a positive report on how the BCCI has finally got its act together at the grassroot level, my story now languished for the lack of leads - like it was Indian cricket's equivalent of the country's nuclear secrets. The specialised cricket academies lay hidden in their own chamber of secrets.
So What's Next?
With a whiff of frustration, and perhaps a final attempt at getting to something productive, I went on the player trail prompted by these words in the Annual Report: "The batch comprised of 5 wicketkeepers and 2 spinners." Who were these spinners, wicketkeepers, batsmen, pacemen?
Some of them could be traced through newspaper reports, mainly in the local press who hailed their selection to the camps at these centres. Frantic calls were made to these associations, and attempts were made to track down some of these lads for short, specific interviews. A eureka moment, perhaps? A breakthrough with help from fellow scribes and association members?
The players were asked to provide a sense of what these academies were like, the methods of training, facilities, and if these played an enabling role in their fledgling careers. These players offered mixed reviews.
A spinner said he thoroughly enjoyed the spin camp in Chennai, because all they made him do was bowl, and in a way, helped him work tirelessly on a skill he wanted to perfect.
But the next player, a pacer from the south, said his experience had left much to be desired. He had attended the Mohali academy just before the World Cup. With the mega-event preparations clashing with the camp, there was an acute shortage in attention given to the young players.
The young pacer made another complaint - a bizarre one - there was a lack of clothing for these cricketers during their stay in Mohali. Given the amount the BCCI claims to have spent on this project, this was unexpected.
A batsman who had attended a camp in Mumbai was highly critical of the setup at the Bandra-Kurla Complex. He said local bowlers and school cricketers from the maidaans were randomly picked to bowl at them. This means a genuine lack of quality in the bowling these batsmen faced.
At times, with shortage of practice bowlers, they would make do with the bowling machine indoors, or, as this player pointed out, engage the coaching staff for throw-downs.
A pace bowler from the India U-19 setup said these camps focussed on skills and tactics, but - astonishingly - some of the coaches tried changing their actions in very short durations. And by the time they go back to their home teams, they're left confused with no one to go back to.
The players spoken to felt that 21 days were too little to learn anything affectively. As a positive suggestion, they said the BCCI should hold longer camps. Further, according to a member of the support staff in one of the academies, they don't even maintain reports and records for further reference.
How Are They Selected?
The official line is that the All India Junior Selection committee picks some of these age-group players across age brackets and recommends them to the respective academies. Match referees who officiate in the senior, sub-junior and junior level matches have the additional responsibility of being talent scouts and send their reports to the TRDW of the NCA at Bangalore, who then allot players upon further recommendations.
A member of a South-Indian state association was asked if some of these selections are fair, and if there is a reward system. He said, "Sir, you know how cricket in India functions. These days, wealthy businessmen start private cricket academies in small towns and districts, and they play a big part in deciding district level administration. So they ensure that their boys are selected to play in junior level cricket and make it to academies also. There is favouritism, but we're trying to reduce it."
Not surprisingly, a month earlier Ghavri was quoted as saying, "Out of the 120 boys we have trained so far, we have shortlisted around 15 boys who are good and some of them bowl at 135 kmph in the nets. But I haven't seen a fast bowler touching 140 kmph still," before joining the call for longer camps.
He said, "Most of the boys either have a faulty run-up or fail to adjust their body balance. We try to correct them as much as we can but three weeks is not enough. Each camp should be of, at least five to six weeks to allow us to fine-tune their skills. Then we can accommodate more matches to check on their match fitness and introduce more modern drills for a lengthier period."
A senior BCCI official, who didn't wish to be named, admitted to problems within the specialized academies, but rebutted some of these complaints by saying, "We have spent a lot on this so how can you judge us after only one and half years? It took three or four years for the Australians and the English to build world-class academies. Give us time and the results will be there to see, we are fully confident of the same. Yes, the initial reports aren't great, but with more time and experience, we will learn and incorporate everyone's suggestions on the same."
He then added the now mandatory punch-line: "The BCCI started these academies in 2010 and you didn't want to write about it then. Now that we lost to England, all these stories are coming out."
A member of the recently-appointed Specialist Academies Committee said, "I can't comment on these academies right now because our committee is yet to meet officially. Once we meet within a week's time, I can give you details about the same. I have not yet visited the facilities because I have been appointed to this committee."
In conclusion of Part I of this story on the academies, it's time we ask if specialised academies are the way forward for Indian cricket. From one's brief understanding of the same, the answer is no.
Is this mechanism giving Indian cricket a better, wider talent base as, say, the TRDWs did? Or is it limiting selection based on specific skills? And where does the National Cricket Academy come into all this?
As an organization, the NCA has a lot of rebuilding and restructuring of its own to do than just turn into a rehabilitation centre for injured players from the national setup. Sadly, Indian cricket has a lot more than a defeat on the cricket field to answer for.