As we celebrate Team India’s splendid run, we must remember the vital role played by the NCA

Team India’s astonishing form over the past few years owes to the nurturing role of the National Cricket Academy, helmed now by the legendary Rahul Dravid

When India tap-danced on the burning deck and still ambushed Australia in its back yard, a prospect that once seemed bleak considering it was a weakened squad plagued by injuries and the absence of regular personnel, it was the biggest ‘shock and awe’ moment in recent sporting history. Delirium within Indian fans was inevitable and the cricketing world applauded.

David quelling Goliath is an enduring trope, and this triumph, a 2-1 series verdict in Tests, is burnt into our collective memories and is one tinged with warm nostalgia. There was Eden Gardens in 2001 when V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh scripted a miracle to stun the Aussies and ruined Steve Waugh’s ‘Final Frontier’ plans. To that rich array of the greatest Houdini acts in sport, Ajinkya Rahane’s men added their latest heist in the fourth Test at Brisbane’s Gabba on January 19.

Just as champagne bottles were popped in that dressing room, a thought took shape and leapt across the aerial distance of 9,274 km that splits Brisbane from Bengaluru. Across Twitter, that instant tool to express angst and ecstasy, and for some to reveal their petulance or herd-mentality, it was a surreal moment suffused with gratitude. Many whispered about the National Cricket Academy (NCA), located inside the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium premises.

Yes, it was time to celebrate a splendid win and give credit to the coaching staff led by Ravi Shastri, but it was also apt to remember the wheels that run Indian cricket’s conveyor belt. And what better place to honour within memory’s alcoves than the NCA, for its role in charting out a roadmap for talented youngsters?

As the academy was being celebrated, another individual and his quiet role in bolstering the bench strength of the Indian squad was remembered. Massive in stature but someone who shuns the limelight, loves the rustle of books and the odd wisecrack with his close friends, Dravid is a throwback to a more genteel past of solid work and few words. The former India captain and batting legend heads the NCA besides coaching the India ‘A’ and under-19 squads.

Rigours of the game

Just as Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar were proving their quality in jousts against Australia, what sprung to mind was the pep talks given to them by Shastri and the support that the NCA and Dravid extended to them as they came through the ranks.

Rahul Dravid brings a hands-on, no-nonsense approach to his role as NCA head | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

For all his immense stature as a cricketer, Dravid is always grateful to his coaches, be it the late Keki Tarapore or the many former players who guided him when he shone as a bright talent. In the past, Dravid has written about the overnight train journeys when, as a Ranji player, he listened wide-eyed to the tales from greats like G.R. Viswanath while also leafing through Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

After he joined the pantheon of cricketing greats and retired, Dravid briefly dabbled with commentary. He then chose to do the hard yards as a coach. Youngsters have to cope with the rigours of the willow game while also being caught up with acne, first love, academic stress and teenage anxieties. It isn’t an easy state to be in. Dravid wrote perceptive lines in the book Cricket Drona co-authored by Jatin Paranjape and Anand Vasu: “Some of the kids, if they have the wrong experience with the game early on, end up not just leaving cricket but turning their back on sports in general, and this is dangerous. As a coach dealing with someone who is just starting out in a sport, you need to give your students a grounding in the game while at the same time making it interesting and fun for them.”

It is not that the NCA and Dravid had a magic wand but both the institution and the cricketing great are at a point when the accrual benefits of a system that took shape over two decades ago are yielding visible results. The academy was a pet project of former BCCI president, the late Raj Singh Dungarpur, who was keen to have a cricketing finishing school which had the best coaching inputs, state-of-the-art fitness accessories and generous mentors. Bangalore, as Bengaluru was known then, was picked for its pleasant weather and with the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) earmarking space within the Chinnaswamy Stadium premises besides lending the KSCA (B) Ground for training, the NCA was launched in 2000.

Holistic approach

Every summer, age-group camps for the best young cricketers in India were then held at the academy. It also became a coaching start-up, incubating ideas and embracing new technologies, and was open to global expertise. Besides its structured coaching programmes, it also dealt with the Indian team’s preparatory camps while individual senior players were also free to use the facility to train. The NCA wasn’t just about players; it was also about helping coaches evolve. It conducted innumerable certification courses, and this trickled down to the States as guiding methods and fitness yardsticks were standardised.

Players during training sessions at NCA inside M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru | Photo Credit: G.P. Sampath Kumar

The best coaches, physiotherapists, trainers and nutritionists all became part of the academy’s canopy. Eminent coaches like the late Hanumant Singh and Vasoo Paranjape and talent scouts like Makarand Waingankar were all part of the initial blend. It was not just always about sport; there were sessions with business leaders, and even media-handling classes were held with Prannoy Roy and a few veteran sports scribes stepping in.

Dravid was a regular and there is this anecdote about him that reveals his no-fuss air. Once as a player, he turned up a wee bit early for his morning workout. But the gates were shut, he hung around quietly, gazed at the various cricketing greats’ pictures lining the walls and once the staff turned up, he accessed the gym and did his routines. Now when he walks in thanks to his administrative-mentorship role, the same old style of quiet dignity and reticence is back in vogue.

Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Anil Kumble have all helmed the academy at various points. So did Brijesh Patel, Sandeep Patil, Shastri and Shivlal Yadav, to name a few. Some of them due to their other commitments were absentee guides, keeping a tab through the Internet and also popping up for meetings. With Dravid in the lead role, there is a more hands-on approach. He drives down from his home near the Old Airport Road and has tightened the system.

However, it was never smooth for the academy, which was once derisively referred to as Indian cricket’s hospital, considering the number of players doing their injury-rehabilitation stints. There seemed to be an identity crisis, and within the BCCI some even speculated about shifting it to other cities. To make it worse, in the past a few cricketers who were certified fit broke down on the field.

There was another angle to it too as the then Indian management took a punt on a few players, leaning on their class and hoping they would perform on the park. The gamble didn’t exactly pay off and in the process, the NCA became a convenient punching bag. To plug this loophole, Dravid has added rigour to the testing routines and the Bangalorean has been firm about the way the academy clears a player’s fitness.

Players during training sessions at NCA inside M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru | Photo Credit: Sampath Kumar G. P.

The NCA may have the best of facilities but it finally boils down to individual players to make the most of it. And form could be transient: for instance Prithvi Shaw, who came through the system, is searching for a spark to revive his career. The academy can only add to what has already been acquired or finessed, be it skill-sets, fitness or attitude, over the years from the existing infrastructure in the respective States.

For now, the academy has struck roots in Bengaluru while an alternative land parcel has been identified so that a full-fledged facility could be carved out in the future. As Indian cricket’s caravan moves to Ahmedabad for the next part of the current Test series against England, its factory settings still rest within the NCA even as its commercial heart remains in Mumbai.

Team goals

Dravid has always sought the cumulative rewards of hard work. If his 2004 Multan declaration left Sachin Tendulkar stranded on 194, it was also about driving home the point that the team’s goals are always more important than individual records. The same benchmark is being adhered to in the way he is dealing with the academy and the junior teams he shepherds. Dravid is looking at the bigger picture while not losing sight of the specifics.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the lull it bequeathed to sport, affected the academy too as many coaches found their contracts not being renewed. Most of them were backed by Dravid. It is expected that as the academy’s Director of Cricket, he would paper over these cracks and get the personnel back once the scars of the virus heal and cricket revives at the domestic level. And it is expected that eventually the various camps would commence and the serendipitous meetings innate to the academy would surface, like a Mithali Raj and Dravid exchanging batting notes or a Jhulan Goswami running into a Jasprit Bumrah.

While tipping a hat to the academy, it would also be prudent to acknowledge the contributions made by the Chennai-based MRF Pace Foundation in grooming fast bowlers. When you see gripping cricket out on the field, also do recognise the furnaces in which all this talent is burnished.

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