"Aap Bharatnagar jaa rahe hain? Woh toh cricket ka mandir hai! (Are you going to Bharatnagar? It is a temple for cricket!)" says an elderly gentleman, whom I had approached for directions to the well-known cricket academy.
It was six in the morning in Delhi and the city was just waking up. It's that time of the year when the mercury starts to drop in this neck of the woods. I didn't have much difficulty in finding my destination. Located in a very serene part of the city, and surrounded by trees is a sprawling cricket field.
I am at one of the biggest nurseries and supply lines of Indian cricket — a place that has for years been churning out top-notch players one after another; players who have gone on to conquer the world. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, many a memorable victory in Indian cricket was shaped at the fields of Bharatnagar.
A case in point and perhaps the biggest of them all: India's World Cup triumph in 2011, after 28 long years. Another is winning the inaugural World T20 in 2007. In both those tournaments, stellar roles were played by two of the graduates of this academy: Gautam Gambhir in the first, Gambhir and Joginder Sharma in the second. And there are more. Amit Mishra, who has bamboozled many a international batsman with his leg-spin, Unmukt Chand, the captain of the India U-19 World Cup-winning team of 2012, Nitish Rana, the star of the 2017 Indian Premier League (IPL), and a host of Ranji Trophy players.
"I have always believed that I am a gardener and have to take the greatest care of my saplings. If I go away, my plants and saplings would wilt. I see this academy as a garden that I have to take care of," says head coach, Sanjay Bhardwaj, as we sip tea so well made that it sets the mood for a gripping conversation. And sensing the opportunity, I delve deeper.
A few young boys and girls, clearly teenagers and all in cricket whites, come to take 'sir's' blessings. He discusses technical nuances with them for a few minutes, before turning towards me, as I set my equipment up for the interview.
Bhardwaj takes a lot of interest in the process. But I am curious. I am standing next to a man who has nurtured Indian cricket for years, in the same way that a father provides for his family, always seeing to it that the talent pool from which the Indian selectors can draw upon is always replenished. "You have produced so many top cricketers and so regularly; what has been the secret?" I ask.
"The biggest factor was that I had been disciplined and punctual. Also I had not made a beeline for personal assignments. I have been an NIS coach, a BCCI level three coach, but never sought to get personal assignments in a state, or the National Cricket Academy (NCA). Yes, I incur financial losses; I could have got personal assignments, I could have earned Rs 15-20 lakh if I had worked with an association. But I feel that even while incurring that loss, if I am able to produce a player who is valued at Rs 2-3 crore in the IPL, I stand to gain," Bhardwaj says, before adding, "If you can devote your fullest time to your job as a coach, only then would you be able to produce results. You will also have to create the proper environment."
He also points out that he has never hesitated to invite other coaches, some of them big names, to his academy. "I have never been an egoist. If I feel someone can contribute to the development of my students, I call him and arrange for his payment," Bhardwaj says.
The academy was founded in 1996 and Gambhir and Mishra were its first students to play the Ranji Trophy and for India. Bhardwaj tells me proudly that there are at least 35 graduates of this academy who are playing the Ranji Trophy at the moment. This apart, there are under-19 and under-23 cricketers, a number of whom are already ready to make the big splash.
One among them could well be Gaurav Kamboj, a tall, strapping left-arm quick, who had been bowling deliveries after deliveries at a single stump 22 yards away. He immediately catches the eye with a very fluid run-up and a fantastic rhythm. "Body bilkul peeche nahi jayegi (don't let your body fall backwards)," says one of the assistant coaches as the young Kamboj runs in, followed by a few words of encouragement as the tall pacer bowls another fine delivery.
"Our coach Sanjay Bhardwaj sir is a very good coach. He trains us very well and gives a lot of attention to everybody. The ground, wickets are also quite good. My coaches gave a lot of attention to my run-up. It wasn't too good earlier; I had a tendency to bowl no balls. Now that doesn't happen. The rhythm is perfect," says Kamboj, who has also played cricket in Australia and interacted with frontline Aussie pacer Pat Cummins.
Another eminent alumnus of this academy has been Kulwant Khejroliya, and Bhardwaj shares a heart-warming story on him. "Kulwant Khejroliya has been part of the Mumbai Indians squad in the IPL. He had acknowledged himself that he was a waiter and didn't even have shoes. After training here, he is now a player for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy. He was in the Indian Board President's XI squad against Australia (September, 2017). All these have been possible because our academy charges no fees."
Indeed this being a centre of the Delhi government, students who enrol here don't have to pay a penny, while enjoying guidance that they perhaps would not have got anywhere else. It is a speciality of the Bharatnagar academy, and given that cricket is otherwise a costly game, it is a point on which Bhardwaj's academy scores massively over some of the other centres in the country.
"Has it been difficult to manage the stars?" I ask Bhardwaj. "I don't think so." pat comes the reply. "These boys have been with me from classes six and seven, and so none of them feel they have become different (stars) one fine day. They don't think they are stars once they step onto the premises of this academy. Moreover, when Gautam Gambhir doesn't think of himself as a star, Nitish Rana would not think of himself as one, nor would Unmukt Chand, or Kulwant Khejroliya. When their 'elder brother' keeps his feet firmly on the ground, how can they give themselves airs?"
As we speak, behind us, a little boy, who would be no more than eight or nine-years-old, pulls a bowler who looks much older than him for a clean six over square leg.
"I am seeing very young children playing here. You have five-year-old kids playing here, and also the big international stars. So as a coach you would have to step down to the level of a five-year-old once, and then raise yourself to the level of a star. How do you manage to keep that balance?" I wonder.
"It is upon the coach to be a child with a child and then raise himself to the requisite level when dealing with a seasoned campaigner. You can't discriminate between your students on the basis of talent," replies Bhardwaj.
The chat then invariably moves towards Bhardwaj's star disciples. "I know Gautam (Gambhir) since 1992. I will show you a 25-year-old photo, when he was just a little kid. He was in class six at that time. I had shared it (on social media) on his birthday. So it is a 25-26-year-old relationship – almost quarter of a century," Bhardwaj says proudly.
"If you see his (Gambhir) stance in 2011 and that today, there has been a difference. In the past two IPLs, he had scored 500 runs each (501 in 2016 and 498 in 2017). The most important thing is that he had opened up his stance a bit, which ensured that he could watch the ball properly. Earlier he used to be a bit weak on the leg stump. He was also moving more towards his heels. When you do that, your body weight doesn't get transferred properly, your centre of gravity is not properly balanced. However, when you transfer your weight from your heel to the toe, your centre of gravity will be focused and you will be able to move freely. Gautam still has the zeal of a 12-year-old. He is a big player and a great learner," Bhardwaj explains.
He then fondly talks about how Rana had a knack of scoring big runs right from his under-13 days. "When he was 18-19-years-old, he used to think he could not hit sixes. Then in a T20 match he opened and slammed 150 off 72 balls and he was clearing the ropes with ease. He then realised that he could hit big sixes and became confident. He is a very studious player, has an attacking mindset and is very hardworking," Bhardwaj says.
A quality of the students of this academy is that they all come back here whenever they can to iron out their deficiencies. And a quality of the academy is that a lot of stress is put on strengthening its students mentally. The results have been there for all to see. If Gambhir played a sublime innings in the 2011 World Cup final after Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar had got out, anchoring India's chase, Joginder kept his nerve in the last over of the 2007 World T20 final, against Pakistan, no less. Rana steered the Mumbai Indians to victory in many IPL matches.
"If you see the greats of the game, whether it is Don Bradman, or anybody else, they had all maintained that cricket was 90 percent above the neck. We tend to believe that, but do not put it into practice. Ten percent is about your physical abilities. What we do is to focus our 100 percent on the physical part and neglect the mental aspect. So I encourage my students to read biographies. My Ph.D was also on mental training. If your mind and heart are not strong, you can't fight at all, whether it is a struggle in the family, school, or cricket. You have to fight alone against 11 players, and you have to focus on your mind and heart. And I concentrate all my energies on that," says Bhardwaj.
He was in the race for the coveted Dronacharya Award a few years back. Does missing out on an award perturb him? "See, awards are no doubt a recognition. And when the President of the country gives you an award, it is indeed a recognition. However, if you work only for getting awards, it would not be right," he says candidly.
For Bhardwaj, the biggest satisfaction lies in turning raw talents into some of the finest cricketers in the country – something that he has been doing for years. "When you have the prestige of an institution to maintain, there would naturally be pressure to keep producing results. But I feel that pressure is a positive pressure," he says.
"Youngsters should look to play honestly. Cricket should not be played only for selection, but one should look to learn the game... People say recommendations work in cricket, but I want to point out that not even one percent of recommendations work in cricket," Bhardwaj signs off.
The backstage of Indian cricket is buzzing with activity and till the time people like Bhardwaj are at the helm, the supply lines of the Indian team will never dry out.