One charge that simply refused to die during and after the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh was that of overage cricketers masquerading as U-19 boys. The allegations almost took the sheen off what was otherwise quite a commendable runners-up finish by India.
Fingers are being pointed at more than a couple of batsmen and bowlers and what lends credibility to these charges is that Indian cricket has seen these problems earlier too.
In 2011, Maharashtra's Ankit Bhavane was made captain of the U-19 squad ahead of the quadrangular meet which involved U-19 teams from Australia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. BCCI, however, was horrified to discover at the 11th hour a discrepancy in Bhavane's Date of Birth in their database with that of his passport. They dropped him from the team and made Delhi’s Unmukt Chand the skipper instead.
Speaking at the MAK Pataudi lecture in December last year, former India captain Rahul Dravid termed age-fraud the scourge of Indian cricket and said its impact was as noxious as match-fixing and corruption. He also equated it with bowlers who have flawed action. Dravid should know since he is the coach of India's U-19 and 'A' teams.
Dilip Vengsarkar, another former India captain and vice-president of the Mumbai Cricket Association favours a radical solution. He feels the only way to minimise age-fraud is to make U-19 players ineligible for IPL auction. He believes this will force some of them to reveal their true age in a bid to bag contracts and rid junior cricket of their presence.
An Indian team aspirant, on condition of anonymity, recalled how during his junior days one cricketer was consistently hitting the headlines for posting huge scores. On the eve of an U-16 meet when all squad members met, it became immediately clear to all that the cricketer was way beyond 16 years of age.
“Next morning at the breakfast hall we all made it a point to go up to him and greet him with a polite and serious ‘Good Morning Sir’. At the buffet table we’d suggest ‘sir eats first’.
“On match day we fielded first. The cricketer, whom we suspected of being overage, came in to bat at No.3. His sleeves were buttoned down to hide the growth of hair on arms. As soon as he reached the crease we repeatedly called him ‘uncle’ for everything he did. Like, ‘all the best, uncle; well-played uncle; well-left uncle; good shot uncle, etc’. He couldn’t take the constant ribbing and threw away his wicket.
"Apparently other teams picked up from there and started addressing him as ‘uncle’ and he soon disappeared from junior cricket."
TW3 test for U-16 players only
Most cases come to light in the under-16 category and for a very specific reason: it is virtually impossible to detect an overage player at the U-19 level!
At the U-16 level, it is a different story altogether. In 2012, the BCCI introduced the globally accepted Turner-Whitehouse Test 3 (TW3), thus becoming the first sports body in the country to implement an advanced, scientific method of age detection.
The following year, they found 230 overage players in the U-16 category. Many parents were furious that the Board was not paying heed to the 'age documents' they had submitted. Many turned litigants but lost their cases.
The TW3 method, supposedly the most sophisticated and accurate of age-testing mechanisms, relies on scanning bones in the forearm and wrist and depending on maturity, can differentiate between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. The bones mature in a set pattern by the age of 16, give or take three months. Thus those whose forearm-wrist bone structure is mature, are reckoned to be above 16 and hence ineligible to play the age-group tournaments.
But detecting a player’s age beyond 16 is a challenge. BCCI's affiliate KSCA, for instance, has deemed that any birth certificate dated after two years of birth would not be acceptable. Additionally they believe any good cricketer by the age of 17 or 18 should be playing with men and hence does not need protection.
But all associations do not see it that way and believe that a 22 or 23 year-old player passing off as a 19 year-old is blocking the path of a genuine 19 year-old.
BCCI’s multi-proof demand
The BCCI believes that it is on top of the situation most of the times for U-19 cricketers, particularly for those who come through the TW3 test at the U-16 stage. But if a player gets into U-19 cricket directly, the BCCI had no way of ascertaining his real age.
To get around this, BCCI insisted that the player had to mandatorily submit a birth certificate along with three age-proof documents, school-leaving certificate, SSC marksheet and passport.
But despite such stringent demands there are still many coaches, parents and administrators who are pushing players through the loophole.
“You need to change things at both the U-16 and U-19 levels,” Sehwag said in an interview recently. “You need to fix the age-related issues at that level because it is from there many of the problems are cropping up.”
Dravid went a step further. He said that a child trained to lie and cheat from a young age was the one who would turn to dope and fix matches later on in his career.