Leagues can bring value to Indian sport, but they have to start at the grassroots

At a symposium last month, in a sports management institution in Mumbai, a TV producer waxed eloquent on the value that sports leagues are bringing to India. An awestruck audience of academics — the padoge likhoge banoge nawab types — listened in rapt attention to the discourse that sought to paint a rosy picture of Indian sports.

At the end of it all, when I asked the speaker if he could tell me what percentage of sportspersons in the country really benefitted from the various leagues, he seemed at a loss for words.

I didn’t expect him to know.

The producer was naturally basing his arguments on the tremendous success of the Indian Premier League over the last decade. And to a lesser extent, that of the Pro Kabaddi League. He wasn’t far wrong there, for broadcasters of the leagues — along with administrators and a few players — had made merry, while there had been little developmental effort visible at the grassroots level.

To use a political cliché: the affluent had grown richer while the underprivileged had remained poor!

Leagues in India need to take a good, hard look at what they're really doing for sport in the country. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Leagues in India need to take a good, hard look at what they're really doing for sport in the country. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Leagues are glamour events

Out of a squad of 25 Indian Premier League players, eight are from overseas. Another five or six are established Indian players, who have either played Tests, one-day internationals or T20 internationals. The rest, bought on ‘talent’ — as defined by a conglomeration of business and cricketing brains, make a tidy sum for themselves and get the opportunity to showcase their talent to national selectors.

The Ranji Trophy championships in India — and other age group tournaments — has 28 participating ‘state’ teams. For argument’s sake, if we believe that there are only 20 talented players in each of these 28 teams — Ranji, Under-23 and Under-19 — then there are around 560 probable players for the 80 spots in the IPL; a mere 14 percent vacancy.

Here we are not even considering the lakhs of players who are registered with state associations, many of whom aspire to play for the state and country someday. In that sense, IPL provides a platform to a miniscule portion of India’s cricketing population.

This is true of the Pro Kabaddi League and the Indian Super League (football) too. Talent at the state and district levels hardly ever gets a look in in these games. What’s more, the leagues have been the reason why many of the state and all India level tournaments — with little funding — have gone defunct.

The Hockey India League, that promised a hockey renaissance in the country, has temporarily shut shop. The badminton, tennis and table-tennis leagues, despite star turnouts, are still low key and have failed to garner much support.

Yet, corporates and broadcasters believe that leagues are the in thing!

Who is mentoring talent?

The coming of the leagues to India has seen the blossoming of a few thousand academies in different sports, all over the country. Most of these ‘grooming classes’ are run by high-profile coaches. They cater to upper middle-class and high-brow families, who can afford the exorbitant fees charged, with the promise that their wards could make it to the glamorous leagues.

Where, for god’s sake, have the Achrekars, the Amladis, the Tarapores, the Rajkumar Sharma’s and the Keshav Banerjees gone? Most of the world’s top players, in any sport, have been coached and mentored by committed individuals; not by academies. Even Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Srikanth Kidambi receive individual coaching from Gopichand, though they are part of his academy.

Mass production factories can manufacture Altos and Santros; not Rolls Royces and Lamborghinis! Perhaps the last among these mentors — Mumbai’s Vidya Paradkar and Dinesh Lad are a couple of examples — have been overshadowed by the NCA certified level ‘C’ coaches. Coaching is no longer a vocation for these certificate wielding impostors!

Where’s the infrastructure?

I came across a tweet by former England skipper and star batsman, Michael Vaughan, while I was jotting down points for my column. It read: “Football makes me chuckle … millions and millions spent/wasted on transfers (in EPL) on deadline day, yet the majority of grassroots football pitches are dog sh*t … #justsaying”

Is Indian sport any different? Most school level cricket pitches here are nothing more than dust-bowls. Football is played on grossly sub-standard pitches; the MSSA and the Xavier’s Sports Complex grounds in Mumbai are prime examples. In a city like Mumbai, hockey is still, generally, played on natural turf. Facilities for grassroots programmes in every sport — indoor or outdoor — are, to say the least, despicable.

Franchises then expect these youngsters, brought up on ‘dog sh*t’ grounds, to compete with overseas players. It’s to the players’ credit that they don’t cower.

Khelo India – banoge kharab?

 The Khelo India programme of the sports ministry, initiated by Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, is perhaps a step in the right direction. Besides state and national level inter-school competitions, the initiative seeks to develop playing fields, sports infrastructure, community coaching and a search for talented, young sportspersons.

The Khelo India Games are now on. Is the sports ministry sure that the best school level talent is at the competition? Before the programme is implemented in schools, school principals, sports teachers and coaches needed to be trained and sensitised to the requirements of talented youngsters.

If the initiative has to be successful, therefore, highly committed and competent people at every level will have to be drafted/recruited under the personal supervision of the sports ministry. Sporting talent shall have to be monitored and encouraged on a daily basis; not once a year before the Khelo India Games!

Like the leagues, the Khelo India programme can’t afford to be a showpiece.

Recognise coaches; generate talent

A decade ago, one of the best cricket coaches in Mumbai — there aren’t many left now — was telling me of how he had mentored some outstanding talent for the city and for the country, and how he wasn’t given credit for it either by the players, the Mumbai Cricket Association or the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India. “I think from here on, I should have an agreement with the players I coach to pay me 10 percent of all their earnings during their career,” he had said in frustration.

I wish he had. A few hundred crores would probably have been added to his bank account by 2018.

The leagues, therefore, have some thinking to do. They won’t get quality Indian players in the leagues unless coaches at the grassroots level are committed, recognised for their efforts and are looked after.

The leagues also must invest in infrastructure and local level events so that youngsters get the opportunity to play. Good players come out of mass participation.

Sportspersons have to start dreaming about playing in the leagues, and for India. He or she must have enough opportunities to do so. It is for the leagues to create this sporting atmosphere.

Leagues can indeed bring value to Indian sport; they just need to open their hearts and their purse-strings!

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, he is an ex-football and cricket coach, besides being a sought after mental toughness trainer.

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2018 11:35 AM

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