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Wriddhiman Saha’s injury doesn’t change the fact that NCA has been good for Indian cricket

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Since the NCA’s revamp, W.V. Raman and Narendra Hirwani have not just developed junior players but also helped seniors rediscover their mojo.

Bengaluru: When it was set up in 2000, the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore (as it was then known) was a finishing school. A place where the best young cricketers in the country polished their skills, and even played together as a team in domestic competitions such as the Moin-ud-Dowlah Trophy and the Buchi Babu Tournament.

By the late 2000s, it became a rehabilitation centre, a place where injured warhorses went to rebuild shoulders and knees, but not much more.

Not long after, the joke in the domestic circuit was that the finishing school had finally come full circle — it was now a finished school.

Then, two years ago, the Board of Control for Cricket in India got its act together once more, reviving the NCA, revamping and re-staffing with a view to making the academy relevant once more. To that end, W.V. Raman, the former India left-hand batsman and left-arm spinner, and Narendra Hirwani, the former India legspinner, were put in charge of the cricket side of things.

At the behest of the Committee of Administrators, a professional Chief Operating Officer from outside cricket, Tufan Ghosh, was hired. With decades of experience in the medical industry, Ghosh’s mandate was to oversee the shifting of the academy from its premises at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium to a large plot of land on the outskirts of Bengaluru, purchased at significant cost explicitly for the setting up of an academy.

A few days ago, Ghosh hit the headlines when the Mumbai Mirror newspaper contacted him to get clarity on the injury status of Wriddhiman Saha, India’s first-choice Test wicketkeeper. After agreeing to answer written questions and failing to do so, Ghosh told the newspaper: “There has been no bungling. Why are you bothered? It’s not life threatening!”

Ghosh is right in that Saha’s injury is not life threatening, but his belief that this is a mere storm in a teacup completely missed the point of why the question was being put to him — the NCA can make or break a cricketer’s career.

Getting cricketers on track

Most recently, Yuvraj Singh has spoken about how spending time at the NCA helped him rediscover his natural style of play: The aggressive, attacking approach that drew him to the game in the first place.

When Ravindra Jadeja, after a season of bowling over after over, lost the zip in his bowling arm, one of the strongest in the country, it was Hirwani who took the left-arm spinner back to the drawing board, making him bowl first at one stump, then at a full set of wickets and finally at a batsman, holding a mirror to Jadeja and setting up an environment in which the player could get back to his best.

The Raman-Hirwani combination is a unique and unlikely success story. Where Hirwani is rustic and earthy, his bade bhai, as the leggie refers to Raman, is articulate and erudite. Where Raman towers over most players, Hirwani isn’t averse to standing on a stool while watching net practice. They, quite literally, are the long and short of the NCA.

One of the reasons why the pair is so successful is their clear understanding of the role of the NCA and their respective places within it.

“From the time that we have come into the NCA, it has been a simple situation where the academy has to be the driving force of what happens in cricket. It’s not just about having the junior level cricketers here,” says Raman. “It is about cricketers from all levels utilising the facility.”

Different parameters of ‘success’

While coaching a Ranji Trophy team or an IPL team, both of which Raman has experience of, is goal-oriented in a straightforward manner — winning is everything and coaches are measured by the performance of the team — the NCA has a different purpose.

“This is result-oriented in the long term. The cream of junior cricketers come here, and to resort to a cliché, these are the stars of the future. This is the supply line to the Indian team. It’s result-oriented in a way that is not obvious,” says Raman.

“That being the case, we have to be even more careful about how we guide and mould cricketers. That is a challenge in its own way. With senior teams, it is more like deciding what items you want to choose from a buffet; here you have to start with the raw materials, ensure that you’re cooking the right stuff, cooking what everyone wants and then make them eat. This is far more challenging, in its own way.”

Anyone can understand the rush that comes with winning, but what brings satisfaction in coaching in an academy? “The satisfaction is obvious to us. If we see a player over a period of four weeks, and see what he was like when he arrived, how he got on, and in what shape he is leaving, we have an idea whether it was time well spent or not. The confirmation comes when they go and play matches and do well,” says Raman.

“The important thing to know is that we as coaches in the academy don’t matter. It’s not about us. It is about the cricketers who come here to better themselves.”

Dos and don’ts for coaches and players

While every coach who picks up certifications is instructed on how he should go about doing his job, not many are told what not to do. But, this can be critical to ensuring that the impact a coach has on a player is a positive one.

Here too, Raman has some sage words of advice. “A coach should not impose his own beliefs or experiences on the player. He should not thrust his own approach or mindset from the days when he was a player, on the cricketer. In one word, coaches are nudgers,” says Raman.

“In doing so, you don’t try to stop someone from doing a certain thing, rather you nudge them in the direction you think is best for them. It’s very important not to tell the boys ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ all the time. Because if you do, the boy is bound to ask himself at some point ‘If I am so bad, then why am I even playing the game?’”

But, just as the coaches need to have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve, the players who rock up at the academy should know what they want to get out of the experience. And the one thing Raman looks for in a player is his willingness, his desire to better himself.

“When a player who has been in the Indian team or on the domestic circuit for years, when they start talking to you, they gauge you. They look for that wavelength. With each conversation you have to earn the trust of the player,” says Raman.

“No matter how good a coach is, it is important for the player to be twice as clever as the coach, in a positive sense. The player has to answer the question for himself: Can this guy help me? You can only help someone who thinks he needs help. If you’re not hungry, you’re not going to look for food.”

Fortunately for Raman and Hirwani, there is no shortage of cricketers hungry enough to try and earn a place in the Indian team.

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