Akshay Gaikwad lost his father, a sepoy with the Mahar Regiment, to an insurgency attack in Nagaland, just a week after his first birthday on July 21, 1995. It’s nearly 11 years now, Akshay does not remember his father’s face but wants to fight for India, on the cricket pitch.
Till a few years ago, deep inside Maharashtra’s Satara district, Gaikwad Jr’s dream would have remained just that. Today, nobody can dare dismiss it. Not after Irfan Pathan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Munaf Patel … Vadodara, Ranchi, Ghaziabad, Bharuch.
To understand why, welcome to Phaltan, 120 km southeast of Pune, and its Mudhoji ground where Akshay and 97 other youngsters, 7-17 years old, are having a go at a two-week “intensive” cricket coaching camp, one of the hundreds dotting the great Indian smalltown landscape where thousands queue up, hoping to be the next Dhoni on the block.
As eight-year-old Shradul Kharate, son of a local contractor, says, “Now, I drink half-a-litre of milk, but slowly, I’ll drink four litres and become like Dhoni.”
Till just about 15 days ago, Kharate, like most others in the camp, had never seen a leather ball. Now, it’s only SG “Test balls” for them. Says Aniket Pardeshi, an under-17 district-level player, “Such taluka-level camps are always better. Here the coach-player ratio is very less. We become quite friendly with them and they are helpful in sorting out our problems. Besides, we’ve all the facilities like nets, kits. so why leave home and go to Mumbai or even Pune?”
The Phaltan camp was kicked off on April 15 by ex-Test player and Mumbai’s former two-time Ranji winning coach Chandrakant Pandit, who is now associated with the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA). Pandit is also the “advisory committee chairman” of the Phaltan Cricket Association (PCA).
Pandit chalked out a detailed programme and handed it over to Sadanand Pradhan, a BCCI Level-1 coach and PCA’s secretary. “During the first week, we practiced with tennis balls and then gradually made them get used to the leather balls. The idea was to get rid of the fear factor through shadow practice, fielding and catching drills,” says Pradhan.
“We have children from varied backgrounds. From sons of businessmen to autorickshaw drivers and house painters. And all of them say money is not a problem as far as cricket coaching is concerned,” says Pradhan.
The association has also roped in Suresh Deo (all India umpire), Ratnakar Korde (NIS coach), Vineet Kulkarni (BCCI scorer) and Sudhir Kulkarni (former Ranji player) to help develop their “overall knowledge”.
Although Phaltan has no cricketing background, the PCA says this camp is part of ‘a 10-year mission to produce, at least, one Ranji cricketer’. Says PCA member Hanumant Salunkhe, “We are not expecting miracles overnight.”
“The idea was to first let them play, have some fun,” says Salunkhe, adding, “Now, they are so attached that after going home they think only of the camp. They have even stopped watching TV so that they can sleep early. The only thing in their mind now is to reach the camp by 6.30 in the morning.”
“We have picked 11 of these 94 for a one-year programme, including the son of an autorickshaw driver and painter,” says Pradhan.
Wine shop-owner Sanjay Nimbalkar’s on Neeraj, 11, remembers the day he got hit on the finger during catching practice ‘with the leather ball’. “I had to miss the camp for two days, I was crying till I returned,” he smiles.
The camp is not just about bat and ball, says the coach. “From teaching them how to tie their shoelaces to telling them about cricketing etiquette…we try to teach them all aspects of the game. We’ll divide the boys into two groups, under-11 and under-17, and organise competitions to select a 25-member team.” Adds Salunkhe: “However, right now, we just let them play. Time will tell whether anyone will become another Dhoni or Rahul Dravid, we should not put unnecessary pressure on them.”
There are also debates at the camp that often turn into arguments. And, the most-discussed topic is, what else, the Greg Chappell-Sourav Ganguly spat. While some feel that the former captain should be given a chance, others say he’s been asking for it. The common refrain: “Rahul Dravid is the best Indian captain.”
What they want to be for Team India? The answer is quick and unanimous: all-rounder. “It’s the best way you can get into the team,” says Suresh Potekar, an under-19 district player, who helps out in the drills. So who wants to become a fast bowler? Only a couple of hands. “Who wants to be beaten up all over the place?” asks Prithviraj Nigde, referring to the epic 872-run Australia-South Africa ODI at Wanderers this year.
Meanwhile, Akshay Gaikwad shyly reveals his passion for cricket numbers. He maintains a notebook, where he updates statistics of his favourite players. Ask him about various records and centuries, and he’s quick to reply. “I can remember them without putting in any extra effort,” he says.
For Akshay, cricket means a career without much of a hassle. “You don’t have to study hard. To become an engineer or a doctor. In cricket, there’s no such concern. Even if there’s a pressure situation, you get pleasure from it.”
Why this craze? Sandeep Maruda, another camper, says: “Here, a child gets a bat in hand immediately after birth. Cricket is a part of our lives.”
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