From being a nonentity, Vidarbha has tasted unprecedented success across age groups in men’s cricket in the last few years. It is the result of planning and scouting of talent from the districts. The centralised training facility played a significant role too
The temperature, accompanied by a heat wave, is in the mid-forties. The roads are deserted. Those out under this May afternoon sun in Nagpur seem to be looking for cover. Not the ones at the old Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) stadium, though.
There are 10-odd under-14s having nets, seemingly unaffected by the heat. They have been selected from trials in the districts. After more pruning, about 30 probables will be picked for the state under-14 team. The U-16, U-19 and U-23 probables are chosen the same way.
This is not the first time the youngsters are in action on the day. They played a practice match a couple of hours ago. Among them is 13-year-old Priyanshu Gaopule. The medium-pacer is from Bhandara, about 60 km from Nagpur. He is from the 3,000 that attended the trials conducted by VCA in 10 districts (including Nagpur) before every domestic season commences.
It is well documented that Vidarbha won the Ranji Trophy in successive years and became only the third team in history to defend Ranji and Irani Cup titles. The success of their junior teams is not that well known. Across age-groups, they have won eight trophies in the last 26 months, the BCCI Under-23 one-day tournament in March being the latest addition to their trophy cabinet.
This is not instant success. The groundwork started in 2009. “By May 13, we will have probables for the upcoming season for all the age-groups,” says VCA vice-president Prashant Vaidya. He was the first director of the VCA’s residential academy. The facility was equipped with a huge indoor practice area, gym, room for yoga sessions, swimming pool and all that.
Until the 2013-14 season, it was a residential facility for all state cricketers, with educational expenses also taken care of. The idea was to cater to the talent coming from the districts. VCA officials say it was the idea of former BCCI president Shashank Manohar. Former India pacer Vaidya was the enforcer of this plan. The results were first seen in 2014-15 season, when the senior team made the Ranji quarters for the first time since 1995-96. They did the same the following year as well.
Even though the maiden Ranji triumph in 2017-18 will always be regarded as a turning point in Vidarbha’s cricketing history, Vaidya feels the first came in 2016-17 when the under-16 boys clinched the Vijay Merchant Trophy.
“A lot of people think Ranji was our first big win. But those under-16 boys gave our players the belief that we can defeat anyone. It was our first trophy,” Vaidya recalls.
Atharva Taide is an upcoming player who was part of the academy in 2014. He credits his elevation to the India U-19 team to the regimen they followed there. “We were trained in all aspects of the game. To have all the facilities under the same roof made everything easy for us,” says Taide, who hails from Akola which is about 250 km from Nagpur. The left-handed batsman was part of the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy-winning squad.
The administration decided to do away with the residential part of the academy after the 2013-14 season. “We sensed a sort of complacency in the boys. They seemed to be under the impression that they had achieved a lot just by joining the academy. We decided to stop funding their education and did away with the residential academy. So them joining the academy was only the initial phase of our progress,” VCA president Anand Jaiswal says.
The academy is still operational with all facilities intact. The only difference is that players stay there when camps are underway (like the under-14 camp currently underway).
With trophies in their possession, VCA is making subtle changes in approach. To keep on tapping talent, they have decided to send Talent Research Development Officers (TRDO) to scout talent in the districts.
“TRDOs are those who have Level 1 coaching certificates. They are tasked with the job of spotting the next generation of stars,” VCA CEO Farookh Dastoor says.
“We have plans to set up coaching centres in all the districts. We are also looking seriously at school-level cricket. We want to have a school league in the districts. A few grounds will also come under VCA. The idea is to expand the web even more, and not make cricket Nagpur-centric,” Vaidya added.
While the boys are making the right noises, the women cricketers have not done that well as a team although in the recent past, three players — Mona Meshram (now plays for Railways), Bharati Fulmali and Komal Zanzad — made it to the India squad. The latter two even played against each other in the Women’s T20 Challenge in Jaipur. Zanzad, a left-arm pacer who caught attention when she took a nine-for against Haryana in a one-dayer last season, feels there are signs that women’s cricket is also on the rise in Vidarbha.
“We did not have many positive results. But they have started coming. In the T20 competition, we won four consecutive matches last season (2018-19). We have not won trophies, but that is only a matter of time. We have started knocking on India doors. There is a lot of hope,” says the 27-year-old.
There is one factor that explains why the women have not been able to win trophies. It is the negligible number of district cricketers. “In the senior and under-23 squads, most of the players are from Nagpur,” Zanzad says. The VCA has plans for this. Vaidya claims that for the first time open selection trials for women are conducted in the districts. The first phase was conducted on May 8 in Nagpur in which about 120 appeared. The process will continue in all districts. “One ground has been exclusively identified for women,” Dastoor said.
Asked the reason behind women’s below-par performance, Jaiswal said: “When it comes to the support staff, it is not easily available for women’s teams. That needs to be checked.”
The boys, who were practising under the punishing sun, have finished their net sessions and head to their rooms. They have a series of practice matches lined up, which will determine selection. VCA has decided to expose all young cricketers to as many matches as they can from this season. They will not be spending much time in the confines of the indoor facility this time.