ICC Academy: Opening doors to cricket’s next generationFebruary 9, 2018
DUBAI: It’s Day 5 of a Test match. Yuvraj Singh comes to the crease. The ball is turning and gripping. He has to save the match. There are four close-in fielders and an extremely promising offspinner he’s facing. Yuvraj has never been the best against spin, especially at the start of his innings, but today he will have to muster every bit of his energy to change that.
The first ball is bowled; plenty of guile on the ball as it pitches on the rough outside off and shoots past Yuvraj’s outside edge. The next one relatively flatter and Yuvraj manages to get his front foot forward and defend. The third one is flighted again but the left-hander presses his front foot forward and eases into a drive. Next one, he pads. It’s looking fine. But the fifth ball is where he misses it. Outside off and Yuvraj gets a faint edge for the keeper to take the catch. OUT. But hang on. Yuvraj takes strike again. And gets that drive correct the next ball.
This is 16-year-old Yuvraj ‘Jai’ Singh of Dubai, one of the brightest young batsmen of the Emirates. Day 5 of a Test match is nothing but an artificial surface created at the ICC Cricket Academy that has all the elements of a final day surface. The close-in fielders are plastic chairs and the offspinner is an uncanny resemblance of R Ashwin, just a lot younger and athletic.
“The one thing that is different here is the environment. It’s all cricket, cricket and cricket. From the moment you enter through that gate, everything you see is cricket. Secondly, the coaches are fantastic. Where do you see coaches first going through the drills themselves and then come over to us? I think that is what separates this place to the rest of the academies. This is different. This is unique, rare,” Yuvraj says.
Indeed. The ICC cricket academy is quite possibly the biggest, finest and the most refined cricket academy. Has to be, right? It’s the ICC after all. The biggest cricketing body. No holds barred kind of atmosphere is expected; the best infrastructure, coaches, nets, the best of everything. It’s all easier in the mind than in reality. But once you have spent a couple of hours at the property, once you’ve covered every inch of the premise, once you’ve seen the nitty-gritty’s of the place, you can’t help but exclaim in your mind “WOW”. It truly does justice to the ICC moniker.
It’s not only that its infrastructure makes your jaw drop. It’s like they say, the entire package. Every training center boasts nets, coaches, modern-day state of art facilities. But there is something about this place. With two massive grounds and a net area that comprises 37 lanes, each different in its behaviour, makes you continuously marvel at it. Couple it with huge floodlights and they’re even a notch above the local club cricket grounds in England.
Its concept had been brewing since many years – dating back to the time the ICC had its headquarters in London – even though it wasn’t until 2019 that it was finally up and running. The plan was not only to provide budding cricketers the chance to have access to world-class facilities but primarily to give a chance to teams such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Canada, Kenya and Hong Kong, countries whose domestic setup isn’t as formidable as others.
“As we sit here now, we have provided world-class access to teams across many countries from different leagues. In 2017, we welcomed about 52 different teams who play at a professional level. Not school teams; we are talking about franchise teams, full member A sides, full member first-class sides. Women cricketers access it, a lot of Associates member access it. Many English teams use the venue as an overseas training base. So we are very free to reach out to,” Will Kitchen, Manager of the academy tells TOI Sports in an exclusive chat.
A 68-million-dollar property, the ICC Academy, like any other coaching center took an immense amount of time and effort to culminate into what it is today. The fact that Dubai was chosen as the venue was really a no-brainer since the ICC’s headquarters is here. But it is interesting to note than the ICC did not fund the academy. They were just the brand custodian of it. The brain child to come up with this maniac of a coaching center was of the three owners who helped set up the Dubai Sports City. Once that was established, the decision to have perhaps the biggest cricket coaching academy in Dubai was taken in an instant. The city was primed to be one of the next sporting hubs of the world for years to come and it was geographically accessible for every country too with Emirates being a popular air franchise all round the globe. So the plans were underway, and the blueprint set. But it’s never really that easy, is it?
“Basically, it was about setting up grass in the desert. Then there were things like importing soil from around the world. It’s easy to assume all of it when you come to Dubai but the implementation is always the tricky part,” Kitchen says. “Plainly in terms of the skills needed to achieve what we have, to keep grass growing in the desert, I think we have achieved the impossible. The vision to do this and the passion to keep it going is incredible. And let’s not forget all of this happened when there was a financial crunch round the world. The economy was falling over but the owners were pouring money into building this place, so it’s a terrific achievement.”
Once set, the academy was all handed over to Kitchen to take it to newer heights. Having moved here in 2013, Kitchen did not have much of a managerial role in the past, let alone taking care of this ‘new baby’ that was a result of incredible amount of struggle and hard work. The going could have got tough, but Kitchen, over the last four and a half years, has successfully been able to channel all the love he had for the sport ever since he was a child. A reasonable cricketer as he calls himself, Kitchen has played league cricket and representative county cricket.
Above where he sits is a possession Kitchen holds dearly: A Mumbai Indians jersey signed by the great Sachin Tendulkar. So is a portrait of Kane Williamson signed personally by the New Zealand captain. Those two, among of plethora of others have visited the academy and were left in complete awe of it. It’s appreciations such as these that drives Kitchen.
“I used to be a seam up bowler who could bat before I had a terrible knee injury in the late 1990s and had to stop playing. Actually, I should have been a batsman who bowled but I opened the bowling and batted at 7. What I should have been doing is bowled first change and bat at 4,” he says with a laugh. “You see that Williamson portrait? This ground is for someone like him and not me to play on. Hence I always stay away from it when I have a bat or ball in hand.”
With over a 1000 students to look after, Kitchen could have been in for a rough ride had it not been for the support he receives from his coaches. Talking of whom, there are 35 of them across the board and 10 full-time guys. Most of them have played the game at certain levels but there are also those who are here plainly on the basis of how well they understand the game. For Kitchen and the academy, it has never been about having playing experience as much as having the characteristics to understand the player, his needs.
“What we look for is have they got relevant experience? Have they got empathy for the players they’re going to work with? Whether they understand what their players’ needs are? That’s the first thing we look at,” Kitchen, who himself has had a fairly long stint as a cricket coach, says. “The key thing though what we look for is whether they have the desire to help people improve, the passion to do so. If they’re more bothered about their reputation, we are not bothered. ”
The one feature of the academy that stands out head and shoulder above everything else – and it includes two lush green grounds and an incredibly large indoor hall – are its nets. It is huge, and equally unique. The area has about 37 pitches, all different. Like Kitchen mentioned, the soil that’s been imported from every part of the world, has gone into preparation of various prototype surfaces. There are a couple of tracks that isn’t just made of the WACA soil but even behaves like it. So do the six prototypes of GABBA – each day of a Test match and an ODI – and 12 sub-continent-like tracks, including that of Wankhede, Lahore and Galle. Then there are four English surfaces, mostly green. The rest have been customised in their own ways – like the fifth day surface on which Yuvraj was batting. The one next to it is where batsmen try to play spin with the new ball. And many more. Incredible.
Among the many challenges the authorities faced were getting these turfs ready. The chief curator who was majorly responsible in getting these laid was Tony Hemming, now in charge of the new Perth Stadium. He was aided by the sharp minds of Rodney Marsh, Malcolm Speed, who were here while this entire idea of prototype pitches were being implemented. Imagine not just rolling them out, but making them play like an actual pitches in the Middle-East. Not your everyday thing.”For English teams to on their way into India, or Pakistan [hopefully someday], or into Sri Lanka, or on their way to Australia, we’ve got surfaces that allow them to acclimatise to those conditions. For Australia going into India or say Sri Lanka, we’ve got Asian pitches and conditions,” Kitchen mentions. “At the back there are a couple of towers which are treatment plants that regenerates dirty water and makes it clean to help water the ground.”
“The indoor hall is huge. Usually they don’t need to. But for someone like a wicketkeeper, he has to dive and here he can do that freely. We take kids as young as the age of three, for them it’s just about a plastic bat and ball and holding them and have fun so they can keep going at it. The sooner we inculcate that feeling of a wicket, or the ball hitting the middle of the bat or the thrill of a fantastic catch, it gets nicer.”
However, despite all the mindboggling arrangements, Kitchen has a couple of things left to achieve, which again is a crucial aspect of cricket, one that is growing by leaps and bounds and which no longer deserve to remain just a sidekick.
“Women’s cricket and cricket for the disabled,” he says. “We have hosted some disabled cricket tournaments in the past and continue to do so. But the real support has to come from the Emirates Cricket Board. For some reason, the participation from women is not much in this part of the world. In fact, if I have to be honest, it doesn’t come near about half the number of males we have enrolled. It’s a personal target for me because I have a daughter whom I want to take up cricket,” he says. “Qasim Ali is one our coaching head and one of the reasons he was hired was because he has worked extensively with disabled cricketers. So I won’t say we aren’t doing much but there’s plenty more than we can achieve.”
A little later, the floodlights come on, and even as Will leaves the premises, the young bunch is at it. The author takes a moment and visions a younger version of himself take guard. But he is quick to realise that plenty of water has flown under the bridge. But… maybe, just maybe, if he had all of this at his disposal while growing up, things could have been different.