Former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni interacts with young cricketers during the launch of the MS Dhoni Cricket Academy in Dubai in 2017. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: The news of Rohit Sharma, one of the modern greats of the game, opening his cricket academy in Dubai this September must have made up for the lull in any action in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the local academies have just begun taking baby steps to familiarise their trainees to the ‘new normal,’ the announcement of an academy named after India’s vice-captain in white ball cricket will surely raise the expectations.

The ‘Cric Kingdom Cricket Academy by Rohit Sharma’ will be the fifth of it’s kind to roll out from the Singapore-based company Cric Kingdom – who has other set-ups in India, Singapore, Germany and Qatar. Their experience in running the logistics of cricket academies – which is an extremely demanding one – should stand them in good stead and make an exception, feel the organisers.

The unsavoury truth about cricket academies branded after top international stars in the UAE is that almost none of them have been successful so far. Remember the M.S.Dhoni Academy, opened with a great deal of fanfare at the Springdales School or Ravichandran Ashwin’s Gen-Next Academy in the King’s School – both of which had become defunct in the last three years?

In a country of a transitory population, names such as these are lucrative to fuel the dreams but the experiments have not borne fruit for one reason or the other. The last academy to have closed their operations was the Robin Singh Academy, for which the former Indian allrounder had actually relocated himself to Dubai and set up an impressive facility at the Iranian Club.

Rohit Sharma, India's vice-captain in white ball cricket, is scheduled to launch his academy in Dubai in September. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Speaking to Gulf News in an interview late last year, Singh said: “I have temporarily closed my academy, but I will be there in 2020. The details of the new location and timings will be disclosed later.” However, things have moved on ever since as Singh was named the Head Coach of UAE national team in January and it will be interesting to see if he can pursue his individual coaching initiatives in the post-COVID era.

Former England cricketers Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff, Sri Lankan great Aravinda de Silva were also among those who had lent their names and announced plans for their academy, but none of the academies linked to these stars could actually play the long innings.

The officials of Rach Sports, who have collaborated with Cric Kingdom to facilitate Rohit Sharma’s initiative here, are aware of the past experiences and want to take a lesson out of them. ‘’It’s a fact that Rohit has promised to make one visit annually here because of his commitments, but we are in the process of building up an extremely experienced panel of coaches including John Wright as the visiting faculty. We are also in talks with an IPL franchise and a T10 franchise in the UAE so that the outstanding performers in our academy have an avenue to go for trials and prove themselves,’’ said Girban Chakraborty of Rach Sports.

For a small country like the UAE where cricket is predominantly perceived as expat sport, there are approximately around 60 academies – most of which are concentrated in Dubai and Sharjah – but there are only a handful who provide the supply chain of cricketers to the UAE national teams of different age-groups. The time-tested academies have also flown in celebrity cricketers from time to time to host clinics or workshops, but have shied away from linking their academy’s name to the stars.

Shahzad Altaf, a former UAE international and a veteran coach in the local circuit, feels the trainees should be cared for like own 'children.' Image Credit: Supplied picture

The ICC Cricket Academy, located in the premises of International Cricket Council (ICC) headquarters at the Dubai Sports City, is a cut above the rest with their well-equipped indoor training facility, a fielding area, seven pitches of varying characters, cameras and state-of-the-art video analysis room.

Initially called the ‘ICC Global Cricket Academy,’ their coaching staff boasted the trio of the legendary Australian wicketkeeper Rodney Marsh, former Pakistan allrounder Mudassar Nazar and Dayle Hadlee, the pace bowling guru from New Zealand. After their departure, the local coaches carry on with year-round programmes there while members of the UAE national team are currently making use of the indoor facilities in the post-COVID scenario.

Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive chat, Shahzad Altaf, a former UAE international whose ‘Young Talents Cricket Academy’ is arguably one of the first private academies in the country alongwith the one at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, was sceptical if academies branded after big names can have enough shelf life here. Founded in 1998, YTCA now has five branches with the headquarters in Al Sadiq Islamic English High School in Al Ghusais (Dubai), Abu Dhabi and three grounds in Ajman.

‘’See, it took me 22 years to reach this far. You cannot run academies with stars as you have to really give the children time like your children. The big names, especially if they are still actively playing, can never afford such time – neither can we afford them,’’ said the 62-year-old who represented the UAE in 1996 World Cup.

Driving home his point, Altaf said: ‘’Tauseef Ahmed, former Pakistan off-spinner, worked as a fulltime coach for my academy for three years. It makes sense if you can use them like this.

‘’Every year, former England player Geoff Cook is a regular visitor to our camps. We have also invited legends like Mushtaq Mohammad, Bishan Singh Bedi, Saqlain Mushtaq and Madan Lal to host short clinics, while coaches like the late Bob Woolmer and Dav Whatmore have also come for masterclasses. However, I have never felt the need of branding any of their names to market my academy,’’ said Altaf, whose academy has provided several names to the UAE cricket team like the current skipper Ahmed Raza, Rameez Shehzad (Altaf’s son) or Chirag Suri.

Sudhakar Shetty, whose Maxtalent Cricket Academy is one of the proven names in the local scene, has a somewhat different perception about the entry of any new player among the academies.

Presley Polonnowita (standing, extreme right), Head Coach of Desert Cubs Academy, had reasons to cheer when their team as champions in the Under-19 A division UAE Academy League for the 2019-20 season. Image Credit: Supplied picture

‘’The news of a new academy with Rohit Sharma’s name attached to it is welcome as it’s a level-playing field. However, it’s upto them to prove that it’s more than just a PR exercise,’’ said Shetty, whose academy regularly organises inter-school and collegiate tournaments to provide his trainees the right competitive experience.

Maxtalent have also flown in several celebrity guests like Gary Kirsten, Jonty Rhodes, Saqlain Mushtaq, Craig McDermott and Meyrick Pringle in the past – apart from conducting overseas trips to India, UK, Kenya and the Gulf countries.

‘’It’s perhaps wrong to blame the big names like a MS or Ashwin for the so-called failure of the academies here. The vision of someone like a Dhoni will not match here as the bulk of the students who join our academies are part of a transitional crowd who try to balance their studies and cricket before moving on,’’ observed Presley Polonnowita, head coach of the Desert Cubs Academy.

Outlining his vision for the academy, which has been running since 2007 and now boasts of five branches (three in Dubai, one each in Sharjah and Fujairah, respectively), the former coach of UAE ‘A’ team and a first class cricketer from Sri Lanka said: ‘’My target is to provide an assembly line of talent pool for the Under-16 UAE team. After that, it’s not really in our control as there is always a talent drain with them leaving the country for higher studies,’’ Polonnowita added.

You need coaches with passion for the job, not names

By Gopal Jasapara

Head Coach, G-Force Cricket Academy

Well, G Force Cricket Academy has been based in the UAE for last 19 years and from my experience, I can say that what matters for producing cricketers in passion.

So whoever has passion for the game and want to develop the trainees, see improvement and give right direction to the budding cricketers are always welcome. We want more hunger of coaching and dedication to deliver the best of cricket knowledge.

History of Indian cricket suggests that it’s good coaches – and not always big names - who produce good cricketers. If you go through the names of coaches of Sachin Tendulkar, Shikhar Dhawan, Gautam Gambhir, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Rahul Dravid…you will try to understand the point I am making.

Two beginners hone their forward defensive shots under the watchful eyes of their coach at G-Force Cricket Academy. Image Credit: Supplied picture

They were not big names in cricket but they played cricket with passion but couldn’t make it to the next level - hence they started coaching to live their dreams through their wards.

I can give you the example of someone called Mahendra Singh Chauhan, coach of Indian allrounder Ravindra Jadeja in Jamnagar of Gujarat. He has devoted his life for cricket. He trains kids for free from morning 9 am to 6 pm and is always there at the cricket bungalow. He is like a father figure to the trainees.

We have the place visited twice and have seen passion, dedication and discipline on his part - I have not seen too many of such examples.

Our academy has provided many kids to the UAE team and some of them have have gone on to represent in India, Australia and England. In the last Under-19 World Cup, we had six players in UAE team who have been a part of us during their early day’s cricket coaching. There are a number of coaching academies around the UAE who have been doing solid work.

Our rewards lie in the success of our trainees when their dreams come true.

Star’s coaching academy not a happy experience as parents

By Nilanjana Javed

Digital Content Editor

My son, who is now in Class VIII, developed a passion for cricket about two years ago. His love with the game, waking up in the morning to play for his school and chasing his dreams mattered the most to him.

Growing up in a household where cricket cricket unites the entire family, he always enjoyed our backing. As his parents, we respected his decision to take up the sport as his career.

No doubt with the advent of Indian Premier League, the game has been thrown open to hundreds of aspirant players for a potential career in a matter of years.

The UAE has seen the birth of a many a cricket academy named after renowned cricketers in recent years to fulfil the dreams of expat children. Like any other parent wanting him to have the best, he joined one of these academies but with time, we realized that it was merely another source of income for retired cricketers. The star cricketer would only make a short trip or two per year - thanks to the fact that the academy is branded after him.

It’s perhaps wrong to blame the big names like a MS or Ashwin for the so-called failure of the academies here. The vision of someone like a Dhoni will not match here as the bulk of the students who join our academies are part of a transitional crowd who try to balance their studies and cricket before moving on

- Presley Polonnowita, Desert Cubs Academy

The big question, however, bothered us - whether these academies are making any serious efforts to develop players for the future or are they simply being run as commercial ventures to make good money in the name of the stalwarts.

We saw that the show was mostly run by the local entity and they did a better job in training and managing my son and other young talents. Soon, we heard that the contractual obligations between the star cricketer and the local academy has fallen through and it will be taken over the owners as a standalone academy. As parents , we heaved a sigh of relief as neither the star-touch contributed in any way to our son’s grooming or development for the game - nor did the steep charges.

He is still continues to play in another academy and one thing I have realised is that coaching academies don’t need a banner to run. His current coaches are more involved with the students on a day-to-day level. Most of them have played the game at certain level, have empathy with players they are working with, and most importantly, have the passion to help the child improve.

What works well for us that we know that they are locally based, accessible and are busy experimenting various methods to teach youngsters on how to adapt to the various formats of the game.

Speaking from experience, I strongly feel that If academies can retain the joy of learning in the trainees and coaches maintain the dedication and nurture these homegrown talents, they will give themselves a chance of producing better cricketers.

A look at some leading academies

ICC Cricket Academy

Started 2010, originally known as the ICC Global Cricket Academy

The facility The ICC Academy has the best state-of-the-art facilities, indoor training facility, a fielding area and seven pitches of varying character. Cameras for technical analysis. State-of-the-art video analysis room, dedicated gymnasium. Ground: Has got two floodlit oval grounds for match practice.

Location Dubai Sports City and managed by ICC Phone 04 4481355 Email info@iccacademy.net Website ICC

Sharjah Cricket Academy

Started 1989 (oldest cricket academy in UAE under Sharjah Cricket Council)

The facility Sharjah Cricket Stadium with four turf and three cement wickets. Three days a week training on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Location Sharjah Cricket Stadium Phone 06 5422991

Desert Cubs Cricket Academy

Started October 16, 2007

Locations Sharjah English School , Jumieirah Baccalaureate School, DPS Jebel Ali, Tennis & Country Club Fujairah Phone 06 5426449 Website Desert Cubs

G Force Cricket Academy

Started 2004 as Cricketlovers Academy and in 2007 changed its name to G Force Academy.

Locations G-Force Academy ground in Al Jadaf; DPS Academy in Academic City. Phone 050 4559083 Website G Force

Spring Cricket Academy

Started 2009

Locations JSS Private School near Al Safa Park, Winchester School in Jebel Ali, Bilva Indian School in Al Qusais and Body and Soul in Ajman Phone 050 7521954 Website Spring

Maxtalent Cricket Academy

Started 2006

Locations Al Nasr Club, Dubai. Phone 050 6251547 Website Max Talent

Young Talents Cricket Academy

Started 1998

Locations Al Sadiq Islamic School in Al Quasais, Abu Dhabi, Ajman Oval, MCC & Eden. Phone 055 1075277 Website Young Talent

MCC Zayed Academy

Coaches and trainees Qualifies coaches are on hand. Membership is open to boys aged between 7 and 19 years.

The facility Five turf wickets (international standard), three all-weather cement pitches, high performance flood lighting, variable speed bowling machine.

Location Next to Zayed Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi Phone 02 5585615 or 02 5588331