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Against All Odds

The journey of almost irrational probabilities from youth cricket academies, to the different club teams, to the selection of state teams, and finally (for thetop .0000001%) onto a position on Team India.

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Bhuvan remembers the moment like it was yesterday. It was 2003 and he was sitting at home, watching the India vs. Pakistan match on his family's small black and white television. No one else in his family was interested, so he was all alone. Bhuvan didn't mind though; he knew he was joined by millions of other Indians around the country, eyes glued to the same contest, praying with him that Team India would beat their biggest, most hated rival. The stakes, and the bragging rights, don't get any higher in cricket than the Cricket World Cup.

Halfway through the game, the 10-year-old was worried; India needed to pull some serious scoring to top Pakistan's impressive first inning performance - 250 points in 300 balls. There was also Sonib Akhbar to deal with, Pakistan's right-arm fast bowler. He could make a difficult adversary for Team India's batsmen.

Then, through the black and white flickers, Bhuvan watched his idol, Sachin Tendulkar, step up to bat. Akhbar, studied him intently, then sprinted full speed toward him, swinging his straightened arm over his head like a windmill and slinging the ball with blurring speed. WHACK! Sachin's response sent the ball flying deep into the stands. Bhuvan could barely contain his excitement - Sachin was massacring them! Over the rest of the inning, the Indian batsman scored 78 more points, boosting India into the next round of the Cricket World Cup. It was one of the most incredible things the young boy from Delhi had ever seen. And for Bhuvan, that was the moment.

The moment he knew he wanted to play for Team India.

In India, everybody follows cricket. The game is watched and played just about everywhere, from rural villages, to urban slums, to professional stadiums. Just find a vacant lot in a city and there's likely a group of kids playing there, or the fresh scuff marks and wicket holes as evidence of a game just finished. India's cricket fever is especially apparent in its media, where leafing through newspapers or flipping among TV channels reveals that it is essentially a one sport county. Most of the infatuation centers around Team India, whose 16 players are worshipped throughout the nation like gods. Kids grow up knowing each player's name, and tabloids fuel imaginations by expounding their fabulous, fast-paced lifestyles. More importantly, Team India serves as a symbol of national pride. The 16 players are one thing that truly unifies the country, irrespective of its diversity of religions, geography, languages, and social classes. In a nation packed with 1.2 billion people, that means a whole lot of cricket fans.
It also means a whole lot of kids who want to play on professional cricket teams.

The vast majority of them will never have a shot, however; the odds are nearly impossible. In India, it's not nearly enough to be a talented cricketer - no, there are millions of those. To make it to the top, you need three other things: money, political connections, and incredible, incredible luck. The confluence of these factors and their odds make getting into the NBA, NFL, or MBA in the United States seem easy by comparison. With tens of thousands of cricket academies in India, the number of kids gunning to play professional cricket runs in the millions. To put it bluntly, assuming a 1 in 700,000 probability, it's about as likely for an average trainee to get struck by lightning in a year than make an open position on Team India. How any one of them makes it up the ranks, through the seemingly insurmountable numbers, into the bright lights, the fame, and the glory of the cricket stadiums involves a journey of almost irrational probabilities, an ascent that includes tests and competition every step of the way, from the moment kids join youth cricket academies, to the different club teams they try to get on, to the selection of state teams, and finally (assuming they are in the .0000001%) onto a position on Team India. It is a journey so improbable, so rare, that many parents forbid their kids from even trying it. Some even say it is a fool's journey. Which is precisely what makes Bhuvan's story so remarkable. You see, Bhuvan actually has a shot.

It certainly didn't seem that way from the beginning. Even at 10 years old, Bhuvan realized his immediate obstacles; his family was poor, he had no political connections, and had no real knowledge about how the cricket world operated. With his modest background, Team India was beyond the ultimate crapshoot. Four years prior, his father Gungaram had moved the Kumar family to India's capital, 200 kilometers from their village farm in Barangi, to search for a better-paying job. He found one, making tea and snacks in the canteen of the Finance Ministry, boosting his earnings to Rs 4000 per month ($80). The salary allows the family of 6 to live in a cramped apartment, rented under the table from a government employee profiting off their free government housing. The room is just enough space for Bhuvan and his three younger brothers - Karan, Chetan, and Chandin - to share the floor while his parents sleep on the twin-sized bed in the corner. In the morning the brothers move their sleeping pads so that their mother can reach the kitchen, a couple of shelves and a stove nestled against the wall on the opposite side of the room.

Despite the cramped quarters, Bhuvan found an advantage to his new neighborhood: there was a large park nearby. From the time he moved to Delhi, Bhuvan remembers going whenever he had free time to play cricket with other neighborhood kids. The days following the India-Pakistan match in 2003 were no exception. With the images of Sachin's heroic batting still fresh in his mind, Bhuvan set out to the park to announce his intention of making Team India to his friends. His cousin, Suresh, broke out in laughter at the news. Team India! Fat chance! Maybe, he chided, if Bhuvan was so serious, he should start by buying his own cricket equipment.

The boy knew his cousin was right of course, but good cricket equipment was expensive - Rs. 6,000 at least for the quality stuff. Where on earth would he get that kind of money? Certainly not from his father; a new bat and pads would cost more than his dad made in a month. So at 10 years old, Bhuvan decided to take matters in his own hands; he took up a job as a newspaper delivery boy. He's held the job ever since.

Bhuvan's day begins at 4 a.m. at one of Delhi's sprawling newspaper distribution centers. His first task is locating his foreman among the thousands of other newspaper delivery boys on the floor. Then Bhuvan receives two things: a glass of milk tea to combat the cold, and a fixed gear bicycle on loan to deliver 165 newspapers to 100 houses. The process takes him two hours and earns him a dollar a day.

It took two years of the early mornings, milk teas, and hurling newspapers before Bhuvan was ready, but in 2005 he had finally saved enough money to buy his own cricket equipment! Excitedly, Bhuvan shoved the wads of small bills into his pocket and rushed to the local sports shop. There was no need to even look around; he knew exactly what he wanted. What Bhuvan didn't know, however, was that he was about to receive his first, and perhaps luckiest, break of his cricket career.

As the broad-faced, dark skinned boy stepped up to the counter to make his big purchase, the store's clerk Rajat noticed his enthusiasm and took a liking to the kid. Hey, he said, why don't you go down and talk with my friend Shyam. He is a coach over at the cricket academy at the Jesus and Mary College.

The offhand suggestion took Bhuvan by surprise; the idea of training at an academy had never even occurred to him. With no prior guidance, the boy knew nothing of the academies' importance to advancing within cricket, and was even more surprised when the coach, Shyam, actually accepted him into the academy. It was when Bhuvan first learned he had a gift as a left arm spinner - a type of pitcher unique and formidable in cricket who can throw curve balls against right-handed batters. The academy's job would be to teach Bhuvan how to hone this technique to a deadly accuracy.

In India, cricket academies are essential for anyone who wants to play the sport professionally. The academies are where cricket moves beyond a game into a technical enterprise, where its players are divided into strengths - batting, bowling, or fielding - and their movements and precisions are criticized by specialized coaches. Without going to one, there's little chance a casual cricketer can compete with the academy trainees. Many institutions accept promising kids as young as 8, and train them until they're old enough and good enough to play professionallyÉor until they get cut.

Bhuvan invested all his remaining savings to enroll in Shyam's program. It wasn't much - just Rs 500 a month - but it was enough of a barrier to keep out many of the kids from his neighborhood and economic background. Besides, money wasn't his only problem; there were also parents to deal with. Bhuvan's simply didn't understand why he would ever waste his money to play a game, especially when he could play it for free with the other kids at the park. They wanted the best for their son, and for them that meant focusing on studies so he could land a government job upon graduation. Still, they found it difficult to argue with their son's determination; Bhuvan managed to satisfy their wishes of keeping up with chores and schoolwork by maintaining a strict, self-imposed regimen. After delivering the morning newspapers, going to school, and attending two cricket training sessions, Bhuvan would arrive home at 7 p.m. and manage to complete his homework and chores before barely getting enough sleep to wake up at 4 a.m. and repeat the process all over again.

The routine stretched Bhuvan to his limits and he was constantly fatigued. Yet despite his rigorous demands, Bhuvan excelled at the Jesus and Mary College cricket academy. His coach Shyam was impressed. In 2006, the coach helped advance Bhuvan one rung further up the cricket ladder by recommending him onto the roster of a Delhi club. It was another lucky break for the newspaper delivery boy.

Club teams serve as the next step up the cricket ranks after academies. Clubs take the players out of the training nets and into actual games, the most important type of practice. It's also at the club level that professional selectors watch for up and coming players. The selectors are the invisible hand of cricket - the unseen, yet omnipotent force that dictates the future paths of the players. The players know it too, and the stress of their club matches often shows. If a player performs poorly during a series of games followed by a cricket selector, it could ruin his chances at a professional career. The players never know when they're being watched either; even in games the selectors don't attend, they worry about being read about in the local newspapers.

Unfortunately for Bhuvan, there wasn't much to worry about at his club; he wasn't getting any press, good or bad. In fact, he wasn't playing at all. The coach wasn't using him because he had already hired other players to fulfill his bowling roster. The coach considered Bhuvan a favor paid to Shyam, and didn't trust the young walk-on player in game situations. "Don't worry, I'll give you a chance to play next match," he'd tell Bhuvan each time he was benched. Then, when the next game arrived, he would sit him. And the game after that. And the game after that. To keep his benched player busy, the coach found alternate uses for him; he had Bhuvan clean up the team's equipment and runs errands to get tea.

Bhuvan became the team's unofficial water boy. It was humiliating, sitting around and watching his team from the sidelines. He put up with the errands, the menial tasks, the broken promises for nearly a year until finally he couldn't take it any longer. "Coach - are you going to play me or what?" he demanded.

What Nerve! The coach was positively offended that a disadvantaged walk-on at his elite club would speak to him so directly, so rudely. He told the newspaper boy he was about to cut him from the team Éthat is, unless he met one new condition. From here on out, Bhuvan would come twice a week to his house to work as a personal servant doing cooking and cleaning. The coach said he could use another one of those. His last cook had left him.

Bhuvan had been reluctant to tell his parents about not receiving playing time at the club, but that night he told them about his fight with the coach. Bhuvan's father was stunned. His mother broke into tears. They had never wanted their son to experience the servitude of the poor, and here they learned he'd been fetching tea for his teammates for nearly a year now. They were outraged, and yet they couldn't bring themselves to do anything about it. They were afraid of the coach, and of his imposing manner. Cricket was a different world to them, a strange world they knew nothing about. In the four years Bhuvan had been training 20 hours a week at Jesus and Mary College, Bhuvan's mother, Puryana, had never even seen him play.

It was a situation that never could have happened to Arjun Gupta. His family has been hands-on since day one. Arjun comes from a pedigree of cricket players. His grandfather was a talented cricketer in the 1940s, before the professional leagues formed, and his father, Rajesh Gupta, played the sport professionally in the 1970s. He nearly made it to the top, to the coveted fraternity of Team India, when a disc injury stopped him just short.

Arjun is living both of their dreams to make it onto Team India.

Like Bhuvan, he is one of the rare talents who actually has a shot; in fact, he's well on his way, already on the U19 Delhi State Team. But in many ways, Arjun also represents the extremes that kids like Bhuvan are up against. While Arjun is first and foremost an extremely talented wicketkeeper, he also has a serious support network helping him make it up the steps of the cricket pyramid. "We first started training Arjun when he was just six years old," Arjun's father said.

Back then, it was only 12 hours per week, when Arjun began training at an academy run by the Roshara Club, an exclusive social club in North Delhi where the Gupta family are members. Then Rajesh enrolled his son at "Modern," a well-known private school in the capital that has its own cricket team. The school team competes in matches around the country, sending its kids on air-conditioned, chartered buses to play other wealthy private schools. Modern even makes all that time away from the classroom easy for Arjun. The principal works with him so he gets placed with the easiest teachers, is given fewer assignments, and Arjun's teachers routinely sit down with him for private lessons before upcoming exams, or let him take them at different times so they don't conflict with his games.

In comparison, kids like Bhuvan who attend India's free government schools don't have a chance to participate in organized sports programs. It's not like the United States where even small public schools have at least a football team and sports department. In one-sport India, you either play cricket privately, for a well-endowed school or a club team, or you play pick-up games at the nearest dirt patch or park with the neighborhood kids.

Most importantly, Arjun's father helped him with political connections.

Political influence is the black sheep of Indian cricket. With millions of kids and comparatively few coaches and selectors, a system of corruption, influencing, and back-room deals is all but acknowledged in youth cricket. The time when this is most apparent is when the players reach their middle years - 13 to 19 years old. That's when selection for club teams becomes most competitive because of age restrictions and cut-off dates, when the leagues are divided into age categories - Under 15, Under 17, Under 19 - and it becomes advantageous for kids to be older and stronger than their peers, as close to the cut off dates as possible. The middle years are also when players and parents need to decide just how far they're willing to go. During those years, high school grades begin to matter for university admissions, and the selectors and coaches start to view kids in binary, as belonging in either the classroom or on the pitch. It isn't uncommon for pushy parents to disagree and force coaches to continue training their sons when perhaps they should be in the classroom after all.

"In Delhi, with all the politicians, it's particularly bad. It's all pushing and pressure," Rajesh said. He maintains that for Arjun to succeed, he's had to fight other parents who forge birth certificates to keep their sons in the younger divisions, a process which can be done for as little as Rs. 1,000 ($20) per certificate. Atul, a well-known cricket store owner in Delhi, said that others give gifts and bribes to the selectors, especially for teams' substitute positions, which many coaches readily accept money for because they don't have to use the players. "It's all untraceable of course," he added.

Mr. Gupta said he would never stoop so low as bribing, but that he wasn't shy about asking people for favors. "We wanted Arjun to have every fair chance to prove himself," he said. When Arjun was trying out for the U15 Delhi State team, Rajesh was relieved to find out he already knew four out of the seven selectors from his years playing professional cricket. He arranged personal meetings with each of them, and requested they give Arjun a proper consideration during the trials. The father maintains there are simply way too many kids and not enough capacity to properly assess them all.

Raj Sharma, Arjun's trainer during the off-season, agrees. Sharma would know; he's a state selector for the Senior Delhi team, just one step below Team India. He also runs the West Delhi Cricket Academy, one of the most prestigious academies in Delhi. Every Thursday through Saturday, the pitch and nets of his academy are filled with 200 of Delhi's most promising prospects, ages 8 to 20 - all running, stretching, running drills - while off to the side handfuls of uninitiated, hopeful, and glassy-eyed try-outs watch on expectantly with their parents. Most of them don't make it into his academy. This reporter watched Sharma immediately send two of them home - they weren't properly dressed for try-outs. As he talked with the parents of the others, kids in his academy kept coming over to touch his toes and knees in tributary signs of respect. Cricket is a world of tradition and hierarchy, and it's always important to acknowledge who holds the power.

Nevertheless, Sharma's power comes with a lot of political pressure; government ministers will drop names of players for him to look out for (he didn't say whether he obliged), and once he was even threatened with death. The tremendous egos and resources in the cricket industry make his a stressful position, and he believes the game should be less political. Still, Sharma has no qualms about the reality of the selection process. "If I'm choosing between a pair of twenty year olds with similar ability and one's coming from my academy, of course I'm going to give my kid the nod."

Besides, Sharma maintains that at the senior levels, trials become mostly a formality, "Even by age 15, we already know which of 10 of the 40 will make it. We keep the others around for practice."

For those players who aren't on reputable club teams by the time they're 20 years old, they've essentially wasted their time. It meant they either weren't good enough, or they didn't have the right contacts.

With so much talent in the pool, it often comes down to who you know in cricket.

Luckily for Bhuvan, the newspaper boy from a one-room house found some key contacts of his own. In Bhuvan's corner is Prateek Barbora, his former captain from the Delhi club. Prateek had been having issues of his own with club's coach, concerning the favoritism paid towards certain players. After the coach's attempt to blackmail Bhuvan's into servitude, Prateek decided it was time to leave the club and start his own cricket academy. On his way out, Prateek tried to convince Bhuvan to come with him, but Bhuvan said he couldn't afford it.

"That answer didn't work for me," Prateek said. The team captain had been eying the quiet left-arm spinner for some time and saw potential. He put down a counter offer: full financial support, paid for with funds from Prateek's club games and DJing - but he needed to know Bhuvan was serious about pursuing cricket full time. For Bhuvan, that would mean more tournaments, skipping school, and increasing costs.

Bhuvan insisted he was worth the investment, but the problem was his parents; all those hours playing cricket, only to find out their son had been disgraced as a water boy. So, for the first time, Prateek brought the cricket world to the Kumar's doorstep, and visited Bhuvan's family home. Look, he told them, if they would allow him the chance to get Bhuvan on a senior state team, their son's future would be secured; it's all but guaranteed that state cricket players get government jobs afterwards. Also helping him make his argument was another friend from the club, Aditya Sinai, who told Bhuvan's parents he could get him into tryouts for the South Delhi Colds, an elite club team. He happened to know they were looking for a left-arm spinner.

Reluctantly, Bhuvan's parents let him go for it, and sure enough Bhuvan made the position on the South Delhi Colds in 2010. The move has changed everything. Finally with a chance to play, Bhuvan has been able to showcase his talent. Being on a top-tier club team means he's in the sights of senior state selectors, and can benefit from the seasoned talent around him. Nine out of 11 of his teammates are Ranjeet players from the senior state teams and one of the players, Joginder Sharma, used to play for Team India.

Finally with a financial supporter, private cricket training, and a well-known club to his name, Bhuvan was invited to play in Delhi's prestigious youth tournament in 2010, where he came back with a "man of the match" medal for knocking down 5 wickets in a single game. The award was particularly important to his parents. The cold, gleaming medallion was the first time they realized their son had something special; they hung his tournament participation certificate right next to the wall posters of the Hindu gods and goddesses they worship daily. Word also spread quickly among the relatives. Bhuvan's uncle often travels back to the family's village in Baranji to find people asking about the outcomes of Bhuvan's games.

Still, politics abound, and Bhuvan's next great challenge is to get on a senior state team. To do so, Prateek is having him play in Assam, a state in Eastern India where he has contacts on the board of selectors. Bhuvan will be skipping two months of school for the Assam tournament, and is staying with Prateek's family to cut down costs. Now 19 years old, he is feeling the pressure. It's finally come down to this; everything rides upon the next year, where every game matters, the selectors are watching, and the short lists are being drawn. If he does well enough, and Prateek's contacts come through, his entry onto the Assam state team will be likely in October. From there it's just one level up to his dream. Team India.

"And if not" he said. "... really don't know what I'll do."

Should he fail, there are about a million others ready to take his position.

Bhuvan and Arjun's stories remind us that there is a lot more than talent that goes into determining who makes it through the ultra competitive world of Indian cricket. While skill is unarguably the single most important element toward advancement, like many things in India, sheer numbers make it extraordinarily difficult to get noticed. No doubt, cricket serves as an extreme example, but the numbers story is a common one that reverberates throughout the country and its blooming population; the story could just as easily center around engineering and MBA university applicants, people competing for government jobs, or star-struck kids trying to enter Mumbai's fashion and film worlds. In each of these fields, an inspired and empowered youth have dreams to succeed, but raw odds are almost laughably stacked up against them. The result is: a lot of overlooked talent, especially in the rural and low-income areas where opportunities to get noticed are scarce; a pervading sense of corruption and political favors which taint notions of merit; and the factoring of pure, unadulterated luck.

Just look at Bhuvan's journey; his is literally one in a million. He just happened to be in the right places, to meet the right people, at almost every turn. Were it not for a store clerk named Rajat, he never would have met Shyam. Were it not for Shyam, he never would have been at a club. And had it not been for the club and his fight with the coach there, he never would have ended up with Prateek.

It makes one wonder, how many kids like him have been left behind by barely missing their moment, by making one bad swing, or missing a catch just when a cricket selector happened to be watching? How many others have failed to find politically-contacted individuals to champion their cause? It's no surprise cricket players are known to be superstitious.

Many agree that better systems should be in place to assess talent and reduce corruption, but an almost overwhelming sense of helplessness prevails: there are already too many kids to handle as is. Speaking with some of the kids at the cricket academies, you couldn't help but feel for them. These kids are good. Really good! But then again, so are countless more. In the backdrop of this story, there are more than 1,000 cricket academies and 100,000 kids training in Delhi alone. And that's just one small corner of the country.

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how India, and its increasingly talented output of scholars, athletes, and artists deal with the competition. On the flip side, it will be interesting to see if anyone levels the playing field, and starts scouting the villages and slums for a largely untapped pool of talent. At least in cricket, a few things are starting to change that could help cushion the odds. Namely, an expansion of India's professional cricket leagues. Private leagues like the IPL and corporate-sponsored teams are still in their infancy, but are growing each year. Traditional test matches, which last up to four days, are being replaced with faster 20/20 games, over within three hours. The game is becoming more media friendly, offering more options for viewers and speedier entertainment. With that diversification should come a new opportunities for players.

In any case it could help Bhuvan even if he doesn't make it to Team India. After a long journey, it could help him fulfill his father's new wish: "The next time I see you playing, I should see you on the television."

This time, the game wouldn't be watched, alone, on a black and white screen. An entire family would be gathered around the new color TV Bhuvan bought for his parents with last year's newspaper delivery earnings.

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Sports | Life | April 2013

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Left hand bowler Bhuvan Kumar faces impossible odds in breaking into the big leagues. Trainees practicing at Prateek Barbora’s Cricket Academy. Clubs take the players out of the training nets and into actual games. A cricket trainee practices swings at Prateek Barbora’s Cricket Academy in New Delhi. Aspirants at a training academy in Delhi. An average trainee is more likely to be struck by lightning in a year than make a position on Team India. Arjun Gupta is living the dreams of both his father and grandfather to make it onto Team India. Prateek Barbora had been eying Bhuvan Kumar, the quiet left-arm spinner, for some time and saw potential. He put down a counter offer: full financial support, paid for with funds from Prateek’s club games and DJing, provided Bhuvan was serious about pursu A fast bowler winds up as Raj Sharma (background left) looks on at the West Delhi Cricket Academy. Says Sharma, who is also a selector: “Even by age 15, we already know which of 10 of the 40 will make it. We keep the others around for practice.” Arjun Gupta comes from a pedigree of cricket players. While he is an extremely talented wicketkeeper, Arjun also has a serious support network helping him make it up the steps of the cricket pyramid.

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