From grooming Manish Pandey to Veda Krishnamurthy, meet the coach with an eye for talent-spotting
The narrow roads emanating from the bustling Commercial Street in Bangalore lead to a small patch of land that’s nestled between two adjoining temples. Chirpy kids, with their kit-bags in tow, make their way into the Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC) premises and are ushered into a lecture hall.
With anticipation in the air, the kids face a projector-screen as a gentleman of medium built – clad in bright sky blue track gear - takes the stage.
As the kids listen with rapt attention, he speaks of Manish Pandey as one of their own and how he was spotted at this very academy as an 8-year-old. As spontaneous applause breaks out in the hall, the speaker tells the kids that with a bit of dedication and courage, each one of them could do wonders themselves.
Irfan Sait knows what it is like to be an awestruck kid - he was one himself. The year was 1969 and a 20-year-old GR Viswanath had stroked his way to a masterful 137 on debut against a Bill Lawry led Australian side at Kanpur. As a football playing school kid in distant Mysore, the excitement surrounding Vishwanath’s ton drew little Irfan’s attention to cricket.
“I didn’t know what a hundred meant but all the euphoria around the event got me interested in the game”, recalls Irfan. Soon enough, he was playing the game, had a new found hero in EAS Prasanna and was lobbing off-spinners himself.
But this isn’t the rosy tale of a kid growing up to play for India. Instead, it’s that of a man who took the path less traversed to live his passion for the game by nurturing youngsters who would in turn, go on to don India colours. And Manish Pandey isn’t a one-off success.
Long before Pandey was handed an India cap, the former India fast bowler David Johnson was Irfan’s blue-eyed boy. As was Robin Uthappa. Mayank Agarwal, the “India A” opener and Karnataka’s current Ranji Trophy stars CM Gautam, Shreyas Gopal, Ravikumar Samarth and Abrar Kazi started here as well. And it wasn’t just the boys that emerged to the forefront, there were girls too.
The former India skipper Mamata Maben rose from the academy. As did Karuna Jain and Nooshin Al Khadeer. England’s Sonia Odedra and USA’s Akshatha Rao have trained here as well. And when Vanitha VR and Veda Krishnamurthy strap-up to bat for India in the upcoming T20 Women’s World Cup, they will be counting on all that they have acquired over the years of training at the academy.
A natural leader
But coaching wasn’t always on the agenda for Irfan. When in college and playing cricket at Chennai, he was rejected for selection to the Tamil Nadu Colts team on the grounds that he hailed from Karnataka.
Once back in Bangalore in 1983, Irfan joined the Swastic Union Cricket Club (SUCC). “When I joined, only two or three boys would come for nets and there was never any regular practice. I said this is not the way to do things and that we should have regular sessions even if a couple of boys showed up”, recalls Irfan. “Slowly, I built the interest and very soon, one net was not enough as the boys knew that if they showed up, cricket was guaranteed”.
Having taken the initiative, Irfan was made captain of the club by default. “I had this in me – sort of this organization thing”, he says. And it wasn’t the first time that he had taken matters to his own hands. As a kid in Mysore, he had put together a school cricket team and had even formed an area cricket club (which he fondly christened “Banni-Mantap Cricket Club”).
From captaining SUCC to later running the club itself, Irfan was slowly but surely gravitating towards cricket administration. And he had plenty of support from the former India batsman Brijesh Patel and the late YB Patel.
It was then that his family popped the question – why not start a cricket camp? It was just the impetus that Irfan need. But the inevitable question surrounding cricketing credentials arose. He wasn’t a big cricketer himself, so how could he possibly coach or run an academy? Not one to be dissuaded, Irfan countered his critics by offering good facilities and services. Subsequently, armed with coaching certifications from India, Australia and the UK, he took the naysayers head on.
And it was in 1996 that the then India skipper Mohammad Azharuddin, inaugurated the KIOC with 33 students across 6 different age groups. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Irfan reminisces that times were tough, “grounds, management and finances were a problem. I was diverting funds from my retail business into the academy, so the former went into problems”.
But he persevered. “At the end of the day, every time I went to bed, I had the satisfaction and happiness that we have some wonderful cricketers. That gave me tremendous satisfaction”, recalls Irfan.
Twenty years on, the academy is now well established. And with dozens of boys and girls having come through the ranks and played for the state and country, Irfan has success stories aplenty. Tales of the prodigious Manish Pandey and Robin Uthappa, who often finished run-chases in junior games having opened the innings, are recalled with a tinge of nostalgia.
Then there are instances of grit when Irfan had to speak to schools and parents to permit their girls to practice at his academy. It took him several meetings with the Swamiji – who ran the Poornaprajna School in Bangalore – before he could permit a young Karuna to play cricket. Karuna would grow up to be the vice-captain of the Indian women’s team.
Similarly, Irfan had to coax the father of a young hockey playing girl to make the switch to cricket. That girl became the off-spinning Nooshin Al Khadeer – the woman who would pick over a hundred international wickets for India. Likewise, he had to convince a couple to have their 12-year-old younger daughter relocate to Bangalore from Kadur in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru District.
The girl, Veda, became the vice-captain of the Karnataka team and subsequently made her ODI debut for India in 2011.