Companies are on the hunt for young talent—some of them children of railway station porters or garage mechanics—in sports disciplines ranging from motor racing to tennis.
And now, cricketing talent discovered on a television reality show that begins in mid-February could even get to play alongside the world’s top players in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Twenty20-format tournament proposed by the sport’s administrators here.
Under an agreement between EM Management Pvt. Ltd, which owns the reality show Cricket Star, and the Rajasthan Cricket Association, selected contestants will be trained and play matches at the state’s cricket facilitiesin Jaipur.
The deal paves the way for future winners in the television show to play for the state team as well as the IPL, the link being provided by cricket administrator Lalit Modi: he’s the president of the Rajasthan association and the IPL’s chairman and league commissioner.
Cricket Star is just one of several corporate initiatives seeking to unearth the sporting heroes of tomorrow. The efforts marry corporate social responsibility initiatives with the marketing and branding opportunities that many sports inevitably offer.
Recently, Bharti Enterprises Pvt. Ltd, with interests in telecom, retail, financial services, manufacturing and the agri-sector, announced an agreement with the national football federation to set up a football academy with a residential school for talent in different age groups.
Earlier this month, motor racer Armaan Ebrahim, 18, backed by JK Tyre and Industries Ltd, was signed up by the UK-based David Price Racing team to compete in the 2008 GP2 Asia series—designed in 2005 to serve as a support race for Formula One.
Last November, a UK-based GP2 Series team, I-Sport International selected Karun Chandhok to compete in the 2008 season. Chandhok, 23, too is a JK-promoted racer, just as Saran Vikram, who became the national champion last year at age 17.
Another cricket initiative launched last year by Pepsico India Holdings Pvt. Ltd—the Gatorade Pacers competition to find India’s future crop of fast bowlers—saw two winners make it to state teams: Ravi Kant, 17, plays for the Rajasthan Ranji squad, and P.K. Dharma, 16, for the Tamil Nadu under-17 team. This year, Gatorade plans to look for under-15 and under-22 talent from more than 1,000 schools, college and sports clubs in Hyderabad, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Jamshedpur in 2008.
The talent hunt kicked off in New Delhi on 12 January.
And the recently begun Mission 2018, a decade-long Rs100-crore tennis initiative by Apollo Tyres Ltd hopes to find India a singles Grand Slam winner; prospects will be sent to Mahesh Bhuptahi’s Bangalore academy for training.
According to EM Management, talented contestants will be given a “look-in” by former India coach Greg Chappell, currently an adviser to the Rajasthan cricket board, for possible selection to the state Ranji squad or any of the eight IPL teams yet to be formed.
Modi didn’t immediately respond to an email.
The winner of the inaugural edition of Cricket Star last year, Sukhvir Singh, the 20-year-old fast bowler son of a bus driver from a Punjab village, was sponsored for training at the Leicestershire County Cricket Club, one of the oldest teams on the English county circuit. Others were sent to academies run by former cricketers such as Kapil Dev and Robin Singh. One of them, 16-year-old Mohammed Abbas, has been selected to play for the Uttar Pradesh under-17 team. Some of the others have found jobs as well, says Sushil Tulaskar, EM Management’s assistant manager, operations. “There’s Dinesh Salonke, he wasn’t getting a platform, but after Cricket Star, he’s been signed up for Air India-A team,” he says.
Significantly, many of the kids hail from not-so-prosperous families. Apart from Punjab’s Singh, racer Vikram’s father is a garage mechanic, Apollo’s find Mohammad Azhar is the son of a carpet embroider in Kolkata, Cricket Star’s Praveeth Kumar, who impressed judges, is the son of a railway station porter in Hyderabad, while Gatorade Pacer winner Kant’s father is a part-time accountant.
But all have dreams. Kant left for Jaipur to play a few district matches, saying a good performance should help him get a permanent spot in the senior team. Azhar is excited about training in Bangalore and the schooling he will get. “Bhupathi sir said I must study,” he says.