As India mourns its humiliating exit from the ICC Cricket World Cup, residents of Shahpur, a small hamlet in Punjab, are rejoicing. A village youth has won a cricket reality show and an all-expense paid chance to train in England.
Meet Sukhvir Singh, 20, the son of a bus driver, who dreams of emerging as India’s next fast bowling sensation. Now stationed temporarily in Mumbai for the television show—the last episode was aired on Zee Sports and the state-run Doordarshan on Tuesday night—Singh is one of the 11 talented youngsters unearthed by a London-based sports management company that believes each has it in him to make it to the top.
The company, Investors In Cricket (IIC), was set up two years ago to develop and manage cricket properties, including the Indian reality show Cricket Star; it will also sign on the 11 players to manage them. Executive chairman Manoj Badale said the target was to develop at least two players for the next World Cup in 2011.
The talent hunt, now to become an annual affair, should enthuse budding cricketers. Indian sports authorities, including the Board for Control of Cricket in India, have been criticised for not running similar talent searches. Talented youngsters have to fend for themselves in academies, hoping to be discovered.
For instance, Lucknow’s 16-year-old batsman Mohammad Abbas, who competed with Singh, moved to Chennai to continue studies and play as he found his native city lacked the necessary infrastructure.
And though he didn’t make it, Abbas, who averaged 50 runs in the TV tournament, will try once again next year. “Kapil sir thinks I have potential,” he said, referring to captain Kapil Dev, who led India to a cup victory in 1983.
The investors shortlisted 11 players from nearly 25,000 applicants from across India, and had them play matches in the 20-20 format against a host of corporate teams and a Leicestershire County Club outfit in Mumbai between January and March. The games were televised, and viewers of the show voted their favourite. Their verdict: it is Shahpur’s Singh.
Creative director Simon Hughes, a former English county cricketer who now analyses the sport on television network Channel 4 in the UK, designed the show Cricket Star, modelled after other reality hits as American Idol and Indian Idol. The programme will give upcoming players such as Singh and Abbas a chance to become heroes, he said.
With one wicket from four overs for 14 runs, Singh’s figures may not yet reach that of an emerging hero. But officials said Kapil Dev, the chief selector for Cricket Star, believes the village youth is an excellent swing bowler. Singh claims he often reaches speeds of 135 km, on par with Indian spearhead Munaf Patel.
Winners of such reality shows are selected by viewers, who tend to vote for contestants from their regions. Singh received nearly 300 congratulatory phone calls from fellow villagers between Monday night, when he learnt of his victory, and Tuesday afternoon, when Mint contacted him. Hughes said the other 10 players will not be forgotten.
He said Kapil Dev will take three players for training at his academy, while India A team coach Robin Singh will take two. Two more will accompany Singh to train at the Leicesterhire County Club.
The show’s promoters needed 18 months to convince sponsors and broadcasters that the reality show could indeed be made a reality. But detergent and skincare products manufacturer Hindustan Unilever Ltd, a title sponsor, said it was sold immediately on the idea.
Ashok Venkatraman, HLL’s senior vice-president for the skincare division, said Cricket Star was an excellent platform to promote its face cream, Fair & Lovely Menz Active. “Our target group is males from the age of 17 years and above,” he said.
“Our campiagn line is ‘Change your story’; the talent hunt is all about changing their stories.”
Singh’s story, at least, seems to be heading for a happy ending. He now plans to learn English to give media interviews. “But if I don’t pick up the language, and I am the ‘Man of the Match’ when I play for India, I will request them to have Navjyot Singh Sindhu interview me in Hindi,” he said of his own hero, and fellow cricket star.