Cricket and education can co-exist if there is intent

Erapalli Prasanna took a few years off to complete his engineering degree

Modern cricket’s cradle-to-bank system might throw up more millionaires than ever, but it encourages more dropouts too from our schools and universities.

Fans like to believe that religion, caste and education do not matter in cricket. After all, the greatest of them all, Sachin Tendulkar, didn’t go to university, and neither did the modern great Virat Kohli. Yet they are respected, moneyed and have honours thrust upon them.

Bishan Bedi, who belonged to a generation which believed that education was important, said that Tendulkar had learnt from the university of life. Perhaps. But with the talented being denied a proper childhood and a natural process of academic evolution, we might need to rethink priorities.

“Education is vital,” said Anil Kumble some years ago as he presented a project to the Board of Control for Cricket in India. It was a graduate course for players whose education is affected by their playing schedules. Nothing has been heard of it since.

Accomodation and freedom

When Unmukt Chand, the under-19 World Cup captain whose century in the final took India to the title in 2012 was denied a chance by the principal of St. Stephen’s College to do his exams (due to lack of attendance), the vice chancellor had to intervene. Sport and education can go together, but it needs a sense of accommodation and freedom from bureaucratic rule-quoting.

Once a cricketer makes it to the international level, and the IPL too, that might seem to be career and finance taken care of. But only 15 or 18 players get into the National squad; and the IPL is a fickle beast. To take time off for graduation might be sporting suicide in times of intense competition. But careers at the top last only a decade or more, and not everyone can become a coach or commentator.

With a proper Players Association in place, Indian cricketers could have a system which mentors the youngsters in their playing days and ensures their education is not neglected. The nature of the sport is such that most players tend to live in a bubble, gloriously unaware of the world around them, focused on their next match or next wicket or next boundary.

This is where a robust system of education can make a difference. For the sad fact is, a greater number of players are left rudderless post-retirement than we care to admit. Younger players too, who do not find a slot in the paying leagues.

Qualified legends

It wasn’t always thus. More than half a century ago, India’s leading off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna, already a Test player with a tour to the West Indies behind him, decided to take a break from the game to pursue his engineering studies. He returned to the squad five years later, better educated, and a better bowler to boot, as he reassumed the mantle of India’s strike bowler. The man who took over in his absence, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, qualified as an engineer too.

V.V.S. Laxman, a bright student, having to choose between medicine and cricket, gave himself a deadline before falling back on academics. He comes from a family of doctors.

The weakening of our university structure — once the nursery that provided players for the national team — and the opportunities for players while still in school have led to an attitudinal change in the players. One decade of crowded glory, they have decided unknowingly echoing the poet, is worth an age without a name.

Interestingly, the more successful you are as a player, the more likely that you will be forced to attend a finishing school where bearing and composure are drilled into you. This is schooling, in a sense, from marketing managers.

Advertising agencies round off the rough edges and prepare a player to walk and sound like he means what he says in the commercials. Tendulkar himself is a fine example of this, as was Irfan Pathan, and now Hardik Pandya.

Indian players have graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, and one of them, Ashok Gandotra, was even shortlisted for the Rhodes scholarship. He had to pull out of a Test match because it clashed with the Rhodes interview.

Dilawar Hussain, the heavily built wicket-keeper who made two fifties on his Test debut, was probably India’s most qualified player academically, with a PhD against his name. The Jalandhar-born player was principal of colleges in Aligarh and in London.

Last resort

But now education is being seen as the last resort of the untalented. No modern-day Prasanna is likely to give up five years of the game for an engineering degree.

It is not a thought either the players or the administrators give a great deal of thought to. There is enough money in the game today to discourage men like Prasanna’s father who insisted all those years ago that academics before sport was how it ought to be.

Religion and caste might not matter, but education does. And it can co-exist with a career with intent and proper planning.