Saqib Saleem swings the bat in a CCL Tournament
A love for cricket is common between Saqib Saleem and coach Rajeev Mehra, much like most Indian men. What sets them apart though, is how much they want to give back to the game. Saleem, who hails from Greater Kailash in Delhi, is poised to start a cricket academy in his hometown, that will cater exclusively to underprivileged children. The two have known each other since the time Saleem, a state-level cricketer, was playing for Delhi in a match against Mumbai, that Mehra was part of. "I remember Delhi won that game," laughs Mehra as we get the two chatting. "Saqib was very keen on the game, wanting to learn new things. His discipline during practise sessions was admirable." After Delhi, Saqib went on to play for Kashmir too. "I played for a year, after moving there. My mother is Kashmiri. However, as much as I loved the sport and was devoted to it, life clearly had other plans," the actor says.
While the two kept in touch, they only got the chance to meet again, four months ago. "I was toying with the idea of starting a cricket academy because I missed having to do something with the game. I was clear that I did not want to build an institution that would become one more of many. It's Rajeev who suggested we do something to help those in need." Mehra interjects, "I have worked with the less fortunate. I make it a point to have at least four of them in each training session. So, yes, it is familiar territory." It was Mehra's approach to the game, that convinced Saleem about the collaboration. "I needed someone who had a connect with the children. And Rajeev was perfect."
Coach Rajeev Mehra at his training academy in Mumbai
Making cricket, that is largely seen as an elite sport, accessible to those deprived of opportunities could be a task. But Mehra doesn't want to complicate things. "Ultimately, it's about helping the kids play. Give them the space, the equipment, the push." It is the uber glamorisation of the game that has turned it into an occupation of the elite, opines Mehra. "Cricket has always been India's top sport, but the way it has been commercialised, is affecting the talent pool. Coaches are demanding crazy amounts — currently the price of one personalised session in Mumbai can go up to Rs 2,000 — and parents are willing to pay. I don't remember receiving formal training. Most of us have learnt the sport by playing with friends who were equally serious about it." The 30-year-old coach who runs his own academy in Mumbai, often attends inter-school matches where municipal schools participate, to spot talent. "The lower strata is a goldmine of talent."
Saleem shares a slightly different view. It is not the sport that is elite, he argues, but that access is tough. "Today, a decent cricket bat costs Rs 20,000. So, even though we have abundant talent, not everyone can afford it. We want to find the gems who can't," he says, adding, "I spend a lot of time watching interviews of veteran cricketers. I remember one of Imran Khan, who spoke of how he discovered Wasim Akram, then a young boy from a small city, and groomed him for the national side. And gave the world a cricketing legend. That is my inspiration."
Mehra is in the process of formulating a curriculum for the academy that will train no more than 40 kids aged seven to 18 at a time. "I want each kid to get adequate personal attention," Saleem says, ahead of travelling to Delhi next month for selection. "I think I was being selfish, I just wanted a chance to go back home and find more excuses to play the game," he laughs.