The Oval maidan in South Mumbai has been the veritable field of dreams for many a fledgling cricketer who has gone on to don India colours. And making this happen are clubs which cater to the need of future Indian athletes.
Standing tall among them is the Elf Vengsarkar Cricket Academy, the baby of none other than former Indian skipper Dilip Vengsarkar.
It was in 2005, that this 'elfin' space towards the north side of the Oval made its niche and ever since, has been a nursery of cricket.
The first thing every great cricketer likes to do on retirement is to keep the light of his love for the game burning bright. Because you can take a cricketer off the field but you can't take the cricket out of him. With this aim in mind, he wears a new hat - that of a coach and sets up a place wherein youngsters will come to learn about the game, and this is how the Elf Vengsarkar Cricket Academy was born.
“Today, I am known because I played cricket for the country, and now, it is time for me to give back something in return, if not everything,” said Vengsarkar, talking to The Free Press Journal on Thursday.
"And I am sure, every sportsperson who has donned India colours in any sport has a desire to coach budding athletes, and that is what our three academies do,” said the former Indian skipper, who has two other 'elven' academies, one in Mahul and another in Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, near Pune.
Immediately after he announced his retirement from international cricket, the former India captain met the then sports minister of the government of Maharashtra, Arun Divekar, and requested him to allot a spot at Churchgate for starting a cricket academy for the talented young cricketers of the city to hone their skills, and Divekar did.
“However, the entire Oval Maidan was then in a shambles as there was no fence and it had become an open-air toilet for many who would have exited Churchgate station and walked to the Fort area,” recalls Vengsarkar. He and his people had to deal with the nuisance of drug addicts. But they did overcome these hurdles eventually, with the help of Mumbai Police. “It was tough but we made it happen. Somewhat like helping the Indian side build its innings after some early collapses,” said the legend.
There are many reasons why this academy stands out among the many, as it is free. And after the selection trials, an academy team sets off to play in different championships in and around the state.
Impressed with the academy's work, the BMC gave Vengsarkar another place to work his magic, this time, for players residing in the suburbs (Mahul). After that came the academy at Pimpri-Chinchwad.
Today, by preparing excellent wickets, outfield and planting more than 100 trees that surround the ground, the Mahul academy is a centre for many locals from Mahul and surrounding areas. Divyansh Saxena, a resident of Chembur, hones his skills at this academy. Incidentally, Saxena was the Under-19 Indian skipper.
Likewise, the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation handed over a beautiful outdoor and indoor facility in 2009 to the Dilip Vengsarkar Foundation, a trust that has been running all the three academies for the last 25 years. The impact is such that the industrial town now boasts a world-class cricket academy that has produced many cricketers now playing for Maharashtra and India A teams. Not to forget that these academies have provided jobs to 17 coaches, 20 groundsmen and 15 watchmen.
None of the employees of the Elf Vengsarkar Cricket Academy were asked to go home amid the lockdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think this is the time one should extend a hand to help others. Despite all that is happening, we never stopped payments to any of our employees," said Vengsarkar. He makes it a point to visit each of the academies and make sure his staff members are paid their salaries on time and the rations reach the groundsmen and watchmen. "It's no wonder the wickets and the grounds look in perfect condition to start cricket, whenever it's possible,and these people are responsible, so we give it back to them," he concludes.