Steve Waugh and Brad Hogg with Marist College Ashgrove students at the launch of cricket television show The Hunt in Brisbane, June 9, 2023 (Courtesy: Richard Walker)
I CAN’T TELL YOU how much I am looking forward to this, mate. I have been to India and played in India for years. I have received a lot of love and affection from people in India. But this will be my way of giving it back to the sport and the people of India. If I am able to discover one MS Dhoni in the remote corners of, say Kolkata or any other city or the suburbs, I will feel vindicated. Imagine travelling around rural India seeing young kids play the sport and excel. And all of a sudden, they have an opportunity to harness their skills in a more professional way and have a career. They will get proper coaching, nutrition, and every other opportunity to be successful. And if that happens at a relatively young age, it could help set a trend of sorts,” said Brad Hogg, World Cup winner and former Australian left-arm wrist spin bowler.
Hogg was speaking in a torrent. His excitement was palpable and every word was heartfelt and sincere. It could well be that he comes to India as soon as November and starts his journey as a scout for raw talent.
What is making this possible and what’s the plan? What’s cooking?
What’s cooking is the Hunt. The Hunt is a made-for- TV cricket project that drips with aspiration and teenage dreams. Conceived over the last several years by television professionals in Australia and elsewhere, it is aimed at giving kids from relatively underprivileged backgrounds an opportunity to showcase their talent. The idea is simple. Talent scouts from the Hunt team will travel around rural India to identify and discover raw talent. They will deliberately not be in the cities for city folk already have access to facilities. There are many in the villages who, despite having the potential to do well, are unable to do so in the absence of adequate infrastructure.
Scouts will scour India for the best-emerging cricket talent aged between 14 and 17. Across 16 episodes, the backgrounds and motivations of the best 60 eager teenagers drawn from all corners and backgrounds of India will be explored. Four global cricketing megastars will oversee a team of iconic Indian and international mentors at the Hunt boot camp. Sixty finalists will attend the boot camp later this year. Over the weeks, this group will be chiselled to a squad of 16 by cricketing luminaries.
From the final 16, a winner will be chosen who could well be a future star of Indian cricket.
In five other cricketing countries: England, Australia, West Indies, the US, and the UAE, local versions of The Hunt will also be broadcast. In each territory, a winner will be found to captain the squad of 16 local aspirants.
These six teenage squads will then travel to the UAE to compete in a televised two-week stadium tournament called Home Grown Heroes, where the best teenage talent on the planet will compete for the ultimate prize.
Can the Hunt India squad prevail on the global stage?
If they do, it could well open up a new career option for talented Indian kids that has so far remained unexplored. While the IPL has now made room for talent from tier 2 and tier 3 cities, never has it happened that Indian rural teenage talent has been given a voice.
Former Australian captain Steve Waugh has already been unveiled as one of the show’s four icons and the Hunt organisers are on record saying his three fellow super judges will be legends of the game like him.
As mentioned, Brad Hogg will travel to India’s rural outposts in a rickshaw to help the four super icons find the best young players. If he finds them playing on the side of the road or in a village and thinks they have what it takes, he will present a “Hunt Golden Ticket”—a guaranteed entry into the boot camp that will have every Indian family dreaming of stardom for their kids.
The idea of scouting is as follows. Hogg will be traveling across these villages watching local kids in action. If and when he notices someone talented, he is expected to speak to the parents of that talented youngster and seek permission to allow the teenager to attend the Hunt boot camp.
As I was listening to the organisers outline their plans, I couldn’t help but go back to how current Indian star Shardul Thakur was discovered by his coach Dinesh Lad.
Brad Hogg will travel to India’s rural outposts in a rickshaw to help the four super icons find the best young players. If he finds them playing on the side of the road or in a village and thinks they have what it takes, he will present a ‘hunt golden ticket’—a guaranteed entry into the boot camp that will have every Indian family dreaming of stardom for their kids
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Shardul’s story, which started in 2006, is similar. Dinesh Lad, the cricket coach of Swami Vivekananda International School, had been calling one Narendra Thakur for at least six months, but each time his proposal was met with stiff resistance. Narendra Thakur was a vegetable farmer from Palghar, a district on the western lines around 90km from Mumbai. Lad had watched Thakur’s teenage son Shardul bat and bowl at an inter-school event and wanted the 14-year-old to join his school. Lad, a former Western Railway cricketer, is a disciple of the great Ramakant Achrekar. He was Achrekar’s student in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Just like his guru, he had an eye for talent and the ability to convince parents to get their wards to enrol with Sharadashram Vidyamandir. Lad would also venture out on a talent hunt in and around Mumbai after the Borivali school’s management had entrusted him with the responsibility of building a competitive cricket team. In trying to do so, he spotted a young Shardul, who defied his slight build to bowl reasonably quick and could also put wood to leather with a lot of conviction.
“I called up Shardul’s father at least 20 times in those six months and every time he would politely tell me, ‘Sir, hum apne bachhe ko roz paanch ghante ka safaar nahin karwayenge. Uska padhai thik se nahi ho payega’.” It was what any other middle-class Indian parent would tell any games teacher. Academics are important. More so if the kid has to make a round trip of five hours between Palghar and Mumbai regularly.
In India, most people have their exclusive eureka moment over a cup of steaming hot tea while discussing monthly budgets with their spouses. This is precisely what happened with Lad. One evening while he was sitting with his wife, Deepali, he asked her if she would mind if he decided on keeping young Shardul with them in the house. “If you feel that’s the right thing to do, I have no problems,” was Deepali’s answer. “I feel that my wife’s unconditional support went a long way. Yes, people come up and congratulate me for Rohit, for Shardul, but Deepali’s role in their development can’t be overlooked. She had faith in my conviction, and that’s why I could do it the way I wanted.” The next moment Lad was again on the phone with Narendra, but this time he had a fresh proposal. “Will you be okay if Shardul stays at my place, studies at Swami Vivekananda [school], and takes cricket coaching? I feel he will play a decent level of cricket in coming years,” was Lad’s last throw of the dice, and this time, Thakur Senior was taken aback but wasn’t dismissive. Narendra relented and thus began the story of Shardul Thakur.
With the Hunt, we could have more Sharduls in the future. Or so we hope.