Victoria Park is the most famous cricketing landmark in Meerut. © Wisden India

Victoria Park is the most famous cricketing landmark in Meerut. © Wisden India

Victoria Park is the most famous cricketing landmark in Meerut. In a town where chaos reigns, the vast open space in the heart of the city comes as a whiff of fresh air. It houses the city’s biggest practice facility – the Bhamashah Park Cricket Academy — made famous by Praveen Kumar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the most celebrated cricketers from this part of Uttar Pradesh.

Till not long ago, those from Meerut – hitherto famous for cricket equipment manufacturing units — aspiring to play competitive cricket had to drive down to neighbouring Delhi, 70 kilometres away, in pursuit of their passion. But over the last few years, a number of cricket academies have come up, and many former cricketers have turned coaches in their quest to nurture talent.

“When Praveen started off, there was hardly anything here,” says Sanjay Rastogi, the coach of Praveen and Bhuvneshwar, pointing towards the vast stretches of greenery surrounding the pavilion block at the Bhamashah Stadium. “Forget about turf wickets, we didn’t even have a single playing field with grass; it was just barren land. Praveen used to play tennis ball cricket here, he was spotted in one of the local matches. What he has achieved has motivated many youngsters in and around western Uttar Pradesh.”

Praveen, who has only words of gratitude for his coach, believes it is the self-belief of the cricketers coming from the region that has helped them take the next step up. “Everyone asks me this, but I think after (Mohammad) Kaif and (Suresh) Raina, people had the belief that small-town talent can be noticed,” says Praveen, picked by Rastogi for an Under-15 inter-district tournament despite having played only tennis ball cricket till then.

“When I came in, Uttar Pradesh were also doing well in the Ranji Trophy, we won the title (in 2005-06), then reached the final. After that, RP Singh made his debut against Pakistan, Piyush (Chawla) played before that and then I made my debut in 2007, so the environment was really good.”

In 2007, a few months before Praveen made his debut for India, Meerut celebrated the first-class debut of Bhuvneshwar. But it was only after the Ranji Trophy final of the 2008-09 season against Mumbai in Hyderabad, where he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar for a duck, that Bhuvneshwar came into prominence, even though Uttar Pradesh lost that match.

“I remember bringing Bhuvi here as a 10-year-old and enrolling him under Mr Rastogi,” recollects Kiran Pal Singh, Bhuvneshwar’s father who retired as a sub-inspector with Uttar Pradesh Police. “He showed us that spark and I thought I had to provide him the opportunity from whatever I could afford.

“It could have been so easy to move to Delhi and enrol him there. But we realised that Delhi cricket is huge, has a bigger structure and so many more people playing, so he may not have got as many chances. It’s good that his talent was noticed here in Meerut.”

Bhuvneshwar had to work his way up the ladder and after a number of noteworthy performances, he was handed an international debut in December 2012, further showcasing the quality of medium pacers coming from the region. That has only triggered further interest among kids wanting to take up the game professionally.

“After Bhuvneshwar’s debut, we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of young kids enrolling in the academy here at Victoria Park,” says Yudhvir Singh, secretary of the Meerut District Cricket Association. “That has meant we’ve had to focus not just on developing grounds and infrastructure, but also on developing coaches and support staff because ultimately, we don’t want to lose out on young and raw talent.”

The biggest hindrance the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association faces is the absence of its own grounds to set up state-of-the-art infrastructure and residential academies. The Green Park Stadium in Kanpur, the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow and the Nehru Stadium in Ghaziabad are all owned by the state government and are handed over to the association only during matches.

“We are in the process of identifying land and setting up our own infrastructure,” says Yudhvir. “Unlike other states, we don’t get grants from the BCCI because we don’t have our own facility. Our priority now is to set up our own stadiums. What we have in abundance, though, is talent and quality, and hopefully we will produce a few more quality cricketers.”