Ramakrishnan Natarajan is one of several trainees at the Gen-Next Cricket Institute, the brainchild of R Ashwin. © Wisden India

Ramakrishnan Natarajan is one of several trainees at the Gen-Next Cricket Institute, the brainchild of R Ashwin. © Wisden India

It is hard to say with certainty that Ramakrishnan Natarajan’s life has taken a dramatic and inevitable turn for the better, but there is no doubt that it has taken an interesting turn.

At 19, pursuing a B Com degree at Vivekananda College in Chennai and hoping to build on his aspirations of playing cricket at the highest level he is capable of, Ramakrishnan received an unexpected and morale-boosting helping hand when he was sent to England for a 10-day coaching and playing stint in Taunton, under the guidance of Phil Lewis, the Director of Cricket at King’s College.

Now, a 10-day programme overseas is unlikely to be a life-changing experience, agreed, but when you speak to the young man, you know that even that short session has opened his eyes to a world of possibilities, and that confidence and temperament-wise, he is now in an entirely different space.

Ramakrishnan, a left-hand opening batsman, is one of several trainees at the Gen-Next Cricket Institute, the brainchild of R Ashwin. The Indian offspinner is the most famous name behind the institute, whose day-to-day affairs are overseen by N Ravichandran, Ashwin’s father, and Chandrasekhar Balasubramaniam, his manager. The institute, which caters mainly but not only to those of limited means, aims to provide the best possible facilities to budding cricketers who may not otherwise have the opportunity to further their passion for some reason or the other.

Towards that end, Gen-Next has entered into an arrangement with the International Organisation for Health and Sports (IOHSA), a UK-based global charity that also throw up opportunities to promising underprivileged young sportspersons to prepare them for the bigger challenges ahead. Dr Samir Pathak, the president of IOHSA, has been instrumental in the past in getting young Indian cricketers, including Prithvi Shaw and Sarfaraz Khan, to the UK, and therefore this arrangement between Gen-Next and IOHSA is nothing more than an extension of what Pathak and IOHSA have been involved with in the past.

It was IOHSA that footed the entire bill for Ramakrishnan’s trip by auctioning memorabilia, with this particular venture formally launched on July 4 at the House of Lords in Westminster. Among those present at the event were Sachin Tendulkar and Dilip Vengsarkar, former India captains, and Farokh Engineer, the flamboyant wicketkeeper-batsman of yesteryear.

“It was a unique experience for me,” says Ramakrishnan, clearly still in awe of the Taunton experience, nearly four months after his return from England. “Yes, it was only 10 days, a short trip, and I would have learned more had it been of a longer duration, but even that period was a wonderful eye-opener for me.”

Ramakrishnan was placed with King’s College Boarding School in Taunton, and was put through the paces by Lewis. “The day after I landed, I hit the ground running. First, it was about strength and conditioning, and working out at the gym under Phil Lewis. I had one-on-one sessions with him, and then played seven matches, including a match against the South Africa Under-19 team. I made an unbeaten 38 in that match, a performance that gave me a great deal of confidence.

“It was a different experience from the point of view of the conditions, the pitches etc. While the bounce was predictable, there was lot of movement and as an opening batsman playing the new ball, it was a priceless education for me. I also received tips on the areas to focus on with my own medium-pace bowling, how to concentrate on my action, things like that.”
King’s College has a rich history in cricket. Jos Buttler, the England wicketkeeper, developed his game there over a period of five years, while Roger Twose, the former New Zealand batsman, was also a student at King’s, as was Lewis himself, currently in charge of the first XI and the institute’s Elite players.

Ramakrishnan was placed with King’s College Boarding School in Taunton, and was put through the paces by Phil Lewis. © Wisden India

Ramakrishnan was placed with King’s College Boarding School in Taunton, and was put through the paces by Phil Lewis. © Wisden India

Ramakrishnan is certain he has come back a better cricketer after his King’s experience. “I have been playing here in Chennai for a long time, but this experience has changed my approach towards cricket,” he avers, and is confident of graduating beyond the Tamil Nadu Cricket Associations Division V league, where he plays for Madras Indians CC, one of two Gen-Next teams in the TNCA league. “My aim is to play in the first division. I can feel a changed approach and mindset, I can feel the overall difference, and I am sure it is only a matter of time before I make the I Division breakthrough.”

Ashwin is clear about what he sees Gen-Next’s role to be. “Budding cricketers are encouraged to express themselves and play a fearless brand of cricket,” he offers. “In order to allow them to mature as cricketers, we felt a short stint in the UK would benefit them greatly. We are trying to inculcate a strong fitness culture, as much as anything else. This is the first year of this venture, and Samir basically funds it from charity. The money is raised through auctioning of cricketing gear, and used for both cricket and for medicine.

“When we got talking, it looked like a good structure,” continues Ashwin. “Going forward, we are planning to send between two and three players every year, with the focus on the 16-17 age group. From now on, we also want to invest three years in each of these players who will be travelling to the UK so that it is a more meaningful exercise, and so that we can monitor the progress of these individuals better.”

Cricket has embraced commercialisation in a mutually beneficial relationship; such ventures are increasingly becoming an exception. Just because opportunities are provided doesn’t necessarily mean it will spark a mushrooming of quality cricketers overnight queuing up for India selection, but that isn’t quite the aim of this Gen-Next-IOHSA alliance with King’s College as the cricketing base. The objective is to prepare cricketers with potential for the myriad challenges ahead, and going by Ramakrishnan’s experiences, that is well on its way to being fulfilled.