In an extraordinary initiative to create a “pace bowling bank,” the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) conducted open trials between June 10 and 21, inviting over 1000 aspiring bowlers to showcase their skills. This ambitious endeavor aimed to tap into the untapped potential of village talent, with the hope of revitalizing cricketing prowess in the state.
Among the participants, most were inexperienced and had never even held a leather ball, let alone mastered the nuances of gripping. Remarkably, the PCA shortlisted 93 bowlers, many of whom had never ventured beyond their respective villages.
The brainchild behind this noble initiative is none other than former Indian spinner, Harbhajan Singh. As a Rajya Sabha MP and a passionate advocate for the revival of Punjab cricket, Harbhajan has been instrumental in guiding the PCA toward regaining its lost glory. He emphasizes the importance of proper utilization of funds received from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and envisioned the PCA scouring remote hamlets to uncover hidden talents.
“I don’t think many states have done this before—conducting open trials rather than restricting it to age groups. I wanted the PCA to discover raw pace bowling talents,” said Harbhajan during a break with his family, as he shared his vision.
“Punjab boasts some of the toughest lads, and I refuse to believe that we don’t have boys who can match the speed of Umran Malik or Kuldeep Sen. The idea is to identify them and help them grow into exceptional bowlers. We have already identified around 90 boys between the ages of 16 to 24,” he added.
Over the years, the Punjab stateside has produced medium pacers such as Sidarth Kaul, Sandeep Sharma, and Baltej Dhanda, whose bowling speeds range from 125 kmph to 135 kmph. However, since the departure of VRV Singh, Punjab has yearned for a fast bowling talent capable of consistently reaching speeds of 140 to 145 kmph. To address this void, the PCA, led by secretary Dilsher Khanna, devised a strategic plan and enlisted the expertise of former national selector Harvinder Singh, along with ex-Indian pacers Manpreet Singh Gony and Gagandeep Singh, to scout talents for both short-term and long-term objectives.
To attract the right candidates, the PCA advertised in local newspapers and made announcements on local cable channels, with a specific condition that only players who had not participated in competitive cricket before would be allowed to take part in the trials.
“It has been an enriching experience to travel across the length and breadth of Punjab, visiting places like Amritsar, Jalandhar, Barnala, and Muktsar Sahib in search of talent,” shared Harvinder, the former Test pacer who is spearheading the project. “During our Amritsar phase of trials, we encountered a boy who stood at an astonishing height of 6 feet 8 inches. We were amazed. He hailed from a remote village and is approximately 19 years old. I must admit, there is work to be done on his technique, but he excites us with his potential.”
So how did they approach planning the trials?
“We didn’t consider anyone under the age of 16 because we wanted boys who were starting to develop muscle mass. For the 16 to 18-year-olds, we focused on their action and checked if they displayed any natural speed that could be honed. However, in this age group, we didn’t place excessive importance on height and weight, as these boys are still growing,” explained Harvinder.
Conversely, in the above-18 category, no one under 5 feet 10 inches was selected.
“Typically, we were looking for the strong and well-built Punjabi munda. We weren’t interested in line and length bowlers. We merely assessed the cleanliness of their action and whether they possessed raw pace or not. It was astonishing to witness the speed displayed by some of these boys from villages who had only played with tennis balls,” Harvinder enthused.
To streamline the process, the PCA divided the 20 districts of Punjab into six zones, with each zone comprising three or four districts. This division aimed to minimize travel time. For instance, in Amritsar, aspiring bowlers also flocked from Pathankot, Gurdaspur, and Tarn Taran.
Following the Amritsar leg, 14 boys out of 200 were selected, while five out of 125 were picked from Hoshiarpur. Jalandhar witnessed the highest response, with 250 boys trying out, out of which 34 were selected.
Considering the final selection of 93 bowlers, one may wonder how many are ready to compete at the board level?
“Our plan is to conduct a 15-day camp in Mohali and narrow down the group to 50 players, categorizing them into three divisions. Based on my experience with age-group cricket, I believe a few boys, provided they get a chance to participate in at least 15 to 20 proper matches, will be ready for the BCCI U-19 national tournament within four months,” Harvinder revealed.
Harbhajan, on his part, assured that the PCA would cover all expenses, including accommodation, for the selected players for the next year, in an effort to maximize their potential.
“The BCCI allocates ample funds to state units, and my belief is that this investment should be directed toward cricketers. I have conveyed this to the PCA, and I am hopeful that Punjab cricket’s glorious days will return, presenting Indian cricket with a new generation of exceptional fast bowlers,” Harbhajan concluded.