Even in his wildest dreams, Harsh Tyagi would not have expected such a rousing reception on his return to his alma mater — Noida’s Billabong High School. There are teachers grinning ear to ear, greeting him with bouquets, and a posse of journalists are waiting for him in the school auditorium that’s been converted into a media centre, with parents and elder brother in tow. All this can be a bit unsettling for a 19-year-old. But Harsh handles this attention with aplomb. Much like the ice-cool manner in which he scalped 14 wickets in four games with his left-arm orthodox spin that was instrumental in India U-19 team’s Asia Cup triumph in Bangladesh.
Through the course of his recollections of his heady week across the border, Harsh conveys his unequivocal love for cricket, complemented by his utter disregard for academics (he reminds the press that he managed 81% in the Class XII board examination, nevertheless). The teen informs that he honed his skills over the last eight years under the tutelage of coach Phoolchand Sharma, who runs his academy — Noida Wanderers Club – on the school premises.
“I joined his academy under Phool sir when I was barely 12 and have not looked back since. Over the years, his guidance has helped me graduate through age-group cricket,” he says. Before his exploits in Bangladesh, Harsh was going through a phase of turmoil. Despite having played junior grade cricket (U-16 and U-19) cricket for Delhi, he was finding it difficult to make the transition into the senior team. The competition was intense, and Delhi had a host of left-arm spinners like Manan Sharma and Vikas Mishra. That’s when Anureet Singh, a medium-pacer from Railways, and a senior in the academy, offered a simple piece of advice: “Take up the job of a TC (ticket-checker) with the Railways, and move out of Delhi.”
Harsh passed the trials and played three games for his new team in the Vijay Hazare Trophy before boarding the flight to Dhaka. In many ways, Tyagi’s cricketing journey mirrors that of his close friend and confidante Shivam Mavi. Both are products of Sharma’s academy, and began their respective journeys together. While Mavi chose pace, flight and guile were Tyagi’s calling cards. If Mavi was one of the key architects of India’s U-19 World Cup win in New Zealand earlier this year, Tyagi was the bowling lynchpin in the Asia Cup triumph.
Both were keen on playing first-class cricket for Delhi. But intense competition kept them on the fringes. With Sharma’s consent, Mavi moved to Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. It’s a decision he doesn’t regret one bit. Off the field, the two youngsters became the best of friends. It’s not surprising that both Mavi and Sharma were present at Tyagi’s grand welcome on Monday.
Their stirring performances in the recent past have brought the spotlight on Sharma’s cricketing nursery, which was often relegated by the fabled LB Shastri Academy run by Sanjay Bharadwaj or Tarak Sinha’s Sonnet Cricket Club. For long, these two clubs ensured a steady supply of decent first-class cricketers in and around Delhi.
Not anymore. Because, at present, there are atleast 20 first-class cricketers plying their trade across different age-groups from four states who owe allegiance to Sharma and his academy. “At the moment, I have at least 18-20 boys playing first-class cricket. Apart from Mavi and Tyagi, there’s Pradeep Sangwan and Anureet Singh who are seniors. Then there’s Bobby Yadav, who is in UP’s U-23 squad, apart from Ashish Sethi and Utkarsh Suri. Haryana team has Arjun Tyagi and Shivam Sharma, to name a few,” Sharma points out. Apart from the ground adjacent to school, Sharma runs another academy at the Greater Noida Stadium. Altogether, he has around 600 boys and girls with 21 coaches, most of whom are his former students.
Sharma says there is no paucity of academies in the Delhi-NCR region. The issue, he says, is the quality of coaching and the limited exposure to the youngsters. “NCR mein sabse badi samasya grounds ki hoti hain. Academy toh mil hi jayengi. There are at least 150 academies in and around Noida. Lekin bachche ko exposure kam milta hain.”
He scouts for talent on his own, and monitors the progress of all his wards. He sent Mavi to bowl to the Afghanistan team when they were training at the Greater Noida Stadium last year. “Kursi mein baithe players paida nahi hote hain. Uske liye mehnat karni padti hain,” he quips.
Even Uttar Pradesh captain Suresh Raina makes it a point to practise at Sharma’s academy with Mavi whenever he visits NCR. Others like Pawan Negi and Uttar Pradesh’s Tanmay Srivastava, too, are regulars here. Suffice to note that the cricketing landscape in the national capital has shifted with the emergence of Tyagi and Mavi, and Sharma is at the forefront of it.