Sunday, August 11, 2013

TA Sekar - the architect behind the World’s best Pace Foundation

In his 2nd innings in cricket, TA Sekar has given to World Cricket a foundation that the entire cricketing fraternity is proud of – Creating from scratch a truly World Class Pace Foundation in Madras that has unearthed the best of fast bowling talent.

It was also TA Sekar who, as one of the National Selectors, suggested to the Indian coach, both prior to the memorable Kolkata Test against Australia in 2001-02 and just before the start of the ‘follow on’ 2nd innings, to consider sending VVS Laxman at No. 3. And the rest was history
TA Sekar with S. Aravind, a trainee at the Pace Foundation over two decades ago

While one door was being shut in the late 1980s, a different opportunity opened up for TA Sekar – No one, not even him, would have had the slightest idea of what the signing on that April Fools Day in 1988 would finally end up becoming, for at that time it was meant to be only a small stepping stone.  The lead up to his appointment happened in very funny circumstances.

The Big Day – Venkat’s search for Sekar
1st April 1988 was meant to be an important day in Sekar’s family. It was the engagement function of his brother in law. However, an unexpected event was to take place later that day that made it a life changing one for him.

Sekar was waiting for the guests to arrive that morning. As he looked out of his bed room window, he seemed to sight a familiar face driving down the road. He rushed down to check what that person was doing there in his car. It was S. Venkataraghavan, Sekar’s former captain, who had come searching for him. He had brought the news that MRF’s Chief Ravi Mammen wanted to meet Sekar immediately that morning (Incidentally, it was Venkat who had suggested Sekar’s name as the ideal person for this new pace foundation venture that was taking shape in Madras).

Caught in an awkward position between attending the family function and handling Venkat, Sekar requested his former captain for a couple of hours so he could complete the formalities at his family function.

Venkataraghavan returned that noon to pick Sekar up from his home and took him to meet Ravi Mammen. Before the end of the day, Sekar had signed the acceptance letter to become the Coach of the Pace Foundation at the MCC School Campus in Chetput.  

The big motivation for Sekar at that time was simple. This offer would give him the opportunity to be associated with his childhood role model Dennis Lillee.  Sekar had, for two decades, carried Dennis Lillee’s bowling action photograph in his kit bag!!

Sekar’s Conditional Acceptance!!!
Sekar had just one condition to Mr. Mammen prior to signing the acceptance letter – to be permitted to tour with the Indian team if he was selected to play for India. At that point of time, Sekar was confident that he would make it to the Indian team again especially as Lillee himself had strongly suggested and even commented in an interview that he was bowling well enough to be playing for India and that he had it in him to bowl well for India for at least the next two years.

Luckily for MRF and may be, in hindsight, luckily for Sekar as well, that moment never came. With Sekar missing out on the WI tour of 1989 (he was slated to be in the squad for that tour until his name was struck off for reasons that is supposed to remain a ‘secret),
 he had made up his mind to hang his boots and to focus fully on his new role - to assist fast bowlers in honing their skills, helping them take care of their fitness and to coach them on the art of fast bowling- all of which he had missed during his two decades of playing career.

Having taken almost 150wickets in Ranji Cricket as a fast bowler at a time when Venkataraghavan and VV Kumar were at their peak, B. Kalyanasundaram
would have been in the considered set for the coaching engagement. But the B. Tech, MBA had his sights elsewhere – he was already settling down in his corporate career and was not particularly interested in coaching.

Kalli remembers a conversation he had in 1987 with a key influencer to whom he suggested that TA Sekar was the ideal person to head the coaching at the pace foundation for he had all the makings of a great coach. And so it turned out a year later.

1st Asian to get Level 3 Coaching Accreditation
Within a few years, he became the first Asian to achieve the highest coaching accreditation – the Level 3.  Through MRF, he had coaching stints in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. MRF gave him all the support that he needed during that initial phase giving him a free hand to take all important decisions.  Sekar was sent to Australia to learn new and latest techniques. Throughout his stint that lasted two decades, Sekar was allowed to take big calls without even consulting the powers that be at MRF. Such was the confidence reposed in his abilities by the Mammens.

While it all seems rosy now two decades later, it was not as easy in those early days. One of the biggest hurdles that Sekar faced in the first phase of the pace foundation was the strong corporate warfare that had intensified in the top division of the Chennai league in the early 1990s. It was difficult for Sekar to attract young talent to avail the benefits of the foundation because the respective corporate teams were not particularly keen on their boys going to the campus of a competing team (Globe Trotters) to hone their bowling skills. And yet, during the 1990s, Sekar was able to establish credibility for the pace foundation that a true fast bowler could not stay away from.

In the mid 90s, ACB and ECB started recognising the Pace Foundation here in Madras. Every January they would send 25 of their fast bowlers to be trained under Sekar. The pace foundation was not officially recognised by TNCA, the local association (It is another matter that it was not officially recognised even by the BCCI) till the time Sekar left the Pace Foundation.

Sekar’s Contribution to cricketers
While Sekar worked for MRF and the pace foundation, his contribution to the cricketers was not restricted to the MRF players alone. He took some big personal calls and went out of the way to help out cricketers who were in need for help and who looked up to him for support.

When Javagal Srinath had shoulder trouble, Sekar spoke personally to Rod Marsh in Australia and helped Srinath sort out the injury. 

In 1996, prior to India’s tour of Sri Lanka and Singapore, Sachin Tendulkar came to the MRF nets in Madras. It was Sekar who tested him that day and told him to go Australia. It was a career threatening injury and very few know that it was Sekar who directed Sachin to the Australian Cricket Academy to sort out his problem (there was no academy in India at that time!!!! Australia launched their academy in 1987, India did in 2001!!!).

Tamil Kumaran played for India after he joined MRF and had been under the guidance of Sekar.

L. Balaji came to Sekar when he had developed a back problem in the middle of last decade. Sekar worked closely with him to remodel his action. Shortly after, L. Balaji got 9 wickets against Pakistan in the test at Mohali in March 2005.

Not just international cricketers. Sekar played a helping role in domestic cricketers as well.  In the early 90s, J Gokulakrishnan was called for chucking in his very first Ranji match for Tamil Nadu. And who did he turn to- it was to TA Sekar. Gokulakrishnan credits Sekar for helping him come through that most difficult phase of his career.  “One can imagine what would have gone through a youngster who was called for the first time in his career in his very first Ranji match. Sekar helped me come back strong. Not only did he support me personally during that phase, he also had Lillee clear my action that at the end of that process Lillee came out with a clean chit that said : ‘If this guy is chucking, then I too have chucked all my life’. I had no MRF connection and yet Sekar went out of the way to help me and clear my name that helped me progress my career in the coming years.”

The earliest set of players that trained under Sekar were the likes of Vivek Razdan ( who toured Pakistan in 1989), Subrato Banerji (who toured Australia in 1992-93), Ashish Winston Zaidi and Harvinder Singh Sodhi who were selected by him out of a pool of players from across India. (Read Vivek Razdan story).

Giving him great credit for two decade long effort, Kalyanasundaram says ‘MRF may have funded the entire process but still someone had to put in hard work and make it happen. And Sekar did just that with unwavering sincerity for 2decades. You just have to look at the fast bowlers who played for India in recent times and you will know the contribution Sekar has made.  ‘So many bowlers owe a lot to him for his role in transforming their careers – Venkatesh Prasad, Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan….’

Sekar counts making the Pace Foundation as a world class international coaching school for fast bowlers and spreading it worldwide as his biggest achievement over the last two decades.  Cricketers worldwide came to him all around the year, not just when Lillee was here.

Working with his childhood role model was a memorable experience. ‘Coaching requires flair, not everyone has that. Dennis Lillee was an exception. I found that within a fortnight. In just 15days, he taught me almost everything about swing bowling. And my performance in the domestic scene reflected that soon after. He was the kind who would pass on and share knowledge without the slightest hesitation.”  Sekar continues to be in regular touch with his role model.

(As an aside and on the lighter front, Dennis Lillee offered me to teach me the art of swing bowling in 1997 if I revealed to him the brand ambassador fee of Ajit Agarkar who was signed up by Pepsi at an event here in Madras, for which I was the PR. I refused and hence lost the opportunity to be taught by Lillee!!!)

The roping of TA Sekar in 1988 as the head of the Pace Foundation turned out to be a significant move not just for MRF but for the entire bowling fraternity around the world. The pace foundation, as a private institution, produced / mentored several cricketers who achieved cricketing success.

If the Pace Foundation is what it is today, almost the entire credit should go to TA Sekar for it was his relentless pursuit for excellence that led to the MRF PF becoming the world’s best learning school for fast bowlers, one where bowlers came in flocks from across all the cricket playing countries to sharpen their skills.

For this often silent architect, it was a monumental achievement to be able to attract the best fast bowlers in the world to come down to Madras to be trained on fast bowling skills, fitness and correction in techniques.

As one looks back at this shy personality, Sekar’s performance as a player was a case of ‘what could have been’ but his achievements as the architect of the Pace Foundation is one that the entire cricket fraternity should be proud of, for he is the one who created and built a world class institution here in Madras for fast bowlers that has now become a global bench mark for training and developing fast bowlers.

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