Glenn McGrath and MRF Pace Foundation's chief coach Myluahanan Senthilnathan watch Punjab's Jaskaran Singh bowl

Glenn McGrath and the MRF Pace Foundation's chief coach M Senthilnathan have a look at Jaskaran Singh's bowling action

Arun Venugopal / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd


How India got fast

As the MRF Pace Foundation turns 30, here's the inside story of its transformative effect on Indian bowling

Arun Venugopal  |  

Javagal Srinath remembers the time he thought he had lost his rhythm. It was 1992, and Srinath, who had made his international debut only the previous year, had yet to turn into India's premier pace machine. For about six months leading up to the Buchi Babu tournament that year, he was busy reading up on the complexities of instrumentation technology and so had very little game time. Unlike the modern cricketer who can afford to bypass academics, Srinath had to ensure cricket and engineering cohabited.

Having gone for "too many runs" in a Buchi Babu game, Srinath went back to the MRF Pace Foundation nets in Madras, but his usual rhythm remained elusive. The trickle of self-doubt turned into a torrent of pressure when people around him said he might have lost his action. An anxious Srinath sought out Dennis Lillee, the legendary Australian fast bowler and director of the Foundation. When Lillee arrived in Chennai a week later, he asked Srinath to bowl, and after a few deliveries asked how long he had not bowled for.

"I said I had exams for almost six months. I went to college, where there were no proper practice sessions," Srinath tells the Cricket Monthly. "Lillee said nobody in the world could bowl better after a six-month break. 'You need a lot of practice, that's all. There is nothing wrong with you. Just keep bowling more and more and you will get better.'" If that sounds like a perfunctory piece of pop psychology, Srinath doesn't think so. To him, it was "the most mature and the best advice" he had ever received. The result was instant: he pitched the very next ball in the right area. In a subtle, unobtrusive way, Lillee had effected a shift in Srinath's mindset.

In broad terms as well as in specific instances, Lillee's methods have formed the blueprint for the Pace Foundation. By all accounts, his was a democratic approach. Seldom did he seek to overhaul a bowler's technique; instead, as Srinath puts it, Lillee merely offered ideas. "You don't expect Dennis Lillee or somebody else to give you a ready-reckoner solution to say, 'Okay, this is what works for you, this doesn't work for you.'

"Coaches can give you options; that's exactly what Dennis Lillee did. So it depends on what is the best option and how do you adopt that option into your style of bowling. You basically have a discussion with them, then understand how Dennis picked up wickets, how he saw the batsmen, how he bowled to somebody who was good at [playing] short-pitched [bowling]. These discussions will help you start thinking."

"What you learn from there is enough for you to gain all the knowledge and experience. It teaches not only bowling but everything about being a fast bowler" Chaminda Vaas

The greatest allure of the foundation to Srinath lay in its unique status as an exclusive conservatory for fast bowling. "There was a thing going around in the Indian cricketing world that there was no place for fast bowlers," he says. "I think it was one centre which had adequate infrastructure for fast bowlers. This was one place which had 24/7 nets, which had the best facilities, the gyms throughout the day and the video sessions. The doors are open anytime for somebody who wants to do well."

To trace the origin and the early years of the foundation is to teleport oneself into an India of a different vintage, where the spirit of enterprise remained stifled and where resistance to new ideas was normal. Cricket, particularly fast bowling, was not insulated from the prevailing mindset. In 1987, the late Ravi Mammen, then managing director of the Madras Rubber Factory, decided to swim against the tide. In a country habituated to and obsessed with spin-bowling excellence, Mammen was determined to do his bit for fast bowling.

Among the first coaches to be drafted into the Pace Foundation was TA Sekhar. A tall and strongly built fast bowler from Madras, Sekhar had played two Tests and four ODIs, making his last international appearance in 1985. In 1987 he joined the foundation and remained there for over 20 years, until 2008, during which he gained renown for his work.

I met Sekhar at his Adyar residence in Chennai last year to talk about the foundation. It was his birthday and we began by chit-chatting over generous helpings of sakkarai pongal, followed by a conversation of several hours in his spacious, well-lit living room.

Sekhar recounted how India's struggles on pacy and seam-friendly pitches abroad had haunted Mammen. That India didn't have fast bowlers of their own to hit back, Mammen realised, was a deterrent to their chances of winning. While driving his car one day, Mammen, who had represented Tamil Nadu in school cricket, hit upon an idea to solve the problem: start an academy with a good coach to raise an army of world-class fast bowlers.

Convinced that Lillee was the best man for the job, Mammen sought the help of Syed Kirmani, the former India wicketkeeper and one of Mammen's contemporaries in school cricket, to act as a go-between. In his letter to Lillee, Kirmani underscored MRF's stature in the tyres business. By that time, MRF had also made a name for itself as a keen backer of sport, particularly cricket and motor sports. Apart from boundary-board sponsorships, there was Sunil Gavaskar endorsing the MRF brand on his headband; in years to come, players like Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers would sport the MRF label on their bats. The Pace Foundation was Mammen's pet project and, by extension, an ambitious venture for the MRF group. Lillee called Kirmani expressing interest in the offer, on the condition that all his terms were met.

Javagal Srinath, who benefitted from his time at MRF, runs a talent-spotting event for the foundation in Srinagar in 2006

Javagal Srinath, who benefitted from his time at MRF, runs a talent-spotting event for the foundation in Srinagar in 2006 © AFP/Getty Images

"Whatever Lillee wanted, Ravi Mammen gave him," Sekhar recalls. "Ravi Mammen wanted it to be the best foundation in the world. He was a genius; he used cricket as a medium to reach people. MRF was the first corporate to enter into cricket and make such sponsorships. He used cricket and got a lot of mileage, so other companies started coming into it."

Among Lillee's primary requirements was an active first-class or international cricketer - not a long-retired player as a glorified manager - who could bowl and train with the boys. Lillee, in turn, would train that coach. It was then that the former India captain Srinivas Venkataraghavan reached out to Sekhar, who says Madan Lal and Abid Ali were also considered for the role. Venkataraghavan was then the secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association and was engaged by MRF as a consultant. Sekhar, 32, was at the time playing first-class cricket despite his struggles with a knee injury. While he was initially reluctant to get into coaching, the opportunity to work with a role model was hard to pass up.

"Dennis is an inspirational coach. The moment you look at him you would want to bowl," Sekhar says. "One thing about him is, you can ask him anything. I have never seen a coach like him talk about fast bowling. What others could see with a computer, Dennis could with his naked eye. He didn't show a book or come up with a big lecture. He will make the bowlers bowl, film it and show it to them. He straightaway went into your muscle memory, erased it and wrote a new one. What others could do in six to eight months, he could do it one week."

Sekhar met with Mammen and SR Ratnam, the director of corporate planning at MRF and the man in charge of the Pace Foundation project, with a request: he didn't want to give up his playing career. They agreed, and in due course, Sekhar quit SPIC, the petrochemicals company headed by former BCCI president AC Muthiah where he worked, to become a full-time MRF employee. With no headway in his efforts to make a national comeback, Sekhar retired from first-class cricket in 1991, not wishing to be a "competitor to my own boys".

Lillee arrived in Madras in September 1987. The Pace Foundation's first camp was hurriedly put together at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. This was where Lillee famously shot down Sachin Tendulkar's fast-bowling aspirations. While MRF didn't have to contend with the outrage of Tendulkar diehards (or their outpouring of gratitude) back then, there still were fires to be doused on multiple fronts. Sekhar remembers how a section of the media was critical of MRF's decision to bring in Lillee.

Sekhar says he met possibly every board president from 1996 to 2006, and in 2007 MRF made a fresh bid for a partnership, but the BCCI wouldn't budge. It wasn't until 2014 that an MoU was signed between the two parties

"That Lillee hadn't played in India was used against him. There were questions raised in newspaper articles over what he knew about Indian conditions," Sekhar says. There was also strong resistance to Lillee's scientific methods, he says, from several former cricketers, including two former India captains he doesn't wish to name. "The resistance and ignorance - it was more ignorance than anything else - were the biggest challenges," Sekhar says. "The opposition to the scientific method was because it was introduced by a foreigner. The resistance from some of the north Indian state associations was quite fierce too. Some coaches even discouraged their boys from coming to Chennai, saying that it wasn't a good place to live in."

Sekhar remembers, too, how trainees would go back to their home states only for their techniques to be tampered with by local coaches. "We would then have to work on them from scratch again. There was a boy from north India who Lillee thought was a terrific talent. After spending two months at the foundation, he was nowhere to be seen one morning. It turns out that he had headed back to his home town after his coach threatened to drop him from the state side if he trained at MRF. We then told the boys that they can't afford to antagonise their associations. So we just asked the boys to tell their coaches that they were going by their methods."

Despite the teething problems, the foundation conducted another camp at the MAC Stadium in 1988. To spot talent, Sekhar brought on board former Mumbai batsman Vasu Paranjpe, who had worked with junior teams in India. Along with Paranjpe, who was well connected with the BCCI's member units, Sekhar wrote "150-200" letters asking state association officials to send their boys for selection trials. According to Sekhar, more than 100 players, including Sourav Ganguly and Ajay Jadeja, attended. At the end of the camp Lillee, Sekhar and Paranjpe narrowed the list down to 12 names, which included Vivek Razdan, Subroto Banerjee and Ashish Winston Zaidi.

"Dennis Lillee preferred guys who bowled fast," Sekhar says. "If swing bowlers tried to bowl fast, they would lose their swing at some stage. He was very particular about it. He would say, 'Sekhar, this boy is good. He could be a swing bowler. I don't want him.' 'This boy is not good, but he has got potential to bowl 140. I would like to have him.' India needed somebody to bowl 140 [kph]. We have thousands of bowlers bowling at 125-130." Meanwhile, the foundation identified grounds in the Madras Christian College (MCC) Higher Secondary School premises in central Madras as its permanent centre. Mammen was an alumnus of the school, and Sekhar remembers that the management was happy to grant permission.

"During the first ten days, we [just] went to the ground and marked wickets," Sekhar says. "It was a marshy land with bushes. We made the wickets and we built a small room. The kit room that stands next to the nets today was the gym back then. The swimming pool came soon after."

With the basic infrastructure in place, the foundation began putting together Lillee's wish list: a sprint coach, a swim coach, an assistant to Sekhar, and a dietician. "Lillee wanted the bowlers' actions to be recorded for analysis, and I would film them once in three weeks," Sekhar says. Soon after the first batch of trainees was identified, the foundation met with their parents in Delhi and explained that their children would be part of a residential programme. The parents were told that the boys would be given admission at the MCC Higher Secondary School and put up in a brand-new seven-bedroom house in Anna Nagar, then a fast-developing residential locality in north-west Chennai. The foundation also found a restaurant that would cater food in accordance with the diet prescribed for the players.

The Indian administration and media took time to warm to Dennis Lillee's association with the Pace Foundation. Here, Lillee and TA Sekhar (in red shirt) work with fast bowlers at an Indian conditioning camp in Bangalore, 2005

The Indian administration and media took time to warm to Dennis Lillee's association with the Pace Foundation. Here, Lillee and TA Sekhar (in red shirt) work with fast bowlers at an Indian conditioning camp in Bangalore, 2005 © Associated Press

Despite little support from the Indian board, it was ironically a member of the establishment who facilitated the foundation's first big leap. During a visit to Chennai, veteran administrator Raj Singh Dungarpur, then India's chairman of selectors, was blown away by the facilities at the foundation. A year later he conveyed his desire to watch the academy's boys bowl, and impressed by Razdan's pace, drafted him into the Rest of India side for the Irani Cup against Delhi. Razdan picked up five wickets and Dungarpur saw enough to include him in India's touring party to Pakistan. When Razdan made his debut in the Faisalabad Test in 1989, he became the first bowler from the foundation to play for India.

The exhilaration of the big breakthrough evaporated a few months later when Mammen died, aged 39, after a heart attack. Sekhar, for one, was apprehensive about the future of the foundation, but about a fortnight after Mammen's death, his older brother, Vinoo Mammen, who took charge, assured Sekhar that he wanted to keep his brother's soul happy and take the foundation to the next level. Soon after, Sekhar was sent to Adelaide to observe the workings of the Australia Cricket Academy (ACA). Consequently, in 1991 the Pace Foundation decided to replace the existing system, where the boys trained for three and a half months, with a more holistic five-month programme modelled on the ACA's curriculum.

"I made sure that boys came there in the first week of April. During April and May they won't bowl and concentrate only on running technique, yoga, pool sessions and gym work," Sekhar says. "They slowly start bowling from the last week of May until the end of June, when Lilee's visit was scheduled." As his wards became fitter and stronger, Sekhar says he could see first-hand the benefits of the new programme.

The intake of fast bowlers, though, was capped at 12. "There was an evaluation every year by Lillee," Sekhar says. "If the boy is really good he would continue, otherwise he would be replaced by someone. The boys would stay for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years. If the boy showed improvement in the first year, he would automatically be there in the second."

A healthy rapport with the ACA proved to be the first step towards the foundation becoming a truly global centre. Years before a formal MoU was signed, players went on exchange programmes. Each year a couple of players from the foundation - among them Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad - trained at the ACA for two weeks. In return, Australian bowlers like Glenn McGrath, Paul Wilson, Mark Atkinson and Chris Troy visited the foundation. In 1993, the ACA's Rodney Marsh brought a team that featured Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Michael Di Venuto and McGrath to Madras and Bangalore to get a hang of subcontinental conditions.

During one of Lillee's periodical visits to the foundation, the Sri Lankan cricket board requested him to take a look at their fast bowlers. Lillee and Sekhar visited Sri Lanka and selected Dulip Liyanage and Pramodya Wickramasinghe to train at the foundation. In subsequent years, Chaminda Vaas and Ravindra Pushpakumara flew down to Chennai.

"What others could see with a computer, Lillee could with his naked eye. What others could do in six to eight months he could do it one week" TA Sekhar

Vaas says his stint, in 1992, came at the right stage of his career. "What you learn from there is enough for you to [gain] all the knowledge and experience. [It teaches] not only bowling but everything about being a fast bowler: fitness work, analysing your action, and how your action is going to be right. You realise how important this kind of stuff is to become a great fast bowler. You can get along with other fast bowlers [from around the world], learn from them, get to know them and work as a team."

By 1997, Sekhar says he knew the Pace Foundation was producing the kind of results envisaged at its inception. While home-grown players like Srinath and Prasad went on to become permanent fixtures in the India side, there were also international success stories - the likes of McGrath, Shane Bond and Shoaib Akhtar, all of whom had stints at the foundation.

"We then started upgrading the equipment and training methods," Sekhar says. "We also started going to Australia and learning a lot of things." Remodelling Tinu Yohannan's action, he says, was among the most satisfying efforts undertaken at the foundation. Yohannan, the son of an Olympic long jumper, was athletic like his father, but had a "weird" bowling action. "Lillee liked his run-up," Sekhar says. "He said it would be a challenge to work with Yohannan. He was a terrific sprinter, and he was a high [long] jumper like his father. If you look at his action on the first day and when he played for India, the change was remarkable. The Pace Foundation turned him from an athlete into a cricketer."

In 1997, Sekhar was confronted with a fresh challenge: to unearth a left-arm fast bowler. Lillee firmly believed that India needed a good one, but Sekhar's search was proving futile. He would go around the country scouting Under-19 quicks and mining information from local coaches. Most of the candidates recommended were medium-pacers. During an inter-zonal match, a youngster named Zaheer Khan, who like Srinath was studying to become an instrumentation engineer, walked up to Sekhar and said he wanted to train at the foundation. With Lillee due to arrive on January 18, Zaheer was asked to come to Chennai for trials.

Zaheer was so consumed by excitement that he turned up on the morning of January 16. "When Lillee saw him bowl, he said, 'Shakes, this fellow will play for India.'" To Sekhar's surprise, though, Zaheer wasn't picked in the Mumbai Ranji side. He then asked Jaywant Lele of the Baroda Cricket Association if they would be interested in taking Zaheer. At the trial, Baroda's batsmen found Zaheer too quick to handle, and he was signed up. Zaheer duly accounted for five Mumbai batsmen in his second first-class game, and a year later made a sensational entry onto the international stage at the 2000 ICC Knockout in Kenya.

Mammen's vision of MRF students forming the backbone of India's pace pack came to fruition when Zaheer, Irfan Pathan, S Sreesanth, Munaf Patel and RP Singh succeeded at the international level. Gradually the BCCI's frostiness towards the foundation began to thaw. The first signs of reconciliation came when MRF hosted an all-India coaches seminar in 1998, with the likes of Bishan Bedi, Ian Chappell and mental conditioning expert Sandy Gordon in attendance. Two years later it organised another seminar on an even bigger scale, where former India cricketers like Ashok Mankad, Madan Lal, Lalchand Rajput, Chandrakant Pandit, Yograj Singh and Hanumant Singh, the director of the newly created National Cricket Academy (NCA), interacted with experts like Richard Done (fitness and training planning), Marc Portus (biomechanics) and Troy Cooley (strength and stability programme).

Rahul Mammen, the current managing director of the foundation, understands that such a venture needs investment with an eye for long-term gains

Rahul Mammen, the current managing director of the foundation, understands that such a venture needs investment with an eye for long-term gains Arun Venugopal / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Sekhar realised there was hope for a mutually beneficial relationship. "The state associations also found out that the boys were bowling better not because of the state coaches but because they were going to Chennai," he says. "Then they started to correspond with us and during the coaches seminar we gave them handouts. I found out that if you are going to fight them you aren't going to achieve anything."

Despite the improved relationship, there was no formal tie-up between MRF and the BCCI for the better part of three decades. Sekhar says he met possibly every board president from 1996 to 2006, and in 2007, MRF made a fresh bid for a partnership, but the BCCI wouldn't budge. It wasn't until 2014 that an MoU was signed between the two parties. The five-year arrangement lets the BCCI send the foundation batches of trainees split into two categories - Elite (those selected by the board to play official matches) and Probables (upcoming bowlers identified by the selectors).

Getting to the MRF Pace Foundation is hardly ever straightforward. Even if you escape the traffic pouring in and out of Harrington Road in central Chennai, where the foundation is situated, there is the blurring rush of children darting towards the gates of the MCC School. Once you peel back layer after chaotic layer of real estate, the foundation appears embedded deep inside the premises, like the answer to a riddle. Enveloped in a stately canopy of green that dares the March sun to do its worst, the ground offers a calm counterpoint to a vocation as aggro-fuelled as fast bowling. With the exception of the thunk of bat hitting ball or the thud of the ball finding pad, there is barely any ambient noise.

Harshal Patel, who has played for Haryana and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, is letting it rip in the nets, along with Punjab's Jaskaran Singh. Jaskaran is looking to nail the yorker but is spraying the ball wide. All the while McGrath quietly watches from a few yards behind the bowling crease. As Jaskaran views footage of his bowling, McGrath joins him. Very little is said as McGrath demonstrates the gather and the follow-through. Jaskaran moves to bowling at a single stump and unseats it with greater regularity. McGrath gives him a smile of approval even as he points out that he has to do it without overstepping.

This is McGrath 2.0, a bug-fixed version, who comes with avuncular affection and a little more girth around the waist. This is the McGrath of the Pace Foundation, its director and face since 2012. It is said that when Lillee spoke of his desire to move on five years ago, he gave a resounding endorsement to the choice of McGrath as his successor.

In a country habituated to and obsessed with spin-bowling excellence, Mammen was determined to do his bit for fast bowling

When I sit down to talk to him, it is evident that McGrath is aware of the legacy passed on to him. Although he is very much his own man, he has no illusions about his strengths and limitations. He suggests that talking about the "mental side of the game" comes more naturally to him than, say, fixing faulty actions, which is something that he has tried to pick up from Lillee, who he reckons is "still the best fast-bowling coach in the world".

"I think that was my main concern before I came here - whether I was a good enough coach," McGrath says. "Obviously I have bowled fairly well, but I wasn't sure how to then translate that off the field to coaching. So I wanted to get a bit of a feel for that, and I have worked a fair bit with Dennis over the years and I have seen how he has gone about it. Dennis, I think, was very good at looking at a bowler and can pick up his issue straight away. He's got an incredible eye for the technical side of it and then how to fix that or adjust that." McGrath tends to focus more on "the thought processes, the routines to go through, training on and off the field, and how to go about things on the field".

One of the things that McGrath has learnt from Lillee the technician is to try to treat the cause and not the symptom. "The first coaching I ever had for my bowling was when I was 22. So I was probably a little bit beyond help by that stage, but I was lucky I had a really good action and sound technique, where I could just do a little bit more and get a little bit more out of my action," he says. "I used to think how to translate that into teaching someone how to bowl. But now we do a lot of work video-ing guys' actions, slowing them down and looking at them from front- and side-on. If you have got a good run-up, then whether you shift in or jump out, and how you load - if you get all those things right, the rest of the action follows. Whereas in the past I thought, 'He is not driving through, he is falling away', so it was more the result. You can't fix a result if you don't go to the cause.

"Now, I can see how to correct actions, especially how I could have corrected my action," he says with a smile. "Having a good technique means you are going to be less prone to injury and a little bit more efficient, so you can come back for second or third spells and bowl quicker for longer. Hopefully my legacy here is getting the young bowlers to realise how to go about taking wickets. Because at the end of the day our job is to take wickets."

Standing next to McGrath, a thickset man is sharing pointers with one of the younger fast bowlers. Myluahanan Senthilnathan aka Senthil, 48, took over as chief coach soon after Sekhar's exit, and has for nearly a decade remained a constant presence at the Pace Foundation, working with both Lillee and McGrath. A specialist batsman in his playing days, Senthil captained the Indian team in the inaugural U-19 World Cup in 1988 and played first-class cricket for Tamil Nadu and Goa before becoming a BCCI-certified coach. There was scepticism in some quarters about a former batsman appointed as bowling coach, but McGrath feels Senthil "is as good a fast-bowling coach as I have come across". While McGrath makes three visits annually, Senthil handles the scouting, selection and coaching during the rest of the year, and provides updates to McGrath. Recently the pair was in Mumbai to work with the Mumbai Cricket Association's senior and junior sides. With the Indian women's team making the World Cup final this year, Senthil says they are exploring the possibility of training women fast bowlers as well in the near future.

The MRF Foundation went hi-tech long before the rest of the Indian coaching establishment

The MRF Foundation went hi-tech long before the rest of the Indian coaching establishment Arun Venugopal / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Inevitably the McGrath-Senthil combine will be judged by an important parameter: the number of players under their wing who go on to play international cricket. In that, they will be condemned to comparison with the Lillee-Sekhar era. Over the last few years Varun Aaron, and perhaps Mohit Sharma, are the only MRF products to have represented India. But a few factors need to be considered. India's pace-bowling stocks are richer than ever before, in quality and depth. From 2011 to 2015, seven fast bowlers made their Test debuts for India, and three of them - Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar - are in the current squad. That Ishant Sharma, the most experienced of them, and Bhuvneshwar, who has more Test five-fors than Shami or Umesh, are not first-choice picks in the playing XI is a reflection of the bench strength.

In contrast, from 1996 to 2000, India handed out Test caps to ten specialist seamers, of whom six finished their careers with fewer than five matches. To put things in perspective, Bhuvneshwar, the least experienced of the current lot, has already played 18 Tests - one more than Ashish Nehra, who was among the more successful pace recruits from the late '90s.

The numbers point to a more robust fast-bowling culture in India, and it can be contended that MRF itself was at the heart of the structural transformation in India's approach to fast bowling at the turn of the century.

However, the foundation's challenges are different in an era where it is no longer the sole player in scientific coaching. Apart from the NCA, most state associations too now have specialist academies, and there is greater exposure to professional coaching generally. Other fast-bowling schools like the Ultimate Pace Foundation, an initiative set up by Ian Pont and the Karnataka Institute of Cricket, and the IDBI Bowling Foundation, which enlisted the services of Jeff Thomson, have come up in recent years.

None of this is lost on Vinoo's son Rahul Mammen, the managing director of MRF, who oversees the Pace Foundation's operations. While he wants to see more foundation graduates play for India, he is heartened by the progress made by academy alumni Basil Thampi, who was praised by McGrath recently, Nathu Singh and Ankit Rajpoot.

"Right now, fortunately for India, you see the level of coaching has improved across the country," he says. "We have to work much harder to have our boys emulate [that]. One challenge is, we are not able to get our boys to spend a long time here. In the past, they used to get a good six months with us. But that is now difficult to get because there are so many tournaments happening, with the IPL and everything."

"This was one place which had 24/7 nets, which had the best facilities. The doors are open anytime for somebody who wants to do well" Javagal Srinath

The foundation has seen a number of overseas players of different specialisations come to train at its facility. A few years ago Usman Khawaja was there with the Centre of Excellence team, while Joe Burns, Steve O'Keefe, Jackson Bird and Peter Nevill underwent a one-week stint ahead of Australia's tour of Sri Lanka last year. Rahul Mammen, though, has no plans of setting up other specialist academies. "I think why we have been successful and unique is [because] we focus only on [pace bowling]," he says. "The minute we try and deviate from this we are nothing but another academy. We are very clear we will stick to one centre. At any point we have only 16 to 20 trainees working with us. We believe in fewer numbers but better quality."

MRF's aura might have arguably diminished over time, but it has managed to stay relevant even as other specialist academies, like the MAC Spin Foundation in Chennai, for instance, have fizzled out. Whether investing in state-of-the-art software, biomechanical testing, exposure tours, or publicity, the foundation has spent money when it needed to. Mammen believes durability is the foundation's biggest strength, and doesn't want to look at it as a commercial venture.

"Very few companies have consistently invested in a programme," he says. "We believe that whatever we get into, we are in it for the long run. There will be ups and downs but as a philosophy we stick to it. That's why also we are involved only in cricket and motor sports. We believe returns come over a long time, especially in coaching. There are many times when many boys get picked [for India], there are times when no one get picked but you have to have the patience to keep at it and make sure you do the right things. We don't believe in getting in and getting out, we believe in the long run."

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun