Like most kids, Ravi Bishnoi bowled his first few deliveries around his neighbourhood in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. A few years later, harbouring dreams of playing professional cricket, he decided to take on a regimented approach towards the game. But when he looked around town, he found no real facility where he could train regularly.
Today at 20 years, Bishnoi has come a long way since those early days. He was an integral part of India’s runners-up campaign at the Under-19 Cricket World Cup in South Africa in 2020, finishing as the leading wicket-taker of the tournament with 17 scalps. His leg spin has also been key for the Punjab team in India’s biggest T20 franchise league, where he showed great promise by picking up 12 wickets in his 2020 debut season.
But none of it would have been possible without his two coaches, Pradyot Singh Rathore and Shahrukh Pathan, and their collective efforts to set up the Spartans Cricket Academy in Jodhpur
Spartans Cricket Academy has been Bishnoi’s proving ground over the years. But setting up the academy was part of his struggle in the early years of his career, which Bishnoi looks back at fondly.
“I met Pradyot sir one day when I went for practice. There was no academy in Jodhpur at the time. He was my senior at the time and used to train at a cement wicket under coach Narendra Sharma,” Bishnoi recalls.
Rathore and Pathan took Bishnoi and a few other boys under their wings. For the next three years, the youngsters developed their skills under the watchful eyes of their seniors. But when the duo left town to pursue conventional careers, the young boys were left relatively clueless on what was in store next.
“It was a tough time for us when they weren’t around since we didn’t have anyone to train us. I could only talk to Pradyot sir on the phone and share things with him,” Bishnoi says.
For the next two years, Bishnoi struggled to find a place to train. All that changed when Rathore and Pathan returned to Jodhpur in 2015. The next step was to create an academy, where young blood from Jodhpur could bloom. It was the start of Bishnoi’s fairy-tale journey that has made him one of the most promising leg spinners in the country today.
“Cricket had almost disappeared from Jodhpur until the academy was formed. Today, it’s being played at a wholly different level in western Rajasthan,” Bishnoi says.
“The idea was to help the younger boys with their game and develop cricketers from Jodhpur who could play at a good level someday,” Rathore says.
A small plot of land in the Shikargarh area of Jodhpur was rented for the academy. But funds to build it were still hard to come by. The two coaches gathered their wards and took matters in their own hands.
“We decided to do all the work ourselves, really hard labour that started with crushing soil for the wicket. Those were long hours and we would work until late in the evening, surviving on odd snacks from the neighbourhood. All our focus was on getting the ground ready. Even when we hired labour, we would lend a hand,” Rathore recalls.
Bishnoi would tell his folks that he was going out to play cricket, before spending the day at the ground under the harsh sun. Soon, his father realised what his son was up to and demanded an explanation.
“When they learnt I wasn’t going out to play and instead, doing hard labour at the ground, they thought it to be complete madness, really foolish. Each day, I had to cook up new excuses to go out to the ground. It was impossible to explain my passion,” Bishnoi says.
The team toiled hard for six months to eventually launch the academy in March 2016 with seven-odd students. Bishnoi trained alongside a core group of promising youngsters like him, as Rathore and Pathan put them through the paces. Because of the sheer lack of facilities Western Rajasthan at the time, and this being the first academy in the region, the number of students quickly went up to 30 after the first month. Today, they have about 300 aspiring cricketers training at the academy.
“I finally had a place to train regularly, when I wanted to and for as long as I wanted. Besides, I also had coaches who were familiar with my game since a young age and who could guide me appropriately. They knew my temperament and what I needed to get better,” Bishnoi says.
With floodlights in place, the sessions lasted until late in the night. Local well-wisher Ashwin Naik helped by donating a bowling machine and a speed gun. The academy team faced a number of defeats during the early days. But the turnaround happened when they were invited to Mumbai to play the local under-19 side in February 2017.
Their start was nervy, but by the end of the 25 days, the Spartans team had won six of the eight matches. Bishnoi returned home with 18 wickets and continued putting in the hours at training.
However at the Rajasthan trials that followed, he failed to make the cut among the top 200 probables. At the request of Rajeev Khanna, vice president of the Rajasthan Royals, Bishnoi was handed another opportunity. This time around, he made the cut and there’s been no looking back ever since. In the time ahead, he turned out for Rajasthan, the India under-19 side and the Punjab franchise.
But along the way, he has made sacrifices aplenty to live his dream of playing professional cricket – indulging in hard labour, skipping examinations and holding it all together while patiently awaiting his turn at multiple trials.
“It’s taken a long time for me to get here, but I’m glad to have finally got a chance to prove my worth. It would have been impossible without the academy,” he adds.