Having received it as a gift, Ravinder Paul Sharma has ensured that the 61-year-old Young Friends Club isn’t run like a business. The emphasis is on discipline, on the field and off it

The club landed in his lap as a gift. For Ravinder Paul Sharma, it was recognition of loyalty and sincerity that “uncle Shivdasani” passed on the Young Friends Club’s mantle to him. “It has been a mixed experience seeing the transformation in Delhi’s club cricket,” says Sharma, keeping an eye on the trainees at the Jamia Hamdard Institute ground.

Young Friends was formed five years after India gained Independence. It was ten years old when Sharma joined the club at 19 as a medium-pacer. “We used to have our ‘nets’ near Sarojini Nagar market before moving to R. K. Puram. That ground has now become the BSF workshop. We would play on matting before we shifted to the Central Secretariat ground (near Ashok Hotel). Ten years at Harbaksh Stadium and the present ground for the last three years,” says Sharma, tracing the journey of his club.

It has been tough for Sharma to manage the 61-year-old club. Funds are raised mainly through some affluent former members of the club who contribute for the ground rent and playing equipment. “I have been lucky because the club has no sponsor. We survive on individual fee (nominal) and contributions from former players,” insists Sharma.

This is a very different club. There is no emphasis on paying the fee and the poorest can come and play. Cricket at Friends Club is not business. Sharma is a strict taskmaster and parents are not allowed entry to the ground. Only old students can visit during practice but ensure they don’t disturb the schedule. “Most kids come from far,” informs Sharma but there is one electric talent from just across the road that catches our eye.

This 10-year-old, Harshit Gupta, is fondly called “Ustadji” by everyone, including Sharma. The diminutive Harshit is the face of Friends Club. “Very hard working and untiring,” describes Sharma. The lad is full of energy and ambition. “I am an all-rounder,” the young dynamite from Kharak Singh Khalsa School announces before rushing off to join his seniors for a physical drill. The club expects Harshit to go places.

Sharma has always concentrated on producing decent cricketers. Not for him the spoilt rich kids who come to cricket fields as a “fashion drill”. As Sharma points out, most of his Young Friends students come by public transport. “This hardship teaches them early lessons in facing life. I don’t compromise on responsibility, dedication, discipline and sincerity. I reward boys who prove honest to their profession,” claims Sharma.

Young Friends is a Premier Division club with a history of producing some outstanding talent. “I have honed some of the finest youngsters,” Sharma says. The list includes former Services captain Chinmay Sharma, Delhi batsman Gaurav Chhabra, J&K all-rounder Raju Sharma, Uttar Pradesh left-hander Mukul Dagar, Haryana batsman Sachin Rana, former Rajasthan captain Gagan Khoda, current aspirants Mayank Sidana, Sunny Sehrawat, Rakshit Pant, Himanshu Khullar, Dhruv Shorey and India under-19 star Deepak Hooda. In Sharma’s opinion, Wilkins Victor, a player of immense potential, never got the break at the right time due to politics at the Delhi and District Cricket Association.

The club holds its training sessions only on weekends because Sharma insists cricket cannot happen without sparing adequate time for the players to study. “I give top priority to studies. What is the guarantee that cricket will take you far. Not every player from Young Friends will represent the state or the country. I ensure their studies are not impacted.”

Sharma, 70, recalls a one-off tournament organised in 1968 by the Young Friends Club. “The matches were held at Hindu College, Hansraj College, Kirori Mal College and the University ground. We paid a rent of five rupees for each ground and attracted the best of the teams from the city. Sadly we couldn’t sustain the event and that is what is needed for clubs today. Good competitions,” says Sharma.

Among the most memorable contests and titles won by the club, Sharma recalls the semi-final of the Roshan Lal tournament in Udaipur in 1991. “We were shot out for 149. They (State Bank of India, Ahmedabad) made 147. We pulled off six run outs. In the final we beat Sonnet Club.”

Members of the Friends Club are repeatedly reminded of the importance of discipline and sincerity. “We also play to win but not at all costs. A cricketer should be known for decency. Difficult in these times where the game and the most players lack character and integrity but not at Friends Club,” smiles Sharma, who makes a promise before we take leave. “The club came to me as a gift. It will go as a gift too.” This in a time when a cricket club in Delhi fetches a price of rupees one crore!