From Alphavill’s 1984 song “Forever Young” to the fashion brand Forever 21 to multitudes of anti-ageing creams and youthful elixirs, the world is obsessed with staying, looking and being young. Why would sport be any different? Especially when so much depends on age and the ever-changing idea of ‘sporting prime’.
Ravi Shastri has spoken jokingly about a ‘diminishing factor’ in age when it comes to Indian cricketers in Breakfast with Champions show while Shahid Afridi’s attempt to clear the air about his actual age, difficult to breakdown like his swashbuckling batting, only muddied the water further.
These are good-humoured jibes as at the senior level the concept of an ever-changing - sometimes unchanging - age is not a deterrent. That said at the age-group level of sport, age fraud remains a big problem.
“It’s an absolute menace,” says Zeeshan Ali, Davis Cup coach and head of the National Tennis Centre. “It is one of the main reasons why we are not getting more players coming out of the system. It was bad 20 years ago, it’s worse now. So many foundations, sponsorships, government help, college scholarships... If you are doing well in the juniors, there are a lot of opportunities.”
The past week in Mohali during the All-India Sub-junior ranking badminton tournament, parents took over the competition and protested against players fudging age. As many as 36 players were named in the complaint, two were suspended.
Studies have shown that children born in the first quarter of the year (based on the cut-off point) have more representation at the age-group level. They are generally more mature physically - taller, stronger, faster - and at a young age, coaches find it difficult to separate maturity and ability. This is especially true in the younger age groups. Extrapolate it to years, which is very common in India, and the difference is exponentially increased.
What this means is kids playing at a lower age group than their actual age get more opportunities while the younger kids drop off or parents pull the plug. That means the talent pool is smaller. Worse yet, kids who have counted on their physicality to see them through competitions at age groups and did not improve technically and tactically, get found out as they hit late teen years and senior sport.
“There are lots of talents at the youth level, we hear lots of names. How many of them make it to the professional level,” asks a football coach. Checkmate.
It also means the attitude shifts to ‘everyone else is doing it so we can too’. Two wrongs in a desperate attempt to make a right.
It’s easy to see why age fraud is so rampant.
“Lot of it is also driven by which section of the economy the family is from. There is also a lack of education. Scholarships and job offers on the line,” says the owner of a reputed football academy.
“In some places, this culture has set in. Many coaches and even academies promote this for monetary benefits and encourage parents to indulge in such acts. Besides, there are lapses/ neglect at District and State Association levels also, who are blindly forwarding applications without scrutiny,” says Sandeep Heble, a member of BAI’s Age Fraud Committee.
If caught, it’s the player who pays the penalty. Not the system.
“Most times it’s not the players’ fault but the coach or parents’. There should be more serious consequences,” Ali says.
What adds to the problem is that there are no accurate tests, improving but expensively so, to determine the age of a player exactly. The Tanner-Whitehouse 3 (TW3), which is the most commonly used, can have a variation of up to two years, say experts. The test is an x-ray of the wrist to check the stage of bone fusion. That could vary depending upon diet, nutrition, genetics and puberty among other factors. The test is also largely redundant once the kid reaches 16 years. The MRI test is expensive and not accurate.
“The last AIFF youth League, which happened in 2019-20, the U-13 and U-15 had to have a TW3 test for everyone. Which BCCI also uses,” says Bappaditya Bhattacharjee, director of Roots Football Schools.
“There is a biological age and a bone age. And they had a cut-off as per the medical committee of AIFF based on bone age. TW3 test is a double-edged sword. Sometimes a player with the correct age is flagged. Some people gave fictitious certificates and passed. But in general, it still helps.”
Beyond 16, multiple federations depend on birth certificates. But the reliability is far from perfect.
A nationally reputed football coach tells stories with explanations ranging from ‘my uncle filled my birth certificate’ to the disturbing ‘coach made me do it.’
There are also hearsay stories of players’ younger brothers taking the TW-3 tests to get around the age issue.
The question then becomes how can this issue be tackled?
“Unless our system improves, where the Government makes it mandatory that year of birth and registration needs to be compulsorily done immediately, this document is required for Anganwadi/nursery admissions (nothing will change),” says U Vimal Kumar, Director and chief coach of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy.
Across national associations, attempts are being made.
“SAI has guidelines but implementation costs money. Are federations supposed to pay for it?” Ali asks. “For the federation to do the test on every player, that’s a huge monetary outlay. The idea of random checks will have backlash from parents saying their kids are being targeted. It has to come from the Sports ministry.”
“BAI had adopted SAI guidelines. BAI had also issued instructions to all State secretaries that there has to be proper verification because BAI can’t verify the documents of 40,000-50,000 players,” says Heble.
The lack of a proper database is a common problem although many sports are trying their hardest.
“The grassroots are not there in football and many team sports so there is no information before the kid is 14-15. So the system enables it,” says Richard Hood, who worked with the All India Football Federation in developing players.
Even in cricket, it’s a challenge. But being the most affluent and popular sport in India, they have taken steps. According to the Karnataka Institute of Cricket head coach and director Irfan Sait, Karnataka State Cricket Association is in the vanguard.
“KSCA has got some stringent rules. There is a biometric and unique id number for every cricketer in all age groups (the player ID is common in other sports as well). You need a mandatory birth certificate issued within 1-2 years of being born, an Aadhar card and school documents. Without it, you are not accepted,” he says.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially as many come from rural and less than ideal backgrounds to even have an environment to secure accurate documents. But that should not be a deterrent.
India is making noises about being a sporting nation but multiple national sporting bodies are in disarray. As the industry grows there are more incentives to take risks, to disrupt the watchmaker and the constant tick of time.
As the song, covered and reimagined multiple times over the years that it remains ageless, goes: Forever young, I want to be forever young…