Last week,a group of boys travelled through the Naxal heartland in Chhattisgarh,borrowed cricket whites and appeared for a talent hunt to pick bowlers during the first-ever camp conducted by the Indian cricket board in the state. Of the 1,790 aspirants,1,463 were from Chhattisgarh mostly from villages in Naxal-affected districts like Rajnandgaon,Bastar and Kanker.
The talent pool was shallow but the journey from the interiors of the state to Naya Raipur,a sprawling new township being constructed from scratch,indicated that cricket may provide the balm to soothe the pain of conflict and wean away impressionable minds from picking up the gun.
It was heartening for those at the selection trials,conducted by National Cricket Academy director Sandeep Patil and bowling coach Karsan Ghavri,to note that players were willing to make their way to the new international stadium being built in Naya Raipur,though connectivity by public transport is almost non-existent.
We had players hailing from places like Jagdalpur,the district headquarters of Bastar. This has given us the confidence that sport and cricket can be promoted in remote areas. While this may not be the only solution to prevent youngsters from following the Maoists path,it can certainly help, said Rajesh Dave,secretary of Chhattisgarh State Cricket Sangh.
In fact,Naya Raipur recorded the maximum turnout at the trials conducted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI),followed by Ranchi (1,600),Jammu (1,100) and Dharamsala (650).
Over two days,February 28 and 29,the boys were asked to bowl at a single stump. Fifty were shortlisted,out of which six were finally selected. The six will compete with the selected boys from the other talent hunts,after which the finalists will be sent to National Cricket Academy,Bangalore,for extensive training.
Among those who have been selected is 17-year-old Mohan Soni. Originally from Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh,he shifted base to Raipur about five years back. It was elder sister,Seema Soni,who first noticed his talent. He couldnt have done much in the village. He has a long way to go but at least this is a start. If he is hooked to cricket he wont get distracted by other things, she said.
Mohan bowls leg spin and bats at No. 3. The judges were looking for turn. I can turn the ball a fair bit, he said. I want to play Under-19 World Cup, said Mohan.
Seema has another agenda. Her second brother,Pintu Soni,25,left home about five years back. She hopes he will return to the family on hearing that Mohan is making a mark in cricket.
Ramsharan Vaishnav,from Musra village in Rajnandgaon,100 km from Raipur,was not so lucky. He made it to the shortlist,but could not find place in the final six. But he is not disheartened. Patil Sir was impressed by my action. It is a big achievement for me to bowl on a proper wicket,hit the stump and hear good things being said about me by someone like he, he said.