THE NEW ASSEMBLY LINE

No infrastructure,no tradition,lots of politics,but Uttar Pradesh are the most consistent team in domestic cricket of late.

Written by Devendra Pandey | Published:January 18, 2009 2:46 pm

No infrastructure,no tradition,lots of politics,but Uttar Pradesh are the most consistent team in domestic cricket of late. In Hyderabad during the Ranji Trophy final — UP’s third in four years — Our correspondent tried to uncover the secrets behind their success
Pinning down what made Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh domestic cricket’s top two teams this season can be a little complicated. While Mumbai’s 38th title can be attributed to several factors — a rich tradition,world-class facilities,international-quality stadiums,a deep-rooted club culture and a strong school-cricket network — measuring UP against the same yardstick will not guarantee a firm tick on any of those boxes.

UP cricket has been one of domestic cricket’s biggest mysteries over the last four years,since all the most populous state has been known as a breeding ground of heavyweight politicians. But since 20-year-old Allahabad boy Mohammad Kaif made his Test debut in 2000,and then became a Team India regular in the one-day format,the state has witnessed a regular sprouting of several young,talented cricketers.

They won their first Ranji Trophy title in 2006,and in the subsequent three seasons have been runners-up twice. With three final appearances in the last four years,they are the hands-down winners in terms of consistency on the domestic circuit. Even traditional powerhouses such as Mumbai and Delhi can’t boast of such a flattering recent record. So,while one thought political upheavals were the only thing UP was consistent with,now success on cricket field has become a constant as well.

Nothing in place
But,strangely,it’s only during Ranji season that UP cricket is in news for the right reasons. Besides the never-ending whispers on the junior circuit about over-age players,stories of nepotism and political interference in team selection regularly appear in national media with a Lucknow dateline. The countdown to Team India games at Green Park in Kanpur — the only international venue in UP — coincides with the usual tug-of-war between the state government and their tenants Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association. And it is the debates about doctored pitches that usually bring the curtains down on an international game at the stadium.

Jyoti Bajpai has been the face of UP cricket officialdom for years now. He is known to go underground before international games in Kanpur,since it is impossible to dodge VVIP phone calls with requests for passes or stone-throwing incidents orchestrated by student leaders demanding free tickets.
“All we have are government-owned sports hostels. Other than that there is not much to talk about in terms of facilities. We don’t have an indoor training centre,no bio-mechanist or video analyst. Things have improved a bit over the years but there’s still a long way to go. You know how things are here,” Bajpai says.

One checks if UP have even one bowling machine and Bajpai lets out a laugh,and an apologetic no. This issue crops up again as one speaks to UP middle-order batsman Shivakant Shukla,whose unbeaten 178 in the semi-final took UP to the title clash. Shukla’s accidental interaction with the bowling machine is an interesting tale that shows the survival instincts of the UP players.
It started when Kaif threw the ball to part-time offie Shukla in an inconsequential game last season. Due to his bent arm,he was referred for action correction to the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore,and that’s where he saw a bowling machine for the first time. “What I used to do was reach NCA an hour or two before the experts came to correct my bowling action. I used to request someone to help out,and have a good,long stint facing real pace bowling from the machine. You can see the difference in my batting this season,” says UP’s highest scorer in the semis and final.

Learning method
Scientific training might be tough to come by but the hugely popular sports hostels,which witness a stampede of sorts at their annual trials,ensure that the basics of the game are diligently drilled into young cricketers during their three-year stints away from home. Some make it to the India under-19 teams and many go on to become Ranji cricketers. Players such as Tanmay Srivastava,the leading batsman at the under-19 World Cup,got opportunities to interact with better coaches there and enjoyed the latest know-how of sports science. Others banked on the international players to guide them.

Wicketkeeper Amir Khan is the perfect example of a player who benefitted from the company of Kaif,Suresh Raina and RP Singh in the team. “During the off-season,we all assemble at the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow,where they have cement pitches. Raina and RP Singh also drop in at times and,over tea outside the stadium,they tell us about the ways to train and the other intricacies of the game,” says Amir.
Raina says that sharing his experience with young cricketers is his way of giving back to the system that has been responsible for his rise. “It’s great to see some really talented players in the team. The least we can do is help them,” he says. Besides interacting with the stars,many head to Delhi to hone their skills.

Talent pool
To get a neutral view on the UP phenomenon,one talks to Delhi-based former Ranji player Rajendra Hans,who has had a long association with the team. Hans deserves a special place in the UP story since he was their coach in 2005-06,when they won their first and only Ranji title. The next season,when UP failed to qualify for the semis,he got the pink slip. But Hans has pleasant memories from his stint.
The one feature that he noticed among the players was their tendency to dream big. “There is hardly any infrastructure in UP but it’s a bottom-less talent pool. That can be true for other states too but one difference is their unparalleled ambition. Nobody wants to stick around as just a domestic player. Within days of making it to the Ranji team,they want to play international cricket. And it isn’t just a hollow dream,they work hard to make it come true,” he says.

Bajpai adds an astonishing fact. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are at least 15,000 contenders for the squad of 15.” That’s one reason the mass exodus to the Indian Cricket League didn’t change UP’s fortunes last season. While defections saw Bengal relegated to the Plate division,UP finished runners-up.

Superiority complex?
The present Ranji coach and former international player from UP,Gyanendra Pandey,provides a sociological angle to his team’s successful streak. “Jobs are tough to get here because there aren’t too many industries around,and academics are very competitive. When young boys see the likes of Kaif,Raina and RP Singh,they want to follow in their footsteps,” he says.
Strangely,Pandey also sees a typical UP trait that helps players from the state to excel. “You meet anyone from UP and they will have this superiority complex. Virtually everybody has a very high opinion about themselves. That’s the reason the boys don’t get overawed by stars in rival teams. Even in the final,the players had all the respect for Sachin and Zaheer,but somewhere in their hearts they were thinking they could get the better of them,” Pandey says.

A close look at the UP squad for the last two seasons makes one realise that the talent pool is now spreading to the interiors. Over the years,the UP squad was made of players from the main cities such as Lucknow,Kanpur and Allahabad. But the present squad has five players from Meerut,a city more famous for international cricket equipment. Praveen Kumar,Bhuvaneshwar Kumar,Praveen Gupta,Sudip Tyagi and Parvinder Singh don’t just have a common city but also share the same coach,Vipin Vats. “Last year Tyagi was the main wicket-taker and now it’s Bhuvaneshwar,” Vats says.
“These boys come from middle-class families or from villages near Meerut. They have seen financial strain and they know that cricket could be their vehicle to a better life. Effort and hard work is not a issue with them,all they need is basic guidance,” he adds.

Captain marvel
With so many talented players in the squad,each one desperate to get noticed,intrigue is an integral part of the UP dressing room. Considering that they have grown up in an environment where caste and coalition politics get discussed at every street corner,talk of conspiracy theories,favouritism,and infighting,is common in the UP camp.
That’s the reason that Kaif,the captain of the team for the last four seasons,should get a lot of credit for keeping his herd together. An old-timer in the team hits the nail on the head. “Haven’t you heard about the Pakistan team of past. They had a few top players with big egos and several talented youngsters. There were several factions in the team and big differences,” he says.
“But once on the field,they fought like tigers. It is the same with our team.”

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