Waiting for a Bhutia in whites

Cricket's piercing reach hasn't gone deep into the country's North-East. As BCCI intensifies its search to tap the region's athletically endowed,Nihal Koshie takes stock of the challenges of this tough talent hunt.

Written by Nihal Koshie | Published: February 2, 2012 1:04 am

The stocky batsman prepares to smash an inviting full toss,delivered by the medium pacer struggling with the run-up in his opening spell.

Seven runs short of a fifty,the batsman allows his attacking instincts to get the better of him and tonks the ball towards deep-mid-wicket. The fielder in the deep not just drops the catch but also allows the ball to roll over for a boundary.

The amateurish passage of play,bordering on the comical,is happening at the International Cricket Stadium in Parsada,Naya Raipur,where Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) affiliate and associate teams — four of the five are from the North East — have come together for the third edition. Similar gaffes occur off the field too. The surnames — Kangabam,Potsangbham,Nongkseh,Tado,Kabala — appear only once a year on the scoresheets of the BCCI’s official tournaments and the scorers have a tough time getting their tongues around them.

Considering the absence of bench strength and the lack of agile and injury-free players that confounds Indian cricket,it doesn’t come as a surprise that the governing body has,over the past few seasons,intensified its efforts to tap into the region’s readily available pool of the athletically endowed. While the North-East has constantly thrown up national and international players in hockey,boxing and football,cricket has struggled for a foothold.

With the media’s eyes trained on India’s tour Down Under on the Republic Day,the said match sees Manipur involved in a sub-200 chase against Meghalaya,and Mudum Sudhir,the batsman in search of his 50,is dismissed before he can make it.

The disappointment as he walks back is understandable,for a half-century at this tournament that also involves Nagaland,Arunachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — by far the superior side at the U-16,U-19 and U-22 championships — is a respected landmark.

The lack of a three-figure individual score,failure of bowlers to bag four-wicket hauls and the inability of teams to bat out 50 overs across the tournament only highlight the ground that the associate and affiliated units need to make up. The BCCI,for its part,has pumped in cash,offered its personnel and expertise in its effort to make some sort of headway in cricket’s hinterlands.

“The Indian cricket board spends over Rs one crore annually on the three age-group tournaments,provides match referees,video analysts,umpires,coaches,umpires and match fees in an attempt to replicate a first-class match scenario,” said BCCI’s chief administrative officer Prof. Ratankar Shetty,outlining a broad vision. A handsome amount of Rs 50 lakh is granted to each of these state units per season to ‘promote and develop’ the game.

Up against the odds

What the board is up against is a combination of factors. Inclement weather reduces the cricket season to just three-four months,the hilly terrain leaves few patches of flat ground,most of which are used to create multi-purpose grounds,and cricket’s poor standing in the pecking order (after football,boxing,taekwondo,archery,hockey and handball) which effectively rules it out of the race for government jobs,all make the game an unviable career choice. What rounds off the vicious circle is the resulting lack of role models: football has Bhaichung Bhutia,boxing has Mary Kom and L Devendro Singh,and the youngsters are forced to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Then there are issues that aren’t so endemic. Two of the Associate teams,Sikkim and Bihar,aren’t here. The former was banned during the U-19 tournament for fielding over-age players,while officials of the latter continue to fight for control in court. Arunachal Pradesh,the minnows in this tournament of the minnows,could soon come under the scanner for an offence similar to the one Sikkim committed.

The Nagaland Cricket Association,following a report from their joint secretary,who is also manager of the team,has already shot off a letter of protest to the BCCI in that regard. Nagaland,the winner of the U-22 game between the sides,is not ameliorated despite the victory. Nagaland’s players believe they have defeated a Delhi U-22 team,a reference to the number of ‘out-station players’ in Arunachal Pradesh’s ranks. The accused team prefers to call them ‘semi-local’ instead.

A new challenge that threatens to undo any progress achieved has also emerged from within the game: tennis-ball cricket,an abridged version of six overs. The winning team can earn between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh,and cash prizes are handed out to the Player of the Match.

The impact this has on the league structure in the states is evident. Inter-district tournaments,in which only two or three districts field teams in Manipur and five play in Meghalaya,don’t attract the kind of attention tennis-ball cricket does.

Ngangbam Ibohal Singh,the manager of the Manipur team,believes it is also the technique of a budding cricketer which is quickly corrupted while playing tennis-ball league tournaments. The case in point being Sudhir,a batsman who has struggled to replicate his tennis-ball heroics (he goes by the nickname ‘Chota Dhoni’ in Imphal’s popular tennis-ball cricket league) on the biggest stage for cricketers from the North-East.

“We have instructed our top junior cricketers not to participate in the local tennis-ball tournaments,but we haven’t been able to stop them. The lure of prize money and shorter games is enticing. Cricket is a game of patience,unlike football or taekwondo,and our boys must realise that. Some of our batsmen,like Sudhir,have got out playing loose shots in this tournament because they get carried away by short-term success. Bowlers develop poor actions playing tennis-ball cricket. Two of our bowlers have already been warned in this tournament,” Ibohal Singh said.

Making inroads

The beleaguered sport is,however,getting a fillip from an unexpected source. A steady stream of cricket on television keeps interest alive in the game which has little actual presence outside state capitals in the North-East. “When India played Sri Lanka in the World Cup final last year,the smaller streets of Shillong were converted into mini-theatres with the match being shown via projectors. Hardly anyone played football that day and none missed any bit of the action,” Meghalaya coach Mark A Laloo said about that April evening,when he saw the kind of passion usually reserved for El Clasico or a Manchester derby.

And the interest it has generated is not of the passive kind served to engage the average couch potato. Purno Joshi,Meghalaya’s opening batsman and a highly-rated player in this circuit had his initiation to the game,like most of his teammates,watching Team India on television.

While cricket has been able to make inroads into the consciousness of the people,it clearly lacks a strong structure or culture in the region. The type of wickets,a majority of them concrete or matting,has had a negative impact on batting techniques. Laloo said batsmen from this region struggle to play spin well because the concrete or matting wickets back home hardly aid slower bowlers. “We have four turf wickets adjacent to three football grounds at the Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex. But because it rains for about eight months of the year,it is difficult to maintain these wickets. When they are prepared,the senior boys get the first preference,” Laloo said.

Considering such severe constraints,the non-availability of a pool of players to choose from is hardly surprising. Opening batsman David Tan is among the handful of home-growns to come through the system — namely a one-room academy and a strip of land that holds two temporary turf wickets in Itanagar. Nagaland,blessed with relatively flatter lands in Dimapur,have an indigenous player policy in spite of the district being known as ‘mini-India’,courtesy the mixed population. All-rounder Akari A Yepthu is from Zunheboto district,nearly 200-odd kilometres from the state capital. Meren Kaloa Jamir is from Mokokchung,which has a population of less than 25,000. The team has proved to be the surprise package,winning their first two games with a squad packed with U-14 boys like Yepthu and Jamir.

Chhattisgarh coach K Rajagopalan,who trained the defending champions last season too,believes Nagaland is the most improved side. “Some of their batsmen have learnt how to pace an innings,while the field placements have had some cricketing logic attached to it,” Rajagopalan said.

It might be a silver lining,but the clouds haven’t lifted yet. Batting collapses are still common in matches that involve two North-East states. Chasing 217 against Nagaland,Meghalaya cruise to 200 for three but are bowled out for 210. Team Meghalaya,runners-up in the U-19 tournament last week,have booked their return tickets even before the result of their last league game. Another team from the North-East will meet Chhattisgarh in the U-16 final. Going by past records and form,there is only one favourite.

Cricket’s east-side story
Nagaland (Affiliate)

The current chief minister of the state Nephiu Rio is also the president of the Nagaland Cricket Association,and this has fast-tracked the game’s progress. A cricket stadium,the only exclusive one in the state,is being built at Dimapur and floodlights are being installed next month. Better weather in Dimapur,a district at the foothills,means the cricket season can be stretched up to eight to nine months. Age-group tournaments are held at the inter-district and inter-state level. The state has 500 registered players. They are yet to enter a final of the BCCI’s affiliated and associate unit tournament.

Arunachal Pradesh (Affiliate)

Considered the weakest team in the competition,they have a registered pool of just over 100 players. In the U-16 tournament they fielded only six native players. Up to 10 of the 12 districts field teams in the inter-district tournament but the quality of cricket played leaves a lot to be desired. Matches are played on concrete wickets,with temporary turf wickets at the Indira Gandhi Park,where football matches and government functions are held. Nabam Tuki,the president of the cricket association,is also the Chief Minister of the state and is keen to see a full-fledged academy established.

Manipur (Affiliate)

Cricket isn’t the first-choice sport anywhere in the North-East but here it loses out to football,boxing,archery,taekwondo,hockey and even handball. The state has a good pool of cricketers,though,mostly from in and around Imphal. The inter-district tournament is held at the Senior A and Senior B level (40 overs) but only three to four teams participate,while the 18 registered clubs,all based in the capital,play an inter-club tournament. Role models in cricket go by the name of G Ganga and Rajkumari Chingkheima,both women cricketers who play for Assam. Imphal has a cricket ground and a practice ground.

Meghalaya (Affiliate)

The I-League club,Shillong-Lajong FC,remains the biggest draw but cricket still manages to attract a fair amount of interest here,where the season lasts only for about three months. The Shillong Cricket League has three divisions — the Super League with 8 top teams in the 40-over format,the A division which has 10 teams (35 overs) and the 24-team strong B Division (T20s). Up to five districts field teams at the inter-district level,including two from the capital — Shillong and East Khasi Hills. Turf wickets number four centre wickets and two practice pitches.

Sikkim (Associate)

The team was banned during the U-19 tournament,also held in Raipur last week,after they fielded players who were not registered. They were also subsequently de-barred from playing the U-16 tournament as well.

Note: Bihar and Chhattisgarh are Associate units. While the two factions in Bihar are involved in a court case to wrest control of cricket in the state and hence have no presence in any of the age-group tournaments this year,Chhattisgarh won the Under-19 title and are favourties in the Under-16 category.

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