The Bijbehara cricket ground is a two-hour drive from Srinagar on the cratered and flooded national highway 1A. The journey takes you past saffron fields in Pampore and the Kashmir willow bat industry near Sangam, where the shops are plastered with posters of Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Shahid Afridi. In Bijbehara town, Anantnag district, you cross the ancient Vishweshwar temple as well as Gurudwara Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji Sahib built in the middle ages, and dodge a military convoy before you drive over the old bridge built by Dara Shikoh. Past the garden that bears the unlucky Mughal prince’s name, you reach a higher secondary school behind which is the ground.
The field is ringed by poplar and willow, and the sight of the mountains over cover or mid-on is spectacular enough to distract batsmen. The square on which a matting wicket would have been placed lies under a bed of unseasonal March snow. A cemented corner of the field has been cleared, and a group of boys in pherans play on that small, slippery surface. There’s one who is swinging his bat, eyes closed, and who, not unexpectedly, is a devoted fan of Shahid Afridi.
The game stops when Parvez Rasool shows up in designer Oakleys. The boys thrust their hands up, angling for a handshake they can boast about later. While the rest of their heroes are only seen on TV or on posters, here is one in the flesh.
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Rasool is the biggest name in the Jammu and Kashmir cricket team. His breakout season was in the 2012-13 Ranjit Trophy, when he finished as the side’s leading run-getter and wicket-taker. That performance earned him an India A game against England. He subsequently got a tour game against the visiting Australian team, where he took seven wickets. He earned a call-up to the India team that toured Zimbabwe last year and then the India A squad that toured South Africa. He also became the first player from the state to sign up with an IPL team, the Pune Warriors. In January, he captained his side to the Ranji quarterfinals — the farthest they have ever gone in the league. They lost but ran their opponents close — the Punjab side which included four former India players, among them Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh. In that game, Rasool took five wickets and scored a century. At this year’s IPL auction, the Hyderabad Sunrisers paid Rs 95 lakh to have him in their team.
Even so, if you were a punter, you would not bet on Rasool’s career and J&K’s performance. Over its 55-year-old cricketing history, the side had never been competitive at any level of the game. Rasool’s first game, an under-14 match, saw J&K bowled out for 20. Arfat Ahmed, who played U-19 cricket, remembers how, ahead of a match, only Rasool would be unconcerned while others discussed the bleak possibility of defeat. “He would say: ‘What’s the big deal? Hume bhi cricket khelna aata hai’,” Ahmed says. It had seemed bravado then. Indeed, the side was hammered.
The Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA), run for the last 30 years by Union minister Farooq Abdullah, has been indifferent at best — there are a handful of turf wickets (including college grounds) in the entire state, and no indoor academy (one, under construction since 2011 is expected to be completed in 2016). Most youngsters play on matting tracks that are rolled out during the summer. The only ground to have hosted international matches, Srinagar’s picturesque Sher-i-Kashmir stadium, was partly occupied by the CRPF for 18 years until 2007. Local cricketers had little access. “The first time I entered the stadium was in 2000, I was thrilled to be playing on a real turf wicket with grass and stands,” says pacer Samiullah Beigh, 32, who is the most experienced player in the squad with 44 first-class games. “When some of us play for the first time at Feroz Shah Kotla (stadium in Delhi), we are overawed,” he says. Till last year, the BCCI sent Rs 25 crore a year to the association but the funds were stopped after it was discovered that substantial amounts were being siphoned off. “If you want to see infrastructure, you should take a look at some of the JKCA members’ houses,” jokes one player.
The pitiful lack of support and the turmoil in the state hampers a regimen that channels talent — practice, regular club games and long hours on the road. What youngsters in other states take for granted is a luxury here.
Like many other Kashmiris, cricketers have been affected by the stifling military presence in the Valley and frequent shutdowns. Players have had to deal with incidents that would have turned them off the game for good. Rasool’s arrest in Bangalore in 2009 on terror charges that were later dropped was perhaps the most infamous example, but it isn’t the only one. Eight years ago, pacer Mohammed Mudasir, who finished with 32 wickets this season, was punished by being made to stand in a murga position after he failed to produce an identity card at the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium. A couple of years ago, a policeman opened fire during a T20 game featuring Ranji players at Kashmir University, the unlikely culmination of an attempt by a player to retrieve a ball from the garden of the university’s vice-chancellor.
Everyone has missed club games and practice sessions because of curfews and shutdowns. “In 2010, just before the Ranji season started, we had massive protests and a curfew in Srinagar. It was the worst feeling. While we sat at home doing nothing, we knew we would soon be playing teams who were training that very moment,” says Beigh.
Forty-seven-year-old Abdul Qayoom Bagaw, however, has seen much worse. Now coach of the team, Bagaw is also J&K’s leading wicket-taker. The broad-shouldered right-arm quick saw his career suffer because his prime years as a cricketer coincided with the most turbulent time in the Valley. After four regular seasons of first-class cricket, Qayoom had taken 86 wickets, and was poised to leap into the big league. But at the start of the 1992-93 season, a letter arrived home. “It was a death threat signed by militants, warning me not to play for India,” says Qayoom, who was 25 then. He didn’t turn up for his side that year. Qayoom says that he later found the letter was a case of personal enmity. But even though he resumed cricket the next year, his form was never the same.
Many players have left the state for similar reasons. Delhi batting mainstay Mithun Manhas played age group cricket for the state before moving to the capital in the mid-’90s. “I once told my team the fact that you are competing — without nets, coaching or facilities — is because you have raw talent,” says Beigh.
There’s plenty of talent in Bijbehara. Rasool’s elder brother Asif played for J&K as did Bagaw. Indeed, most children in Kashmir grow up wanting to be quicks. Rasool, a batsman who bowled spin, was unusual.
There was no one to learn from. Qayoom, who had played with Nikhil Chopra and Harbhajan Singh for Air India, had some idea and taught Rasool the basics. Later, he training himself by watching YouTube videos. His journey to the national stage would begin in earnest under Bishen Singh Bedi, who coached the side in the 2012-13 season. Rasool had always considered himself a batsman who could bowl a bit, but Bedi saw enough drift, loop and turn, coupled with accuracy, to tell him to concentrate on his bowling.
The season Bedi took charge was one of J&K’s most successful yet. The side won two matches and drew three out of eight. Beigh says Bedi was the best motivator the team ever had. But Kashmir players boycotted the side’s third game against Andhra Pradesh in 2012, accusing Bedi of being biased in favour of Jammu players. It wasn’t a new charge. The geography, and politics, of the state is such that players from the two regions rarely interact with each other outside the Ranji season. The belief that the selection process is partisan and that players from the two regions are competing for eight places in a 16-man squad is widespread.
The two regions of the state also have contrasting cricketing favourites. Jammu is more aligned with the rest of India, while the Pakistan cricket team is immensely popular in the Valley. During the recent Asia Cup match between India and Pakistan, Beigh recalls the team watching the game over dinner — players from the two regions, with contrasting food habits, sticking largely to separate tables. Pakistan were nine wickets down, needing four to win off three balls. “The next ball looked like it had been skied. One set of tables broke out into cheers. When it turned out the ball had gone for a six, there were cheers from the other tables. It was all in good fun,” says Beigh. That night, however, a group of Kashmiri students who had cheered for Pakistan in Meerut were suspended from their university, and had sedition charges slapped on them. Beigh, who was sharing a table with batsman Ian Dev Singh, would rather not focus on the charged subtext to such matches. “I see cricket for what it is – a game,” he says.
Indeed for all that divides the players, they are united by the shared grievances of poor facilities, the desire to win and, ultimately, the chance to win an India cap.
Amongst the younger players, the divisions fade even more. Shubham Khajuria, 19, is an attacking opening batsman and the only one from the state to have represented India at the U-19 level. He was roommates with pacer Umar Nazir Mir. “Both of us were senior players in our U-19 side and so we’d discuss strategy. Because he was a pacer and I was an opening batsman, we would try to learn how the other was thinking,” says Khajuria.
Mir is touted as a top prospect. The 6’4” fast bowler can swing the ball both ways at upwards of 130 kmph. His wicket-taking ability at the U-19 level made him a probable for the U-19 Asia Cup 2012, and he has trained at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), Bangalore, for three successive years beginning 2011. In the recent quarterfinal against Punjab, he took six wickets, earning praise from the rival coach.
Mir grew up in Malikpora, a village near Pulwama town, but now stays in Maharajgunj, Srinagar, due to club commitments. Maharajgunj is an old part of the city, where the number of shattered window panes remind you that it was the hub of the 2010 protests. For Mir, the NCA was not only a chance to learn from Venkatesh Prasad and U-19 coach Bharat Arun but also to connect with other youngsters from across the country. In Bangalore, he learnt not only about fitness and swing bowling but also a smattering of Gujarati and Marathi. “Maharashtra players would say, ‘Tu changla kartoyes (You are bowling well)’,” he beams. “I made friends from all across India. I have invited many of them to visit me in Kashmir and a lot of them have accepted,” he says.
While Bedi had told players it was possible for them to play for India, it was Rasool who pushed himself towards that ambition. “When I first sat in the team bus among some of the best players in the world, I thought I was dreaming. When I bowled, Dhoni paaji gave me tips on bowling to a field. Even though I wasn’t part of the main team, Suresh paaji (Suresh Raina) and Ajinkya paaji (Ajinkya Rahane) helped me out,” he says of the first time he bowled at a net session to the senior team. Rasool was a part of the squad for the tour of Zimbabwe. But even if he didn’t get a game in Zimbabwe, he became a role model. “In Kashmir, everyone wants to be a fast bowler. But I’ve heard a local bowler had copied my action. It feels good to know that you have that impact,” he says.
At the international level, Rasool couldn’t help but notice the kind of facilities players had access to. “When I travelled with the Indian team, I saw that a player’s only job was to worry about his game. You didn’t have to carry your luggage. You stayed at the nicest hotels. You didn’t have to worry about whether you had nets,” he says.
But little has changed at the state level. This Ranji season, on a flight between venues, the team’s kit exceeded the baggage limit. Ian Dev Singh had to spend his own money as JKCA, with its fund crunch, wouldn’t pay up. The players have only recently been paid match fees due to them over the last couple of years. Often host associations put up players and pay their daily allowances.
This year, the side will play in the elite Pool B group. JKCA treasurer Manzoor Wazir accepts there has been poor management and vows that facilities will soon improve. The team members, having heard promises before, only have their fingers crossed.
The children playing in Bijbehara don’t know about all that. For them what really matters is that Parvez Rasool is among them and posing for pictures. What would it mean to them if Rasool ever earns an India cap? “I really hope Parvez bhai plays international cricket. Because then that will mean I also will be able to play for India,” says Shahnawaz, the Afridi fan.
Parvez contemplates the same question. “When people think of Kashmiris they only think of certain things. I want people to realise inhe cricket bhi khelna aata hai.” But as if realising the magnitude of his expectation, he turns to the youngsters and says, “Dua karo mere liye.”