A kaccha road winds through tuwar daal and cotton field, curls past a factory where women produce the savoury Khakra for exports, and snakes past a wall encircling a six-acre open ground. There isn’t a human in sight beyond the ground located 16 kms from Rajkot city. Inside, a rag-tag team of kids await the entry of Cheteshwar Pujara.
A slim boy who sells pani-puris after sunset, a 12-year-old boy who hops across cricket grounds in Rajkot, a former India U-19 player, another kid whose father has sold his profitable chemist shops in Kutch and moved to this small town to pursue his son’s dream of becoming cricketer, a legspinner so young that he can barely get the ball to the other side – boys, teenagers, and young men are all ready to bowl at their benefactor Pujara.
In five days, Pujara would be playing the likes of Steve Finn and Moeen Ali. In five days, the English would severely test his head with pace and his feet with spin. Pujara’s preparation before the Indian Test team arrives this evening has involved half-hour sessions against a bunch of exuberant kids. Sometimes he would come at 7.30 am, at times, like this Friday evening, he would walk in at 3.30 pm.
For half-hour, he cut, on-drove, punched, swept, paddled, slog-swept, lofted and cover drove. For half-hour, the kids kept twirling in with great energy, and Pujara played them with such earnestness that it boggled the mind. As he walked away, one couldn’t help but ask him: ‘what do you take away from this?’ A gentle smile creases his bearded face. “This is Rajkot. Where am I going to find great bowlers? (In these sessions) I am looking to get my basics right. These bowlers can swing the ball and turn a bit, and I get my feet and body in line, and practice some shots.”
Watching him bat were his father Arvind and uncle Bipin – both Ranji cricketers and obsessed with the game. This ground was the idea of Arvind who wanted to coach aspiring young cricketers for free. Not a single paisa is taken from the kids who come from all across the state. Arvind’s brother, the wicket-keeper batsman in his time, oversees the coaching. This is the third year of their effort in turning a rocky land into a Neverland of cricket-crazy kids. The results are seeping through – a few are in the U-23 team, some in U-16. The brothers are there at dawn, and again at sunset to try fulfil aspirations. When he is free, Pujara too often drops in. Sometimes to bat, at times just to distribute t-shirts, helmets, pads or whatever the boys might need.
On Friday morning, Pujara wasn’t there but his father, uncle and the kids sweat it out. A boy who has just broken into teens bats uncannily like Pujara- the way the bat is picked up, in the manner he checks his grip everytime before taking the stance, and even in the drives and punches. In a two-hour session, not one batsman plays a false shot. One even shouts out ‘last ball’ (of his session) and then proceeds to calmly leave a ball tailing outside off stump. Even the last-ball temptation to swing out was somehow curbed; perhaps the urge isn’t even there in this land of Pujaras. Arvind says all these boys have dream of turning professionals.
The enthusiasm and ambition is evident. The pint-sized Aditya Rathod is a left-arm spinner who can also bat. He seems omnipresent in cricket ground across the city. In the morning, we leave the ground where he keeps bowling tirelessly. In the afternoon, in the old cricket ground in the city, we again bump into him – this time in the nets of U-19 cricketers in preparation for the U-14 tournament that he is going to play in couple of days “Good day sir,” he says when he spots us. In the evening, we again stumble on him, this time stopping a fierce cut from Pujara at point, and then shadow practising the shot after throwing back the ball.
Even as the boys leave, Pujara gets some catching practice with Kuldeep Sharma, the former India U-19 player who now works at AGS office in Rajkot. His left-arm seam had once impressed Arvind as much, if not more, than Dhawal Kulkarni but the Indian dreams have evaporated in the small-town India. Luckily, though cricket has got him a job through sports quota.
November promises not just lowering of temperature but also raising of cricket fever in Rajkot. The big Test is within a week but in the old stadium Cooch Behar Trophy -a tournament for U-19 kids from around the country – is set to start today. S Sharath, a yesteryear star from Tamil Nadu cricket is here as a match referee, the umpires take selfies near the pitch, curators lounge around on the rollers, and boys like Aditya Rathod walk here and there, getting addicted to the game even more.
His morning was spent with other kids in love with the game, afternoon with teenagers with cricket aspirations, and evening with India’s No. 3. Just before the sun sinks, he gets a pleasant surprise from Pujara who gifts him a helmet. A little later, Arvind is sat sipping tea on a Khaat (coir-stringed bed) near the entrance. The activities in his field of vision should be a matter of pride. Open acres of ground in middle of nowhere is now a nursery for young cricketers.
Five turf pitches lay in the middle, a cement pitch has sprung up at one end, an artificial lake has erupted at other corner to store water needed for greening the outfield, little neem trees are shooting up all along the edges of the ground, and the genial Arvind, who looks like Waldo Weatherbee of Archie Comics, looks a contented man. His son is a Test cricketer, and he is producing more cricketers for the future. Sometimes, just sometimes, dreams do come true.