The massively structured Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Stadium, with its fort-like walls and giant concrete pillars, lifeless like most neo-modern stadiums in the country are, stands in the middle of nowhere — literally and figuratively. Literally because it’s bang in the middle of old Raipur, or just Raipur, with its industrial clog and crammed lanes, a mix of migrant labourers and thriving middle class, either employed in a steel or cement plant, and the promised land, Naya Raipur, the would-be abode of the city’s upper class, but now a rumble of dust, cement, trucks and cranes.
Figuratively because it’s symbolic of the city’s lofty cricketing ambitions — purely acquired — but grappling without an identity, or the exposure or direction the Chhattisgarh State Cricket Sangh (CSCS) would have envisaged when they planned the stadium in 2006. It’s like a plush multiplex, but limited to just a couple of blockbuster shows a year. Forget about hosting international matches — for which the CSCS believes it is fully equipped — they weren’t even eligible for the Ranji Trophy, since they were not, until this Friday, a full member of the BCCI. All they got was an annual dose of IPL — being the second home of Delhi Daredevils (their owners own power-plants across the state) — and a string of age-group matches. “It was not like we never had a cricket culture, but didn’t have enough opportunity to channelise it, because we were not playing Ranji Trophy,” secretary Rajesh Dave says. “It was eight years after the state was formed that they even procured associate membership.
But Raipur celebrates its IPL matches. Not because of any deep-rooted affinity to the game, but mostly to spot the cricket-celebs. So the 47,000-capacity stadium is almost always filled. However, there are no strong affiliations to any particular team or to the adopted Daredevils. The following is more star-specific (MS Dhoni is the biggest draw, thanks to his small-town-boy-makes-it-big narrative), and like an international brand they consume it. And then forget about it until the next year. This is understandable, in that the city as such doesn’t have a strong bond with cricket or a proud legacy so to speak. Sport, not just cricket, is peripheral. They have livelihood issues and Maoist menace to ponder over.
The hub of the game is the steel town of Bhilai, 30-odd kilometres west of the state capital. Even during the undivided Madhya Pradesh days, or back when it was part of Holkar and then Central Provinces, it was Bhilai that hosted Ranji or zonal matches. It has a strong club culture and a dozen of cricket academies, but the template for ambitious youngsters was laid long ago — make the grades, shift to bigger cricket hubs like Bhopal or Indore and play for MP.
A paradigm shift
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A classic instance is all-rounder Jalaj Saxena. He started off in Bhilai, where his father was employed, before he moved to Indore to be guided by former BCCI secretary Sanjay Jagdale. Young batsman Harpreet Singh, who scored 750 runs at 53.57, embraced a similar career trajectory as he shifted from Durg to Bhopal to get noticed. “Similarly, we have been losing a lot of players. These are the fortunate ones. But there were lot of others who stopped playing the game,” said Dave.
One of them was Abishek Darekar, a strapping fast bowler who honed his skills at the MRF Pace Foundation in the mid noughties. He plied in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association first division for a while, but couldn’t find a domestic contract and eventually quit the sport altogether.
But hereafter there would be fewer Darekars or Saxenas or Harpreets. And Chhattisgarh-born players needn’t sketch career alternatives or haggle behind other state associations. Or so hopes CSCS president Baldev Singh Bhatia. “We have talented players as well as the infrastructure. All we didn’t have was exposure and so our players had to play for different states. But now that we are eligible to form our own Ranji side, they needn’t go anywhere. It gives a huge impetus for the young cricketers of the state. The game has a huge following, even in the Naxal-affected villages. A few years ago we had a boy from one of the most interior villages of the state, some 400km from Raipur. He played in three matches against Canada (exhibition matches during stadium inauguration). So the game has a reach and now it’s about giving them the right platform,” he said.
And as Bhatia pointed out Chhattisgarh is a large state, the 10th largest in the country. But most of it is forested or in the Naxal shadow. Forget talent scouting or building academies, or the more idealistic ambition of youngsters swapping guns for bats, people here are even unsure of life. They don’t see cricket as an antidote to all that’s evil in the society, though it might offer a temporary digression from those.
In some quarters this might be seen as BCCI agreeing to one of Lodha committee’s recommendations that all states should get full membership, but the reality is Chhattisgarh’s claim was always going to be the first to be recognized. As an associate member, Chhattisgarh have been playing in the age group tournaments of BCCI and consistently performing well. In fact, a Chhattisgarh batsman, Amandeep Khare, became the first player from the state to don an India jersey when he played in the Under-19 tri-series in Sri Lanka last year. Khare was also part of the India Under-19 World Cup squad in Bangladesh.
For the past three years, therefore, they have been hopeful of gaining full membership, and the demand reached its crescendo last year when it seemed their wish might be granted. However, the spot-fixing scandal saw Supreme Court step in and remove N Srinivasan as president before the BCCI elections. In the ensuing uncertainty, Chhattisgarh had no option but to wait for another year.
The signs are promising. Sometime in 2014, when the National Cricket Academy conducted a talent hunt for U-17 fast bowlers, Raipur witnessed the maximum turnout, and half of them were from the Naxal-torn districts such as Rajnandgaon, Bastar and Kanker. “We had players 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,” Dave says. Cricket bats featured prominently in election campaigns in these parts as well.
Next year, if they can pull above their weight on Ranji debut, the lines that divide the state’s cricketing ambitions and its identity will blur. Like Naya Raipur hurtling towards the metropolis it is designed to be.