In the fancy 15th floor restaurant of Le Meridien hotel, Amandeep Khare surveys the lavish buffet, fills his plate with rice, sets aside the knife and fork and digs in with his hand. It’s a heartening sight to see the 18-year-old nonchalantly hogging mouthfuls in this fashion in a dining room full of Dhaka’s elite displaying impeccable table manners.
On the ground, he diligently attends the batting nets and participates in fielding drills. When the session is over, he neatly stuffs his kitbag and quietly leaves. Among a bunch of ebullient characters in the India Under-19 dressing room, he is the soft-spoken one. “Sarafaraz and others are my friends. They make fun of everyone. Sabki bohot udaate hain. Par mere saath kuch nahi karte,” Khare says. He sounds as if his voice hasn’t broken completely. It gives you the impression that you are talking to an adolescent.
By making the India Under-19 team, Khare has become the first player from his state, Chhattisgarh, to represent the country at any level of cricket. There have been instances of players from Chhattisgarh playing top-flight cricket.
Former India off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan was born in Ranchi but calls Bhilai home. However, when he was part of India’s formidable spin triumvirate in the 90s, the state hadn’t come into existence. It was still Madhya Pradesh. The now-disgraced pacer TP Sudhindra also initially played in Bhilai before switching over to MP. Khare is also from Bhilai. The state is as such a cricketing backwater, but the steel town is an anomaly, thanks to the infrastructure created by the Steel Authority of India Limited.
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“The facilities in Bhilai are as good as any you can find anywhere in the country, and certainly the best in Chhattisgarh, though Raipur too is coming along now thanks to the stadium. There are five-six cricket academies in Bhilai alone,” says Khare, son of a chargeman in SAIL.
But between 2000 to 2013, budding cricketers from Chhattisgarh would hit a wall by the time they turned 14 or 15.
Unlike their peers from full-member states, Chhattisgarh, who were an associate of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, didn’t get to participate in BCCI tournaments. Their choice was simple: leave the state, or leave cricket. It changed in 2013-14, just when Khare, like many others before him, was planning to shift base to MP.
“I was advised by my coaches to move out, but about the time I was to come in the Under-19 age group, we got this news that we were allowed to play the BCCI Under-19 trophies. So while I had made up my mind to shift, I decided to shelve that idea and I stayed back. I had just turned 16 and the same season I got to play Under 19, Under 23 and Under 25 for Chhattisgarh,” he says.
In the board trophies, Chhattisgarh mostly face bigger teams. While they struggle to go deep into those tournaments, individual performances against some of the best in a given age group are noticed.
“Coming from a small town and playing from Chhattisgarh is not always a disadvantage. It’s easy to perform as an underdog, you know. Kyonki logon ki nazar nahi rehti aap-pe. So there’s no pressure unlike players from bigger teams and states, because the limelight is not on you,” Khare says.
But this season the limelight has been on him because of his superlative performance with bat. First, consistent performances in the Under-19 Vinoo Mankad Inter-State and Under-23 CK Nayudu trophies in October led to his selection in the Under-19 Inter-Zonal One-Day tournament. Then, playing for Central Zone, he just exploded, making 139, 142, 61 and 62 in four innings. The timing couldn’t have been better. In November, the selectors were picking the Under-19 team for a tri-nation series in Kolkata. It was hard to overlook Khare. It was a historic first for Chhattisgarh. And the icing on the cake was his 102-run knock against Sri Lanka in another tri-series in Colombo in December, an innings that put him on the Dhaka-bound flight.
Khare loves Virender Sehwag, but he is not like Virender Sehwag. “When he retired last year, bohot dhakka laga. I had met him once, on his ground in Jhajjar. We had a match there against the Harayana Under-19. I made 127 not out there. I have grown up watching his game. Theek hai main waisa khel nahi paata. I take time to settle down. When I go out to bat, my first instinct is to survive. But Sehwag is my idol,” he says.
This survival instinct is understandable. For a player from Chhattisgarh, the opportunities are few and far in between. You need to make whatever comes your way count. That can dictate your playing style.
“But once I am set, I take calculated risks. Not AB de Villers’ reverse hits. Haath mein jaan nahi hai, so not sure if I can hit it above point. So when I do play reverse shots, I try to keep the ball on the ground. Risk bhi hai, but once you are set you have to take a calculated risk,” he says.
He will have to take one more risk once he is back from the Under-19 World Cup. Chhattisgarh are still not a Ranji side, though things may change if the Lodha Commission report on reforms is implemented by the BCCI.
Uncertainty, therefore, has put Khare in the same spot where he was a little over three years ago when he was contemplating relocation. But he has survived this dilemma once before, and will survive it now too.
“After the World Cup, I will take suggestions from Rahul (Dravid) sir on what to do. Agar Chhattisgarh ko next year Ranji nahi mila toh I will make a move too,” he says.
He is yet to get a chance in the tournament. India are playing Namibia on Saturday, so there’s some room for experimentation. But it being a quarterfinal, that scope is limited. “If I get a chance in a big game, then it will be good to make runs and prove myself. I do feel a little sad, but you have to put the team ahead of you, as our main aim is to win the tournament,” he says.
He may or may not get that opportunity. But even if he doesn’t play a single match in Bangladesh, he will still be a success story, for just being here. For Khare eating artlessly in that glitzy restaurant is a very real scene, but it’s also a metaphor, a powerful symbol. In him, you can see Chhattisgarh making a dent in the bourgeois club of the BCCI.