Seven years ago, on a cloudy July evening in Chennai, Abhishek Darekar decided to fold up his cricketing flannels forever. He was only 27. His friends and club-mates tried to dissuade him. But Darekar was adamant. He would return to his home town, Durg, and perhaps seek a job in one of the hundred steel and power factories that dot his state. Or maybe, venture into business.
So one evening, he just packed his bags and vanished with a “goodbye” text message to his friends. They never saw him again, or heard from him. Or even heard of him. He plainly merged into those nameless faces you see every day when travelling in a train or while walking down the streets of an alien town. One of the thousand unfamiliar faces that your mind never registers, or recurs as a passing thought at the most.
Rewind to nearly a decade before his disappearance. Darekar woke up to the bustling mayhem that is the Chennai Central in the mornings, with wide-eyed enthusiasm and hope, thinking he had made his first stride into achieving the dream of playing for his country. He must have thanked his stars, for those were less certain times for cricketers from Chhattisgarh, still getting into terms with nascent statehood.
Several of his contemporaries shifted their base to Bhopal or Indore. Though bleak were the chances of being picked as one of the three outstation players, there was at least some hope. But you had to be talented and fortunate at the same time, though Madhya Pradesh wasn’t abundantly churning out quality players. And Darekar, like several others, heard stories that the selectors from the mother state were prejudiced. Some had even restored to short cuts like fudging the place of berth in the birth certificate so that they could be eligible as a home-state player.
Darekar thought he didn’t have to fuss about such travails when he was auditioned and then picked by the MRF Pace Foundation. He was palpably excited, like any fast bowling tyro afforded the opportunity to be mentored by the legendary Dennis Lillee. Among his fellow trainees was a precociously gifted skinny boy from Kochi, among his senior trainees was a bristly southpaw from Rae Bareily. And occasionally would drop in the glitterati of India cricket— from Sachin Tendulkar to Javagal Srinath.
Meanwhile, young Darekar blossomed into a fine fast bowler, not the one that hustled batsmen with forthright pace, but one that nagged batsmen with stifling accuracy. In the club circuit, his reputation burgeoned, but the First-Class dream remained as elusive as ever, even as several of his contemporaries from Chhattisgarh broke into teams like Madhya Pradesh, Baroda, Railways and Jharkhand.
Then Pace Foundation head coach TA Sekhar did his best to find him a Ranji abode, but his efforts bore only disillusionment in young Darekar. Finally, a frustrated Darekar jumped onto the breakaway ICL bandwagon, playing a season each for Ahmedabad Rockets and Delhi Jets. By the time the ICL was scrapped and the players banned, Darekar’s patience had weaned away. He packed his dreams and suitcase and slipped into anonymity, like many other contemporaries of his from the colourless industrial towns of Bilaspur, Durg and Raipur in the noughties. It was the lost generation for Chhattisgarh cricket.
Setting up the house
When Dharekar was assiduously nursing his dreams in the sweltering heat of Chennai summers, to the constant percussion of rattling trains, back home, in the middle of notoriously muggy Central Indian summers, several factions were heckling for BCCI’s approval as the “most official” cricket governing body in the state. “Almost every street in Raipur and Bilaspur had at least one association claiming they were the official administrative body. They kept feuding with each other and they all organised local tournaments to add weight to their claim,” recounts president Baldev Singh Bhatia. “Finally, in the common interest of the game, we all decided to unite,” add Baldev. And thus was formed the Chhattisgarh State Cricket Sangh in 2007.
But unlike Bhatia’s claim, it wasn’t a straightforward merger. It was more of a coalition, contrived by the intervention and persuasion of Sanjay Jagdale, then national selector and Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association administrator. Thereafter, it has been plain-sailing, Bhatia asserts. “But once we became part of one organisation, we buried all our differences for the betterment of the game in the state,” says Bhatia. His once fierce rival, Rajesh Dave became the secretary. And in 2008, BCCI gave them associate membership.
But they were still novices, in terms of cricket administration. Dave was a former first class cricketer. Bhatia was a state-level table tennis player and a university-level shuttler. Rest of them were mostly businessmen or retired employees from various state plants. But what they lacked in administrative acumen and cricketing pedigree, they made up with planning.
According to Bhatia, they kept things “simple”. “We had frequent meetings and we came to a consensus that the first step should be to spread cricket throughout the state. You know most of the state is covered by forests and factories. And you know the Naxal menace that has gripped the state. But we decided to organise cricket camps all around the state and we had a few in the Naxal-torn parts like Rajnandagoan and Ambikapur,” he says.
But the Rs 75 lakh grant from the BCCI didn’t quite suffice. “But we weren’t deterred. Several factories and the state government helped us financially, and we ourselves invested whatever money we could. It was difficult, but we somehow pulled through the tough times,” he admits.
The same year, the government gave them access to the Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Stadium, a near-dilapidated multi-purpose stadium, in the outskirts of Raipur, but closer to the proposed Naya Raipur. But with the considerable funding from GMR, which owns the IPL team Delhi Daredevils, they renovated the stadium into a fine state-of-the-art arena, boasting all the modern facilities. Some say it was part of GMR’s plans to acquire a power project in the state.
But whatever be the case, the stadium gave the state a newfound stature in Indian cricket. Soon was invited the Canadian national team to play three 50-over matches —one of which Chhattisharh XI managed to win. A year later, Delhi Daredevils made Raipur their second home. Once the ambitious Naya Raipur project materializes, the stadium could be a shining jewel in the crown of Chhhattisgarh. As of now, the journey from Raipur to the stadium is a bit of dusty mess.
The first-class leap
Bhatia and Dave knew the first-class leap was nigh. But administrative chaos in the BCCI post the spot-fixing scandal deferred the much-awaited decision. Bhatia admits they were a little frustrated, as three years had passed by since them completing the stipulated five-year apprenticeship. “We were not desperate, but were a little restless when they kept on delaying the decision,” says Dave.
Then, finally on February 19 this year, Chhattisgarh earned the right to match their skills with the big boys of Indian cricket. Bhatia threw a big party to his CSCS members but from the very next day, they began their next round of planning for the upcoming season. “The first thing we decided in the morning was that our captain should have Test-match experience. We checked several names, some of them were unavailable, some of them had played just a couple of matches. Finally, we zeroed in on Mohammad Kaif,” says Bhatia.
Kaif has featured in only 13 Tests, but Bhatia reckons there are few better former Test players who are as good as Kaif in the domestic ring. “He still has that passion and is very fit. He is very involved in everything he does. Also, he did a wonderful job with Andhra. He can be that guiding force for our youngsters,” remarks Bhatia.
The rest is a motley bunch of has-beens who have plied for various other states and greenhorns. Before the Ranji season, Bhatia has modest hopes. “I’ll be very happy if we can win a couple of matches,” he says.
The first hero
The central prison of Chhattisgarh is centrally located in Raipur. On the light-yellow wall of the prison is a huge MS Dhoni poster, stuck right above the “stick no bills” inscription. His face sneers at you from almost every single pole, post and wall in the city. There a few random posters of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevera as well. But Dhoni easily outnumbers Che.
It’s not difficult to find the roots of the emotional connect. Dhoni is the biggest small-town hero. Besides, Jharkhand and Chhattishgarh do share a few things in common, like they were born in the same year (2000), the latter older by 15 days, both are mineral-rich and both afflicted by Naxals and Maoists.
Sooner though, the Dhoni posters could be replaced by that of a reticent teenager, that is if 19-year-old Amandeep Khare fulfills the potential he supposedly possess. He was the second ever Chhattisgarh-born player to play India U-19. The first was all-rounder Harpreet Singh, who shifted to Madhya Pradesh seven years ago. Khare didn’t play a single match in the U-19 World Cup, but had showcased his potential with a blistering 98-balled 102 against Sri Lanka in Colombo last year.
Both Dave and Bhatia are convinced he can be the first Chhattisgarh player to represent the country. Their prudence, though, will take time to prove.
The only irony, or a sleight of fate is that, they won’t play a single game at home, which makes their initiation into first class cricket a little more difficult. But if not Raipur, Durg or Bilaspur, Ranchi is perhaps the best place to begin their narrative of the Chhattisgarh Ranji team.
And when they make history on Thursday, Darekar and the lost generation of Chhattisgarh cricket will be feeling a little more warm inside.