Jalna doesnt even have a cricket ground. But now,Vijay Zol,skipper of Indias Under-19 cricket team,is its biggest hope.
Five kilometres before Jalna,the hoardings begin to appear,all featuring a batsman in India blues. Some are as high as the unimpressive three-storeyed buildings that mark this Maharashtra town,others feature the same player teaming a sharp suit with a pair of aviator glasses. Jalna is bang in the middle of a region that this year witnessed its worst drought in over a century and the man in the posters,Vijay Zol,Indias Under-19 cricket skipper,has been a happy distraction.
Once inside the city,Zols presence gets overwhelming. He plays a booming cover-drive from the top of a shopping arcade. A little further away,he is seen muscling one over square-leg from the middle of a garbage plot. Garbagerather,the lack of an effective disposal mechanismhas for long been Jalnas problem. But the image of a smiling 18-year-old sporting achiever,rising regally over these piles of rubbish,does well to beguile visitors.
Long before Zol,senior team skipper and Zols role model Mahendra Singh Dhoni and players like Munaf Patel and Bhuvneshwar Kumar had moved small-town India from the margins of the game,helping places such as Ranchi,Ikhar and Meerut bask under the cricketing sun. Now it is Jalnas turn to hold Zol aloft. The celebrations began in 2012 when,as a member of the Under-19 side,Zol won the Youth World Cup in Townsville,Australia. But this time,the jubilation went a notch higher as Zol captained the Indian colts to victory in the Under-19 triangular series in Australia in July. Zols boys defeated Australia in the final,but what completed the domination was that the team did not lose a single match during the tournament.
He is definitely Jalnas biggest success story. We have never had a Ranji player from the district. This boy is captaining an India team. You cant really fault the people of the town for showering Vijay with all this attention, says Niranjan Chavan,a former fast-bowler and now a policeman in Jalna.
Last month,when The Sunday Express caught up with Zol,he had just returned from the triangular series in Australia and had three days before flying off to Sri Lanka for the Youth Series. Those were to be his busiest 72 hoursattending 13 felicitation functions,exchanging pleasantries with close to 2,000 well-wishers and accepting hundreds of bouquets.
In Australia,the prolific batsman had led from the front,scoring 293 runs in five innings at an average of 73.25,including a glitzy 128 against New Zealand. Was he nervous about leading the team? Of course. My stomach was literally churning at the time of the toss for the first match. However,as the tournament progressed and runs started to flow from my bat,things got easier, he says.
(Zol is now in Sri Lanka and has already scored two centuries in two Tests.) What he was most excited about was the bid to defend the World Cup in Dubai in February 2014.
Currently,Zol is the only Maharashtra player in the team but what also makes him stand out is the fact that he didnt grow up practising his cricketing shots in hallowed Shivaji Park of Mumbai,but in Jalna,which has never had any competitive cricket. Not even a cricket ground. The Kane cricket academy,the only one in the district,conducts its training sessions on a tract of unused railway land. There are no turf wickets and cricket balls are always in short supply.
Playing cricket is very difficult in Jalna. Besides,we hardly get to play any matches. We play one or two matches a month and that too against the same set of players. I have had to practise for weeks on end with tennis balls because the leather ones ran out,” says Zol. He adds that the lack of match practice has forced him to grab every opportunity that comes his way. Boys in Mumbai and Pune play 20 matches a month. Here we would be lucky to get those many in a year. A match is where I can show what I am capable of. Thats why I have to score big runs, he says.
Zol is lucky to have the cushion of a comfortable upper middle-class family. His father Hari Zol is a leading criminal lawyer in the town. Four years ago,Hari Zol laid a cement pitch and put up nets at the family bungalow where Zol spends hours practising his shots whenever he is in town.
Vijay had the talent,also the desire to work hard. After that,the only thing I could have done was to help the boy. It helps that he is good at what he does,so our efforts are bearing fruit, says the proud father.
The senior Zol has been a strong influence on the 18-year-olds game. Zol had started off as a right-handed batsman,but his father,a fan of English cricketer David Gower,asked his son to switch to playing left-hand. Vijay writes,bowls and throws with his right hand. But left-handers are just so elegant. I asked him to try batting left-handed and it seems to have done him good, says the father.
Zols elder brother Vikram,24,says his brothers temper and blazing focus on cricket seem to have come in handy. He quit school in Class 9 after he had an argument with a teacher. This teacher told him that she had seen many boys brag about their cricket skills. Vijay stormed out that day and since then,hasnt gone back to school. Sometimes,you see the same streak of anger when he is batting,especially when he catches the bowler sledging him, says Vikram.
Though his father indulgently talks about how his talented son was good at his studies too and how he simply chose cricket over grades,Zol admits the decision to drop out of school could have gone either way. It was risky,especially since as a 14-year-old,your career choice and preferences can change every day. However,after taking such a big call,I had to prove myself. I had all the time to practise,I just had to use it well. Having got my way,I couldnt have disappointed my parents by throwing it away, he says.
Zols rise has been meteoric ever since he scored a massive 451 against Assam in the Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy in December 2011. That knock really got me noticed. I had been scoring runs even before that,but that 451 put me on the big stage, he says.
Zols penchant for runs meant that he ended Maharashtras victorious 2012-13 Cooch Behar campaign as the highest run-scorer,averaging a little over 60 in 12 innings with three hundreds. But Zol has always been a big hitter. In 2012-13,he scored three hundreds,including a double century and another in the final against Mumbai where he scored 181.
The 18-year-old also made an almost seamless transformation to the senior level when he scored 225 runs in six games for the Maharashtra side in the 2013 Vijay Hazare trophy at an average of 37.02. Known for his silken timing and clean,straight hits,the left-hander stroked his way to 109 off 63 balls in a Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 game against arch-rivals Mumbai in March this year. If that wasnt enough,the next day he hammered 57 off 40 balls against Baroda.
David Andrews,the Australian national who coaches the Maharashtra Under-19 team,believes that though Zol will face stiffer challenges as he makes his way though senior cricket,he has displayed enough talent to hold his own among the best. He played a superb knock in the Deodhar Trophy semi-final earlier this year,opening the batting,chasing 260-odd runs. And with the ball swinging around,he definitely showed his class there, he says.
The left-hander struck a composed 75 off 88 balls in the match,calmly negotiating opening spells from India internationals R Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun. Coaches and fellow players say it is Zols ability to never get stuck that works for him. In that semi-final,the ball was swinging and it was important to get a good start. Vijay took singles,kept things ticking and then,suddenly,he cut loose. That was something the bowlers were not expecting, says Andrews.
Andrews says it is Zols uncanny timing that sets him apart from his peers. Vijay understands situations perfectly. His coach in Jalna deserves credit for cultivating a wholesome cricketing mind. Vijay understands perfectly how a particular situation needs to be handled with the bat. He alters his scoring rate accordingly but never curbs his naturally aggressive style of play, he says.
Outside his house,a throng of people wait a catch a glimpse of the young star. But Zol, who is preparing to leave for the Sri Lanka series,has a few plans of his own. His family owns 75 acres in the hills above Jalna where they cultivate sweet lime and tamarind. Brother Vikram says it has been three years since Vijay visited the farm. We might just go there today,eat some fruit,catch an iguana from the stream and eat that too. These felicitations are all very nice,but my brother needs to have some fun too, he says.
The big hits
*Scored an unbeaten 451 for Maharashtra in an Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy group game against Assam in December 2011.
*Was part of the Under-19 World Cup winning squad in 2012. Played every match in Indias successful run to the title,batting in the middle-order.
n Scored a half-century (75) in his very first Deodhar Trophy outing.
*Led India to a series victory in the triangular series played in Australia in early July. Scored 293 runs in five matches with one century.
*Hit successive centuries in the two youth Test matches against Sri Lanka in July. He currently averages 150.50 in youth Test matches.