“Who is who here?” asks Joy pointing at the two teams battling it out at the Moti Baug Cricket Ground. It’s an understandable query and she and her friend Priyo can be pardoned for their ignorance. The Manipuri duo, now settled in Baroda, have come here at the behest of their friend Athrili, originally from Nagaland but a gym, spa and salon owner here since the last six years. “There are two teams from the northeast playing cricket at Moti Baug,” is all that they’ve been told.
And in their defence, the two jerseys visible on the field aren’t too dissimilar from each other. Nagaland are in black pants and a t-shirt splashed, almost air-brushed, with equal amounts of black and red. Sikkim’s jersey, meanwhile, resembles that of the West Indies from the late 1990s, mostly maroon but with green sleeves. “Nagaland are the ones batting, and they’re winning,” Athrili informs them joyously. He’s walked in around 15 minutes earlier with Nancy and her husband Peter, also Manipuri, and a few of his Naga friends—Alo, a famous hairstylist in these parts according to Athrili, and two young gym trainers.
The entire group immediately breaks into a big cheer as Nagaland’s professional player KB Pawan airlifts a length ball over the sight-screen at the far end. “Sixer, sixer. Once more now,” they scream, still blissfully unaware of the exact identities of the players on the field.
It’s after all their first-ever live cricket match, and more importantly the first-time ever they’re seeing a bunch of guys from the Northeast of India play the sport at any level, spare the few games on the streets back home, or erstwhile home for some. And it doesn’t seem to matter which teams are playing, till the time they’re from their region.
“We have lived in Baroda for nearly 21 years now,” says Nancy, a teacher and a winemaker (excellent one according to everyone present), “And we aren’t too far away from the ground, so as soon as we heard some northeast teams are playing, we just came off. It didn’t matter whether Manipur was playing today or not.”
Nagaland team manager A Rahman spots the exuberant lot and walks out of the team dug-out to greet his team’s new-found fans. He explains the exact nature of the tournament they’re witnessing and gives them a lowdown of how his team got here. Later in the day, Rahman would also ensure that the entire Nagaland team met Athrili & Co, and even posed for quite a few pictures with them.
“There are around 200-250 people from the Northeast who live in Baroda, and we all have a group and meet almost every weekend at one of our homes. We prefer home-cooked meals, and we are all very close,” Nancy says.
Athrili though is not among those in attendance for the crash-course on the Plate League of the Vijay Hazare Trophy. He doesn’t need it. The diminutive and bespectacled businessman reveals to have not only played a lot of cricket while he was still in Dimapur, but also to have shared dressing-rooms with some of the Nagaland players at Moti Baug on Sunday.
“I know Jonathan (Rongsen) and have played with quite a few of the others including Timit Rahman. I was so crazy after cricket that I even changed schools there. But then there seemed to be no future in cricket, and I came off to Baroda to try my luck here,” he says, adding. “Unfortunately, the other Nagaland friends here with me have no idea about cricket.”
It’s a story that resonates with every home-grown player in the Nagaland squad too, according to Rahman. Though Nagaland continued to play the age-group tournaments and even laid claim to the best cricket venue in the northeast, at Dimapur—which has played host to a few of the BCCI’s zonal camps and will witness the state’s Ranji Trophy matches—there was no long-term future.
“Some of them joined work, others became teachers and some remain unemployed. So when this chance came, they all jumped at it. We have also included two under-19 players to the mix,” says Rahman. There are 16 tribes in Nagaland, each with their own language, culture, and even attire—though they all speak Nagamese—and 4-5 of them have been represented by the nine “tribal” players in the squad here.
KB Pawan, former Karnataka wicket-keeper batsman who also has played for Kerala and Tripura, though insists on there not being a significant language barrier right from the time he spent seven days in Dimapur to acclimatize himself with his new team. But similar to how much Joy & Co know of the players they’re cheering, Pawan admits to not many of his teammates knowing much about his credentials, “except that I’m an outstation player,” he says with a smile.
The conversation in the Northeast Headhunters (as named by Athrili) camp soon turns to the upcoming Bryan Adams concert in Ahmedabad and whether they’ll manage to get passes for it. On cue, one of them starts playing some 1990s’ pop music on their phone, as packets of chips and other knickknacks come out. A couple of aerial shots, which hardly travel anywhere close to the boundary, get the lot excited, and they sheepishly abort a loud cheer when opener Sedezhalie Rupero lofts a full-toss straight to long-off’s hands.
“You can’t cheer too much or constantly in cricket, unlike at a football match. Those are a lot more fun,” says Joy as the others draw fair comparisons between how “football in Gujarat is taking baby steps just like cricket in the Northeast”. The gym trainers do get anxious about “how much longer will this go on” as Nagaland near their target. The victory comes in the 27th over to loud screams of “hooray Nagaland” from Naga and Manipuri voices in unison.
This regional bonhomie though will be tested next Friday at the same ground when Nagaland play Manipur in another league match. Talk of the match sets off a “who’ll outdo the other” debate in terms of support in five days’ time.
“If I make a phone call to all the students here, we’ll be almost a 100 of us,” says Priyo with Athrili quickly countering with, “we’ll match you in numbers and also bring our flags and t-shirts. It’s game on.”