“Mujhe 17 number mila, tujhe?” The Arunachal Pradesh player’s innocent query is answered with near-equal sincerity by his teammate who holds up his own green jersey with a smile. It’s safe to say he’s evidently happy with the number on the back of it. The Arunachal team had just finished a roll-call in their dressing-room where each player has had to shout out his shirt and pant size be it “medium” or “large”-no XLs were available for the record. And most of the boys seemed more or less pleased with their new “apparel”, even if a couple did whine and moan about not receiving their exact size.
Till 20 minutes earlier, they’d been sweating it out in the side nets on a hot afternoon at the KDCG Cricket Ground in Nadiad. They’re less than 20 hours away, meanwhile, from creating history when they take on Mizoram in their first-ever Vijay Hazare Trophy match.
The two will be among nine overall new-comers, all of whom will take their first bows on the big stage, in terms of Indian domestic cricket anyway, in Gujarat. But the home-grown Arunachal players and their fellow debutantes from the north-east have been experiencing a few firsts already over the last few days. Their first-ever numbered jerseys are just the latest.
It was pretty much a similar story in the Mizoram camp an hour or so earlier. They though had to contend with much more than just iffy fits. Unfortunately, they were short on track pants and a jersey or two with a support-staff member heard lamenting about it on the phone to whoever was supposed to deliver them. At least, the Mizoram team got the venue right at first attempt on the eve of their match, unlike a day earlier where they landed up at the cricket ground Anand, some 30-odd km away, which will by the way host Nagaland’s Vijay Hazare debut against Bihar.
The Mizoram manager runs a variety goods store back home, but it’s unlikely that involves the kind of administrative duties he’s got to pull off here. “Everything is new for us, starting from the ground. We have one proper ground in Sihhmui but it’s a concrete wicket. But it’s off the field that I’m personally learning something every minute. So much protocol to be followed,” he says before the chat is interrupted by the local liaison manager asking him to arrange for passport photos of all the players by evening. I’ll take those who don’t have any to the nearby studio,” the manager assures him. Mizoram skipper K Vanlalruata, who refers to himself as “Ruata”, talks about his team’s Vijay Hazare venture as an “adventure”, a word he mentions a few times, and how his boys have been soaking in every bit of the experience, from the practice facilities-which at the KDCG ground are good but basic at the most – the dressing-rooms and also the accommodation.
“Half the boys have never stayed in any hotel before; forget a five-star,” says Ruata. He thanks the BCCI and Justice Lodha for the unprecedented opportunity and is rather pragmatic about rating his team’s chances. “We have good bowlers but I feel the batting in most of the north-east teams will be challenged. Batting requires proper technique and coaching, and most of our boys have never received any of that,” he says.
“Aamchi Mumbai,” pipes in one of Ruata’s teammates, seated not too far away, and starts talking about the six years he’s spent playing league cricket in the city. He talks about his one-year stint with PJ Hindu Gymkhana, his lengthy stay at the YMCA Hostel on Grant Road, and insists on not being as overawed as his teammates. “Sab kuch dekh ke, wow wow they’ve been doing,” he says.
The professional players in each team are also understandably relaxed. They stand out, not just purely because of their branded practice bags and the quality of their gear; while some of the Arunachal players pick on one of their batsmen who has promised at least three of them that they could use his bat.
The Arunachal local players are told a number of times by the coaching staff that they should leave their kits behind in the dressing-room since they have the match the next morning. But much to coach Gursharan Singh’s chagrin, they quietly wheel or carry them off. “I’m sure they’re not used to leaving their bags behind and expect them to be safe at the level they’ve played at so far,” a ground official says.
The presence of the professional players, some of whom have a number of years of experience at Ranji level, will certainly lift the standard of the Plate League, which is made up of the nine new-comers. The fact that Meghalaya have players of their own, like Jason Lamare, who have played in the Ranji Trophy before for Assam, makes them the strongest among the six north-east teams, according to their manager Mawkordor Synrem anyway. Meghalaya don’t play their first game till Thursday, and the manager decided to let his players take the evening off and go watch “some Hindi” movie. “Our boys are also used to the structures of a BCCI tournament since most of them have come through the ranks playing junior cricket, where except getting to stay in a five-star (It’s his first time too), they get all other facilities,” he says.
It’s a sentiment shared by the Manipur manager too. Manipur begin their campaign against Puducherry at the Moti Bagh ground in Baroda on Wednesday. While he refers to their Vijay Hazare debut as one of the most thrilling moments in his state’s sporting history, he also reveals to have stuck to a “light meal” along with his players to help him deal with the nerves. And it’s not just the new faces from the north-east who are getting used to life on the fast lane over the last few days in Gujarat. Pudhucherry manager Mayank Mehta can’t wait for the game to begin, and is relieved to have successfully concluded the gamut of protocols, from submitting documents for the ACU’s perusal to ensuring that his players all are on time for training as per the coaching staff’s requirements. Or like Ruata puts it, “Let the adventure begin.”