Last month, Rajat Bhatia was in a fix. The former Delhi all-rounder was appointed DDCA selector, only to be told later that he was not eligible for the post because as per Lodha Committee recommendations, a player has to be retired for at least five years before he could become selector. Thankfully for Bhatia, help came from an unexpected quarter. The Uttarakhand Cricket Association offered him the role of a marquee player to shore up their team ahead of their debut season.
”I accepted the offer gleefully, because neither me nor any of the DDCA guys had any clue with regards to conflict-of-interest norms. I am not looking too far ahead in my new role. My aim is to make them competitive and help these guys hone their skills,” Bhatia explains.
He is not alone. Ahead of this domestic season, a bevy of experienced players have accepted offers from some of the new teams who are keen to compete with the pedigreed sides.
Others on the move are Test discard Pragyan Ojha, who migrated from Hyderabad to Bihar. Puducherry, meanwhile, has been bolstered by Pankaj Singh, the tall fast bowler, who spent 14 indefatigable years with Rajasthan. The common thread binding these players is that they are well past their prime. But in the sunset of their professional careers, they want to share their experiences with the younger lot.
This churn in domestic circuit is not new. In fact, it’s a recurring theme before every season. Back in 2016, all-rounder Jalaj Saxena, who migrated from Madhya Pradesh to Kerala to boost his flagging career, was one of the season’s success stories. But this season’s story is a bit different.
For the first time, domestic cricket will have 37 teams, nine more than last year, that will feature in 465 matches in five tournaments spread across six months. Terming it a ‘jumbo season’ will not be a stretch. The perceptible bulge has got to do with the BCCI following one of Lodha’s key recommendations – to spread and popularise the game in the cricketing backwaters. Armed with the Committee of Administrators (CoA)’s nod, the board has included six teams from the North-East – Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. Along with them, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Puducherry are poised to make their debut. Conducting matches over the course of this extra large season presents a herculean logistical challenge for the BCCI.
However, neither the players nor the coaches seem to too perturbed. If anything, the new season gives some of them a chance at reinventing themselves at the fag end of their careers. For others, it’s a chance to improve and expand their skill sets, while continuing to compete with some of the best on the domestic circuit.
For Pankaj Singh, the move from Rajasthan to Puducherry was pragmatic. “I have been playing non-stop for Rajasthan over the last 14 years. But now, the team has an impressive arsenal of fast bowlers such Deepak Chahar, Khalil Ahmed, Aniket Chowdhury and Nathu Singh. So, if I had continued for another season, I would be holding the spot of one of these fast bowlers, which I think would be unfair. So, I decided to move to a new team to help them gain experience and be competitive.” Singh will have top-order batsman Paras Dogra, who has spent the last 16 years with Himachal Pradesh, as a teammate.
Making room for youngsters
Apart from these two, Puducherry also have veteran all-rounder Abhishek Nayar in their ranks. Much like Singh, Nayar’s reason for moving from his bastion of Mumbai after playing 99 first-class matches was that he didn’t want to stand in the way of a younger player. “I have been wanting to work with some of the smaller teams for some time now. Also, I did not want to take the spot of a younger player who was eyeing a spot in the Indian or an IPL team. I was in talks with several teams and Puducherry was one of them. I believe that if I work with some of the smaller teams, I will be able to add more value,” Nayar opines.
For Irfan Pathan, his new role as coach-cum-mentor of Jammu and Kashmir meant criss-crossing the state and personally monitoring trials in some of the remotest districts. J&K is not a new entrant this season. But they have largely remained on the periphery and failed to impress against some of the more fancied teams. The former India all-rounder, who was dropped from Baroda last year, wants to instill team culture and flexibility in these cricketers. “For the first time, the state association conducted 11 selection trials in the smaller districts, which I monitored personally on the ground. I came here with an open mind, and the love I got here over the last two-and-a-half months has been overwhelming,” he says.
Pathan also invited the Uttar Pradesh team to play a tournament in Srinagar. Pathan would also scout for little-known talents. “I saw 500-600 kids from smaller districts, whom I have identified. They will be travelling with the team to gain experience. This is a way to build team environment,” Pathan adds.
Not everyone who is migrating to smaller teams is at the fag end of his career. Some are doing it just to inject a bit of vitality. Taruwar Kohli, the 29-year-old batsman who has spent all his career with Punjab, will now turn up for Mizoram. His performances for his erstwhile team had tapered off since his unbeaten 300 in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final against Jharkhand four seasons ago. Kohli reckons his new stint will help him reclaim his lost vigour.
“I am really thankful to Punjab for having me over the last 12 years. But my performances in the last couple of seasons have not been consistent. I accepted the offer to play for Mizoram as it gives be a fresh start to galvanise my career, at the same time I can give a helping hand to these talented, but raw cricketers from this state.”
The cramped domestic calendar has led to a clamour for outstation players amongst most teams. While motivation for these players differ, one thing is for sure. This could easily turn out to be one of the most anticipated seasons on view.
Coaches on the move
Not just outstation players, even some of the top coaches are on the move this season. BCCI has appointed them in key roles in each of the nine new teams. PV Sasikant, who was Karnataka coach last year, is the coach of Mizoram. Meghalaya gets the wisdom of Sanath Kumar. The 56-year-old has been a journeyman of sorts, coaching several less-fancied teams such as Assam and Andhra and eliciting creditable performances from them. KP Bhaskar, the former Delhi coach, will coach Uttarakhand, while Kawaljeet Singh will head Nagaland, former Odisha opener Shib Sundar Das is with Manipur, and former India pacer Avishkar Salvi will guide Puducherry.