“Pressure,” Keith Miller, Australia’s charismatic all-rounder and a World War II hero, once noted, “is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.” Nitin Saini shakes his head sideways when asked if he has heard this quote before, and it’s understandable. A seven-decade high heap of the sand of time lies between Nitin’s cramped living room in Rohtak and the claustrophobic cockpit of Miller’s Mosquito flying over northern Germany, trying to shake off its pursuer.
But Nitin knows all too well the sentiment in Miller’s statement. Slicing through the temporal flesh, the words cut close to the bone. “I agree,” says the Haryana opening batsman and wicketkeeper in Hindi with a Haryanvi lilt, “because what I have seen and experienced earlier this year has made me mentally so tough that there is nothing in cricket that will ever affect me.”
Nitin saw death right at his doorstep during the Jat reservation agitation in February 2016.
It’s a mid-December morning. Nitin is enjoying a deserved break between Haryana’s last Ranji Trophy group stage fixture and the quarterfinal. He has had a bumper season, with 926 runs in nine matches (before the quarterfinals). He agrees to talk about the incident and invites us over to his house in Rohtak. A smooth 70-kilometre stretch of a mostly six-lane highway connects the national capital to this nerve centre of the state. It’s the emblematic Haryana town. Chandigarh is the distant, and shared, state capital; Ambala is ‘too Punjabi’; and Gurgaon is ‘too Delhi’. If Haryana has a heart — geographical, cultural or political — you would locate it in Rohtak.
It was also the ground zero of the Jat agitation— the signs are strewn all over. But you don’t notice them until someone points them out, upon which it becomes blindingly obvious: the unusually large number of new-looking shops that you have come across are those that were ransacked and set ablaze in February. Many such freshly redone buildings are near Sukhpura Chowk, a bustling intersection barely half a furlong from Nitin’s house. There happens to be a gate at the mouth of the narrow lane. Did the rioters bring it down, too?
“There used to be no gate back then,” Nitin replies. “It has come up later.” This wrought-iron gate is metaphorical as well. Its absence alluded to the openness and harmony that apparently existed previously; its erection indicates a schism that now exists.
Everyone at Sukhpura Chowk calls the region peace-loving. Which, of course, is not true. There was riots at the time of Partition. Sikhs were viciously targeted across the state in 1984. And, more recently, there has been a spike in Hindu-Muslim skirmishes in Mewat. Even so, February 2016 was different, for the targets were different. The hunters and the hunted were both Hindus. They looked the same and had similar first names. This time, however, it was the second name — “Saini” — that was on the minds of the Jat mob.
Let’s refer to Nitin as “Saini” in this section, because that is what it all boiled down to. In his modest drawing room, Saini is fiddling with his smartphone. The right thumb slides across the screen to bring up one horrific picture of the incident after another.
“From our terrace, where we were hiding, I took these pictures and also made a video thinking ke bach gaye to kisi ko dikhayenge; aur mar gaye to koi khud dekh lega that this is how it happened,” the 28-year-old says, a grim smile on his face. Saini leads us to the place where he and six other family members — from his two-and-a-half year-old daughter to the 50-something parents — were holed up for three days.
After three steep flights of stairs, we arrive at the roughly 800 sq ft terrace. The winter day is glorious. There is firewood in one corner and threshed wheat is spread out on a bedsheet to dry. Saini’s neighbours — mostly Sainis in this predominantly Saini locality of Rohtak — are soaking up generous doses of Vitamin D on adjacent rooftops. Close at hand, to the north, are Sukhpura Chowk’s towering street lights. To their right, at a stone’s throw, are the pink walls of a police station across the busy Gohana road. On a lazy, balmy afternoon such as this, the surroundings induce a sense of security and complacency. It’s a fatally false feeling.
The third week of February was unlike the second week of December. The weather was grim and overcast. A western disturbance in the sky was colluding with a sinister socio-political one on the ground. The protesting Jats had laid siege on Rohtak, demanding ‘backward’ status. While the state government dithered, BJP’s MP from Kurukshetra, Raj Kumar Saini, came out vehemently against the demand, exhorting the OBCs of the state — which includes his own caste — and other communities to resist Jats. The tension had reached a tipping point. Something had to give.
“On February 17, I had gone to Delhi to play a match for my employers, Food Corporation of India. I drove down early in the morning, and though I saw protesters everywhere, they weren’t violent. On my way back, however, all roads were blocked. From the Delhi border to Rohtak, it’s hardly an hour’s drive. It took me eight that day. And that too when, being a local, I had taken the kuccha roads through the villages and fields. But still we didn’t anticipate the violence that started the next day.”
Newspaper reports note that on February 18, a group of non-Jat traders protesting against the bandh clashed with a few Jat lawyers near the local kutchery. The news reached the surrounding areas and the uneasy calm was shattered.
There are no official numbers available but various estimates put the Jat population in Haryana between 25 to 30 per cent. A vast majority of them are concentrated in central Haryana (Jhajjar, Bhiwani, Hissar, Rohtak, Jind, Sonipat and Panipat). Rohtak is the buckle that holds the Jat belt. The incident at the court spread like wildfire and for the next three days, the entire central Haryana combusted.
“Hum neeche baithey the, verandah mein,” recalls Saini’s mother Dhanvanti Devi, “Ke hangama shuru ho gaya. News pe aane laga, phone pe logo ne batana shuru kiya ke dange shuru ho gaye hain. Hame tab bhi laga ke yahan to apne log hain, police station bhi hai, koi zyada ghabrane wali baat nahi.” She would soon realise she was wrong.
Saini reaches out for his mobile phone and starts showing the pictures again. In one, there is smoke rising near Sukhpura Chowk — not the slow-rising white smoke of a fire in control, but the aggressive black plumes of arson. The police station appears abandoned in the next frame. And a couple of swipes of the thumb later, even the adjacent terrace, where now a girl is hanging washed clothes on a clothesline, is clouded out on the mobile screen.
“Aap pehchan nahi sakte ke ye Rohtak city hai ya vo, what-do-you-call-it, jisme shadi mein rotiyan sekte hain,” says Saini, groping for the word “tandoor”. “We were getting messages that is district mein yahan riots ho gaye, us district mein danga ho gaya, apni city mein yahan incident ho gaya, outskirt pe wahan ho gaya. Then we saw it from our rooftop that the mob was coming, carrying all kinds of weapons. Trolleys me bhar bhar ke le ke gaye saaman, baki jo nahi carry kar paye, sab jala diya.”
One of Saini’s neighbours and friends, a 28-year-old shopkeeper, perished in the riots. He had a shop right in front of the police station and, thinking that the rioters had left, he went to assess if there was anything that could be salvaged. “But the mob returned and Anil Saini ran for his life, but in the haste he came in contact with a live electrical wire. Bhasm ho gaya. Meri age ka tha,” Saini recollects.
“We saw the bloodthirsty mob had come right next to our doorstep. Barely 20 feet away, before they turned back,” recollects Saini. His daughter Kavya has now joined him. She is scratching his face, seeking attention, not liking the fact that he is speaking to a stranger.
“You become numb,” Saini continues. “One guy, a friend, died, but you think — and it sounds horrible now — that if it stops at a death, one death, it’s perhaps a small cost to pay as compared to what you imagine — and looks like — the final cost can be. Because back then, you are surrounded by fire and smoke and people carrying arms and baying for blood, and you are also surrounded by your family members: your younger brother and sister, old father and mother, and your wife and a two-year-old daughter. Everyone was helpless in that situation.”
Anil’s was one of the scores of lives that were extinguished in those three days of madness. During which time, the Sainis stayed locked up in their house without electricity and water, huddled on the terrace while it rained intermittently.
Nitin’s is a story reborn. The sheer weight of his runs this season has forced us to take notice of him and the backdrop against which he scored them. His form is remarkable because for months after the riots, he didn’t think about picking up a cricket bat. But Haryana Cricket Association secretary Anirudh Chaudhry and Nitin’s childhood coach Ashwini Kumar helped him overcome the trauma.
“Chaudhry ji is a Jat, but he helped us immensely during the crisis. He was calling me every two-three hours, inquiring if we were safe. Bohot hausla diya,” Nitin says.
Chaudhry recollects the fear in Nitin’s voice during one of those phone calls. “Nitin told me ke 20-25 metres pe goliyan chal rahi hain, and I tried to calm him down and told him to stay put. Then I called up Ashwini Kumar — he is HCA’s director of coaching and lives in Rohtak — and discussed with him how to make arrangements to evacuate Nitin and his family at the first available opportunity.”
When the violence abated on February 22, Nitin’s family left in batches for Kumar’s house three kilometres away. They stayed there for another three days before a semblance of law and order was restored.
“Nitin’s father and I had played cricket together at college,” says Kumar, who belongs to the Vishwakarma community. “And I have coached Nitin from the time he was 12. So it was my moral responsibility to take them in at that time even though I was putting my own family’s safety at risk.”
The riots couldn’t destroy the fabric of the team, though. It’s something that Nitin brings to your notice. “It was difficult to digest that back then people were identifying, pinpointing and targeting certain communities. But my nature hasn’t changed much,” he insists. “My roommate (when they play out of Haryana) before February 2016 was Ashish Hooda, a Jat player from Rohtak, and still is. Mere liye ye matter nahi karta. I can’t think that ‘Oh, he is a Hooda, was he also involved?’ For me, Jats or Brahmins, they are my teammates first and then they are human beings. I also know not everyone possibly can think this way, but I can’t change everyone’s mentality.”
926 runs in one season — before the quarterfinal. Only 30 players have accumulated more in the Ranji Trophy’s 82-year history. Nitin Saini, though a fine batsman, has never had it so good. His previous best was 631 runs in 2011-12. His aggregate this year is almost 47 per cent more than that. Year on year the spike is even sharper — 71 per cent — with his corresponding number last year being 542. How do you explain that?
Tempting as it may seem, it would be reductive to put the ‘run peak’ entirely down to the ‘mental toughness’ aspect. The policy of neutral pitches introduced this year has played a significant role. Haryana’s home venue, Lahli, is a seam bowler’s paradise like no other first-class venue in India at the moment. Let alone individual hundreds, teams struggle to go past 150, while 200 is a winning score. For Nitin and other Haryana batsmen, it meant there was no home advantage for half of their group-stage matches. In fact, there was a severe home handicap. It reflected on Nitin’s numbers. So this season, when he batted on relatively more forgiving pitches, he made the most of the opportunity.
“Those conditions prepared me for what has happened this season,” he says. “What we face at Lahli, in terms of medium pace, you are never settled there. It’s literally the one-ball game cricket can be. So the practice I have put in at Lahli has helped me here. Because of the neutral venue policy, what we got to play on, from a batsman’s perspective, was an upgrade. Mind you, they were still fairly bowler-friendly conditions (and mostly seamer-friendly), but once you have played at Lahli, you can even play at Lord’s.”
Now that a plausible explanation is out of the way, let’s ask again: Could facing death in February also have any impact on his game?
It can’t perhaps be conclusively proved. Such experiences affect different individuals in different ways. Miller, for example, often became distracted on the field post World War II. As his Cricinfo profile notes, in one match he willingly got bowled first ball because it was, in his estimation, an unfair contest. Post the Munich air disaster in 1958, Manchester United great Bobby Charlton, who was 20 then, is said to have grown up overnight as he helped rebuilt the team. More recently, Karun Nair, soon after scoring a triple century against England in Chennai, spoke of a life-threatening boat accident he met in July.
There may or may not have been a correlation between the events of February and Nitin’s run aggregate in December. But of this we are certain: It did change Nitin’s outlook towards cricket. “I now play without the fear of failure, treating it as just a game and nothing more. I aged mentally during the course of that one week or so. My mental state has reached a stage you can’t expect it to reach at this age.”
There may not be a fear of failure in cricket, but there’s a fear nonetheless lurking in the recesses of his mind all the time. And it steps out of the shadows and consumes him when he is away from home.
“Dar to abhi bhi lagta hai. Jo situation dekhi hai, the fear remains, and it won’t go, perhaps. Earlier, we had this feeling that Rohtak is safe, Haryana is safe. My father, who works with a bank, lived out of town, and I used to leave the house for days for cricket without any worry in the world,” Nitin says.
The riots changed that.
“Now both of us can’t be away from home at the same time. One of us is bound to this house. Ek baahar rahega to dusra beshak apni leave le ke rahe, jaisey bhi manage kare, par rahega ghar pe. Because if that happens again, we know where to run and how to run. So that feeling of safety is no more.”
That the peace of mind is gone is evident in his frequent phone calls to his folks when he is playing cricket outside Rohtak.
“When I am out there playing, these things don’t come to my mind. It’s when there is nothing to do that the memories come flooding back. So, I call my family a number of times. Earlier, it was they who used to call me and say: ‘bhai kahan hai, bata to de!‘ Now I call them at least a couple of times on match days — morning and evening — and more than that on non-match days. Mostly for no reason, with nothing specific to talk about. Generally, the discussion goes like, ‘Mummy ye kaam tha, vo kaam tha‘ — when there is no kaam, actually,” he says. On either end of the phone line, the thing that is on the speaker’s — or listener’s — mind is to seek and give reassurances that everything is alright.
It prompts the question: Why not leave Rohtak and go to some safer place?
Where Dhanvanti asks back. She narrates an incident from Nitin’s childhood. “We were in Kanpur as his father worked there. Nitin was perhaps as old as Kavya is now. And then riots broke out post the Babri Mosque demolition. There as well the house next to ours had been set on fire. Nitin kept crying that ‘I don’t want to live here and I want to go back to my village (Rohtak)’,” she recollects. “And now it has happened here as well.”
There is a long silence as we process Dhanvanti’s reply and search for something meaningful to say. Nitin breaks it, finally. “There are no certainties in life — this is what I have taken from 2016. It can teach you anything anywhere anytime. That can be a good experience or an utterly horrible one. You have to be ready.”
(Inputs: Shamik Chakrabarty)