“Vo jagah toh ekdum veerane me hai.”
Autowallahs straight up refusing or playing hardball (Rs 500 for 10 kilometres) to go out of the way is a starkly Delhi trait. One of the many instances of Dehradun pretending to be the national capital. The restaurants are Delhi Darbaars, the chaats are ‘Dilli ki famous’. Heck, the city has its own Connaught Place with its own traffic snarls, and its own bunch of pollution mask-clad riders. Suddenly, the 80-year-old “Pahadon ki rajdhani, pahadon me” slogan makes much more sense.
With no buses going your way and cab services far from full strength, your best bet to get to the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in Guniyal Gaon, venue of Uttarakhand’s second-ever Ranji match, would be to walk down Rajpur Road, throw that thumb up from time to time and hope a private vehicle ditches the usual route to the hills and makes a detour.
The frustration wears off once you reach the ground. Or the downward slope overlooking it. On Monday, Uttarakhand played its Ranji match against Manipur in a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by lush, green hills. And, at least on Monday, the hills had eyes.
“Wow, a bunch of players in all-whites,” said a Mussoorie-bound biker, looking down upon the cricket, before doing a double take moments later. “Ye log toh khicha ke ball daal rahe hain. Ball bhi leather ki hai.”
“Sirji, vo Ranji match chal raha hai,” informed Firoz, who runs the strategically-placed roadside shack dishing out endless cups of tea and bowls of maggi.
A triple take, and the biker pulls up a chair, places it precariously close to the edge.
Firoz would be better off charging the passersby who stopped to watch cricket unfold in a strangely intimate setting. The grunts of the bowlers, the thwack of a forward defence, and the choicest of cuss words traversed the thin air. There was a lot to take in between the overs too, with both the Lesser Himalayas and Shivaliks, and the Tons river in the background. A selfie point if there ever was one.
“Suresh Raina (along with the rest of the Uttar Pradesh team) used to practise here. Kuch time pehle (Mohammed) Shami yahan training karne aaya tha. Fir uska accident ho gaya,” Firoz recounts the mishap involving the India pacer earlier this year in a characteristically Pahadi, matter-of-fact manner.
Even Brian Lara turned up for a charity match at the ground after the 2013 Uttarakhand floods. But the Caribbean great wasn’t good enough for Firoz to shut up shop. He has only ever attended one cricket match.
“I’ll watch a Ranji match when (MS) Dhoni comes to play,” he laughs. “I have only watched one match when Rashid Khan and Afghanistan played. But it was at the international stadium.”
A private academy hosting a first-class match is confusing for the man on the street, and uncomfortable for some office-bearers of the newly-formed Uttarakhand Cricket Consensus Committee. There are concerns about the visibility of the red ball in the thick greens surrounding the ground. A member of the Uttarakhand team, however, counters it with the problem sighting the ball in the red bucket seats of the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium.
RP Easwaran found the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in 1988 and seven years later, named his son and future Bengal batsman after it. The ground, however, came together in 2006 after he was denied a venue for one of the academy matches. “There was nothing but jungle here. We built this facility in eleven months,” says Easwaran. “People like Shaun Tait, Praveen Amre, Deep Dasgupta, Sir Ramakant Achrekar have come to coach. Various teams train here because of the facilities.”
While he believes that options in venues help overall infrastructure, “Uttarakhand cricket needs the best start.”
“At this ground, a ball will drop and roll. Rajiv Gandhi Stadium was bumpy for the first match. The stadium is good in terms of infrastructure for Uttarakhand. Between this place and Rajiv Gandhi stadium is a difference between staying at home or staying at a hotel. You can’t just serve boys boiled eggs for breakfast. A player wants poached, another wants sunny side up, mushroom and cheese omelettes. Home and visiting players need to be taken care off,” says Easwaran.
“This is more of an English setting. Bit cooler here than the stadium, since we are 60-70 feet below, sort of in a valley,” says coach KP Bhaskar. “Dehradun has anyway been good. I went back home for Diwali and couldn’t breathe. It’s much better in this city.”
Captain Rajat Bhatia too is happy representing Uttarakhand in a hilly setting.
“Playing in the stadium is like playing in any other stadium,” says Bhatia. “But I consider myself fortunate that I am part of this team and getting to play at a venue like this. Only Dharamsala can match the atmosphere of here. Now all we need is fans to show up.”
Bhatia is followed by Manipur captain Yashpal Singh, who opens with a request and bursts the bubble: “Yaar, mera thoda jaldi kar do. Bohot door jaana hai.”
It’s a double-edged sword. The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium has the accessibility (relatively) but doesn’t have the characteristic scenery. The Abhimanyu Cricket Academy ground checks the latter box, but one needs a prayer reaching there.
The apathy, though common across the nation for domestic cricket, stands out more in Dehradun due to the time spent without first-class matches and the adulation showered on the adopted home team of Afghanistan.
Either in the form of a returning native player or a breakout star with a string of performances, there needs to be more buzz to attract more than just pit-stoppers heading for the hills, if Uttarakhand cricket is to truly come out of the wilderness of its own.
On the slow, seaming track, the wickets too rolled and tumbled. Pacer Deepak Dhapola followed up his nine wickets against Bihar in the first match with seven on Monday, limiting Manipur to 137. Uttarakhand’s second player in form, feisty opener Karn Veer Kaushal then did well to rein himself in, before cutting loose with two monstrous sixes over midwicket which stopped play as a search party hunted for the ball in the healthy foliage. Kaushal then got out playing a rush-of-blood uppercut and the rest of the home team struggled to get going as the ball continued to jag off the surface.
Brief scores: Manipur 137 in 42 overs (Deepak Dhapola 7-50) vs Uttarakhand 123/5 in 46 overs (Karanveer 45, Bishworjit 3-41)