Landing three days before their fixture against Himachal Pradesh at Dharamsala, a few curious Chhattisgarh players couldn’t resist asking the coach whether they could go around sightseeing. The coach, Mukund Parmar, soberly told them: “Finish the match one day early and do whatever you want.” Given the sombre mood of the dressing room, after two defeats on the spin, his words must have rung as crude sarcasm.
Anyway, their excitement soon turned to nervousness when the curator uncovered the surface. “It was the greenest track I’ve ever seen in my life,” booms Parmar. To not sound hyperbolic, he quickly adds, “Boss, I’m not exaggerating.” You have to trust his words. After all, he is no less than a veteran of 83 first-class matches, with a laudable batting average of 49.83.
But amidst anxious faces, he found a glimmer of hope. “I thought it would suit our fast bowlers, who had a pretty difficult time on a slow wicket in Goa and the pata strips in Raipur and Nagpur,” he says. He immediately threw a glistening new ball to their under-firing seamer Shahnawaz Hussain, who was omitted for the last two matches, and yelled at him, “This is your chance to prove yourself.”
Hussain is widely considered the finest bowler the state has ever produced, capable of swinging the ball both ways at brisk pace. His initiation to the Ranji circuit, though, has been anything but smooth and his morale had taken a battering. “Thankfully though, the practice pitches were more or less like the one we played on,” he recollects.
The next three days were spent almost entirely on the practice ground just outside the stadium with the seamers putting in the extra hard yards. “On the morning of the match, they were quite upbeat. I have never seen them this confident,” Parmar says.
The next three days went like a blur. Or so it now seems for Parmar. Chhattisgarh’s plans worked to a T. They bowled out the hosts for a meagre score, wended away to a 289-run lead through a combined batting effort shepherded by Rishabh Tiwari’s 131, an effort Parmar stops short of calling, “the best he has seen.” But definitely, the best he has seen from a Chhattisgarh batsman.
“I was more or less sure that our bowlers will do well here. But I was a touch wary of our batsmen. They were coming straight from pata tracks and Himachal has good swing bowlers. So for an opener to score a hundred, that too his first hundred, on this surface against a competent bowling attack was a splendid effort,” he opines.
The curious boys now had begun to chalk out plans for the extra day. But Hussain had unfinished business — to prove his supposed abilities. The coach advised him not to over-exert and try too many different things, as he’s wont to. Just keep bowling full outside the off-stump, he advised him. By the end of the third evening, Hussain, who whittled out six wickets, and his friends were celebrating their most famous win on the most picturesque ground in the country. The stadium was virtually empty, but that didn’t deter them from running a lap of honour, like they’d won the Ranji Trophy.
To Parmar, though, it was suggestive of something bigger. That they “have come of age.” And it was, in a perverse sense, fitting that Mohammad Kaif, their biggest non-home player, didn’t feature in the match. “That it was achieved without the most seasoned player and the only one with international experience was a bigger feat. By beating an established team like Himachal, they showed that it’s for nothing they were granted Ranji status,” he says.
It vindicated the Chhattisgarh Cricket Sangh’s decision to give more opportunities to local, home-bred players, rather than inviting over-the-hill guest players. “Right from the start, we’d decided to limit out outstation players to just a handful. We thought even if we were to struggle in the first season, we would look to promote our youngsters. We took Kaif because we needed someone with plenty of experience to guide them at this level,” says Rajesh Dave, secretary of the Sangh. Even the other outstation players, like Abhimanyu Chauhan, Ashutosh Singh and Sumit Ruikar were not big names, but mostly fringe players for middle-rung sides like Madhya Pradesh, Baroda and Vidarbha.
It’s vindication for their systematic scouting and nurturing too. “We are always on the move, searching for fresh talents from all over the state. Recently, we conducted a selection trial for nearly 6,000 U-16 players, some of them who hadn’t even seen a cricket ball, across the state and streamlined 50 of them to the academy. We then nurture them and give them exposure,” Dave says.
But Parmar is insistent on his players interacting with experienced players from other sides. “We make it a point to spend a lot of time interacting with India players. They spent a lot of time with Mohammad Shami during the Bengal match and with Umesh (Yadav) when we played against Vidarbha. Their advice means so much to them,” he says.
It goes without saying how Parmar and his boys made use of the extra day. They went down to the Mata Jwala Devi temple in Kangra, dropped in at the Dalai Lama Temple and walked up to the Bhagsunag waterfalls. Parmar, like his boys, was smitten by the grandeur of the Dhauladhar mountain range. “Terrific,” he says. So terrific that he wishes every match of theirs was at a scenic venue. “So that the boys would win in three days!”