In 1988, Sunil Gavaskar came to Shillong. He was just one year out from having brought his international career to an end. Gavaskar had been invited as a chief guest by the Shillong Cricket Club to give away a few prizes for their local league tournament. And Gavaskar’s maiden visit to the town saw thousands gather at the Garrison Club ground to see the legendary Indian opener in the flesh. It was Shillong’s first tryst with cricketing stardom, and it would take nearly three decades before they would see a sporting celebrity grace their town — Sourav Ganguly was here on Day One of their Ranji Trophy debut.
Manik Das remembers the day Gavaskar came to town very vividly. He was after all one of the few who could get up close and personal with the former captain, even if only to receive a prize and a “congrats” from his hero. It was a time when Das was the closest the cricket-playing public of Shillong had to a hero. The elegant right-hander, described by his peers as a “mix between Dravid and Sehwag” [if there ever be such a player], wasn’t just considered the best cricketer in the region; he was also responsible for the handful of rare occasions where those generally apathetic towards cricket would briefly leave their football and come watch “Manikda bat”. Of course they’d walk away once he was out. Despite Das’ rather popular reputation, cricket still remained as neglected as it is now, though. It wasn’t like he was holding court every other day. Even if he was, not many were watching apart from the handful of cricket loyalists, like Gideon Kharkongor and Sudesh Pradhan.
And Kharkongor, the joint secretary of the Meghalaya Cricket Association, and Pradhan, a junior coach and board member, rave about the time they all felt their Manikda would reach great heights and how he inspired them to take up the sport. Das is now well into his 50s, and still helps out with the coaching. He still looks rather fit for his age even if his teeth show vivid signs of excessive kwai consumption. He sits there slightly embarrassed by the retrospective adulation coming his way. While their wistful musing continues, it’s rather clear that the three aren’t reminiscing about some glory days of the past where cricket really mattered to Shillong. They were simply missionaries of a lost cause, not that it stopped them from pursuing their passion.
Their nostalgia trip then encourages them to dish out a history lesson on the venue itself. Kharkongor talks about the time the entire Polo Ground area — which includes the Jawaharlal Nehru Football Stadium, the MCA cricket ground, and two additional football fields along with a maidaan, which is open for the public — was used for only polo purposes during the British rule. He recalls his grandfather having owned a few horses too while he was growing up.
“The cricket ground and the football stadium were all part of the polo track. It was only once the Britishers went away that these grounds were separated. Our cricket back in the day was played where the maidaan is now. And the landscape around the area was a lot different then,” says Kharkongor.
The mention of the landscape leads to the three reminiscing amongst themselves about the time they would have a few people watch them play from the slopes, which now play host to the dense outgrowth of pine trees on the far side. Pradhan recalls how back in the day they resembled the grassbanks we saw at cricket grounds in Australia and South Africa.
“And the scenes would resemble them too with a lot of people relaxing with their beers and just having a good time,” Kharkongor chips in. Cricket on most times — unless there was a league final underway — was only incidental.
Sunday is when Shillong takes a deep breath and a deserved snooze. The tourists are generally off to savour the other attractions of the state, notably Cheerapunji. The locals, to their credit, abet the mini-exodus as most of the shops, including some of the more popular eating places, are closed. Even the teer or archery contests, so fervently a part of daily life in Shillong, are given a break. It’s the day for church for the majority Christian populace, and for others, like Manik Das puts it cheekily, “it’s a day to recover from the hard-work put in on Saturday night.”
ALSO READ | Ranji Trophy: The doosra in Chahar household
The only sporting excitement in the city on this Sunday is the 37th National Arm Wrestling Competition, which incidentally sees a crowd much larger and vociferous than any witnessed during the Ranji Trophy match last week or those scheduled over the next month or so. There was some activity around the MCA ground earlier in the day, with the Shillong Cricket Club holding their weekend nets for kids after a two-week break.
It’s also an excuse for the Shillong cricket old-timers to meet and catch up on lore from their days on the field. They don’t shy away from the lack of support for cricket in their part of the world, but do insist that the quality of cricket was way better when they played.
“It used to be super competitive and to get into one of the club teams was a very difficult ask. Shillong Club was a strong team and at times we’ve beaten even Tripura and Silchar. The quality has really dropped now,” says Das, who to emulate his other hero Kapil Dev, would bowl medium-pace too according to his two proteges.
Khorkongor talks about how cricket during most of Das’ career was played purely by the town’s cosmopolitan residents, and it was only in the mid-80s that the indigenous people got involved. He was of course part of the pioneering group led by Peter Lamere, father of present captain Jason.
The ethnic community, made up of mainly three tribes, had been playing a version of cricket called randos. Then they saw India lift the 1983 World Cup and a closely-fought India-Pakistan series, and were inspired to form their own team. They had their own field at the St Edmund’s College campus, and Khorkongor remembers the time the bunch of spread-out localities made up purely of indigenous people came together to form the aptly-named United XI. “They were called the Pakistani team of the league because they would fight till the end and were unpredictable,” says Das.
And the three then sound pleased about how there are close to five indigenous players in the Meghalaya Ranji squad, a major progress as far as cricket is concerned, even if not much has changed in terms of getting the locals excited about watching them play.