“WAIT, DID you just say there’s cricket in Shillong,” exclaims Gaurav from the front-seat while his two fellow locals in the taxi cackle away. We are en route from the Guwahati Airport to the “Scotland of the East” — and trust those here to repeatedly remind you of that moniker and give you their version of how it came about. And the three have been informed about their state’s maiden Ranji Trophy match, which is incidentally underway on their homeground in Shillong, as we cross into Meghalaya past some of the densest and greenest vegetation you’ll come across in the country. Each has a diverse reason for his home-coming. While one is returning like he does every year from Mumbai to celebrate Diwali, the other is a photographer who’s here for the annual Cherry Blossom festival while the third, Shubham, is one among the thousands flocking into his hometown for the NH 7 Weekender music festival.
Meghalaya’s opening match against Arunachal Pradesh was the first Ranji game in town since 1948, when Assam took on the United Province in a three-day affair. And they even ended up winning, beating their neighbours within three days by a convincing seven-wicket margin. But unfortunately, not many seemed to care, or perhaps even knew about it. And it includes those around Shillong as well, not just the expats on their annual visit.
To say that cricket really was up against it in terms of pulling its weight in the sport’s traditional outpost would be an understatement. If the most-vaunted music festival in the “music” capital of the northeast isn’t a big enough distraction, there’s always football. And the players from both teams recall how over 5000 turned up for a local league match next door to the Polo cricket ground at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and drowned out even their appeals and the faint applause from the 50-odd who turned up to see them play on Day 2. It’s also one of those rare scenarios in India, where a first-class cricket ground is dwarfed completely by a massive football stadium next to it.
It’s the same on Saturday. While Meghalaya’s win earlier in the day was witnessed by few of the family members of the players, the real buzz around the area arrives later in the evening as eager parents rush in on their bikes and cars to drop off their kids for football practice. You find a couple of local Meghalaya players busy in the nets, helping each other out with throwdowns. And they’re pretty much the only ones in Shillong who sound at least a tad excited about their state’s historic victory. “It was good to see the local players step up. In the first innings, there was a period where we lost so many wickets and it looked like we would give Arunachal a big lead. But it was our captain JJ bhaiya, who stepped up and played a very crucial knock,” says one Meghalaya player. And eventually it was Lamere’s 70 that turned the game around, even if it couldn’t stop the visitors from taking a slender lead. Meghalaya then managed to bowl out Arunachal cheaply before their outstation players rushed them to victory in the run-chase.
The local press haven’t gone overboard with their coverage either, though the Shillong Times did carry a front-page photo of the opening day’s play. By Day 2, the match was a 250-word article at the bottom of the sports page, dominated otherwise by football of course. “It’s just that cricket can be played only now since it doesn’t rain here but it’s unfortunate that it clashes with NH7 and so many other more popular activities in town,” the player then tries in vain to defend the lack of exuberance over his team’s performance.
The pine-tree is considered the most “selfish” of the local flora in Meghalaya. They are all over the place, engulfing pretty much every hill and mountain around. “With good reason, because they only let their own grow around them. Somewhat like the people in some parts of this state,” a local vendor quips. But it’s ironic that at the Polo Ground, the pine trees have been kind enough on one-side of the Meghalaya Cricket Association (MCA) ground to allow the cherry blossoms to spring up all around them, if not dominate the landscape. It’s almost symbolic of how the BCCI — though owing mainly to the insistence of the Supreme Court — have let the likes of Meghalaya into the mix after having spent decades of being indifferent towards this part of the country. While the football stadium towers over the MCA ground on the right, the backdrop on the far side is typical of most hill stations in the country — with cascading houses on a sloping hill. The ground is picturesque but not very strikingly so. The houses are part of a Mawlai, which basically translates to “three stones” in English, but also stands for the areas in the state where property can only be owned by those belonging to the local tribe. Property by the way in this matrilineal society is mostly under the name of the mother or her daughters, a local duly informs you.
The dugouts provided for the teams are rather unique and resemble the wooden huts that line the hills on the outskirts of Shillong. The use of wood is due to the abundant rainfall in the state, which is also the reason the names of a number of towns start with an “Um”, which in the local Khasi language stands for “water”. There was a downpour here on Friday evening, but the ground dried up quick enough to ensure that the match finished quick enough without dragging into Day 4, when there is a forecast for a thunderstorm.
For all its serenity, life’s rather manic in Shillong, especially on a Saturday. So much so that even the cabbies seem paranoid of accepting a ride towards the bustling Police Bazaar area. The Bazaar streets resemble the insides of a Mumbai local train — to the extent in some parts of the manic market area, your movement is dictated by those walking behind and in front of you. You could always choose to cover the short distances on foot, but only to realize that it’s at your own peril. The roads are steep — steeper than any challenge a treadmill can pose — and the calves do get a workout, or burnout if you aren’t up for it.
The Guwahati-Shillong highway though carried a surprisingly empty look earlier in the day — according to the locals in the taxi anyway — considering it’s tourist season. The 24-hour bandh in Assam might have perhaps played a role in it. But there are enough tourists — mostly from the east based on the incessant Bengali in the air around Police Bazaar — to ensure profitable business for the multitude of hawkers around the market. Polo Bazaar, which is closer to the ground, is more local — and the only place in town that sells the locally brewed rice beer — and not many claim to have even been aware of the historic occasion that took place less than a km away, even though some do feign knowledge of the fact. You are, however, offered kwai for your efforts by all concerned and also told how reverential a greeting it is considered in Meghalaya. Kwai is the local version of paan almost, basically a few areca nuts laced with lemon and wrapped inside a betel leaf. It’s said here that kwai is a delicacy even in heaven, and that you’re judged as a person based on whether you accept it or not. “It might make you sweat,” says the guy offering it, and he’s very accurate with his prediction. “Your teeth will become red if you have a lot of it. That’s why in Shillong, even the prettiest of faces unfortunately have red teeth,” you’re told.
As warm greetings go, cricket might have to wait a while before it’s in line for one in these parts, despite the arrival of the Ranji Trophy. For now, it’s still waiting to be acknowledged. Brief scores: Arunachal Pradesh 166 and 131 vs Meghalaya 141 and 157/3 (Puneet Bisht 66*, Yogesh Nagar 55*)