It wouldn’t have been a surprise if “minnows” Uttarakhand had mentally frozen at their first big hurdle this Ranji season, their quarterfinal against defending champions Vidarbha. But instead, they fought hard to end the opening day on 293/6.
One man, a debutant, stood out. Avneesh Sudha hit a composed 91 and, along with Vaibhav Panwar (67) and Saurabh Rawat (68*), dragged Uttarakhand to a position of respectability, something not everyone thought they were capable of. Until a few years ago, Sudha was a nomad of sorts. And a touch frustrated. His early life was spent in a series of small hostels from Rudrapur to New Delhi to Jhajjar in Haryana. Most of his life revolved around the cricket academies of Amenity Madan Lal residential cricket school on the Rudrapur-Dehradun highway and later the hostels.
Always treated as an outsider wherever he went, Sudha would score runs in local tournaments but would not be seen as a local and lost out on the privileges that came with it. A common theme with any Uttarakhand cricketer who has to migrate if he wants to succeed. His cricket-loving father, a farmer, nurtured his son’s cricket dreams and urged him to constantly seek newer pastures where his talent could be spotted. The father and son were willing to bet on the talent. “There was nothing in Uttarakhand. So you go to either Delhi or Haryana. But when I went and scored runs, I would be called an outsider. I didn’t get recognised. I think I was better than many others, scoring more runs than them, but I didn’t have a state which played cricket. I was frustrated but what could I do?” Sudha says.
Help came from a least-likely source. The Supreme Court. When the apex court made the Indian cricket board implement the Lodha Committee’s recommendations and recognise smaller states, things began to change. Uttarakhand is a cricket state now and, as a result, many cricketers returned home.
Sudha was one of them who made Dehradun his cricketing base. The 17-year old slammed a triple hundred and a double ton in the U-19 Cooch Behar Trophy this year to pile up 883 runs from seven games at an average of 126. Drafted as a replacement for Rajat Bhatia, coach Bhaskar Pillai was struck by the kid’s confidence. “He had this body language apart from the skill he showed in the nets, of course, and what I have heard about him in his performances at U-19 level. It was his composure and confidence that made me decide to give him his debut this game,” Pillai says.
Sudha has a lot to be proud of. Uttarakhand had lost their top three batsmen for just 44 but he anchored a mid-innings revival. Yadav had marked his return from Australia by getting two wickets in his early spell after Rajneesh Gurbani had prised out the experienced Vineet Saxena in the second over of the day. The decision to put Uttarakhand in to bat seemed to be working rather nicely but Sudha changed the course of the day. The underdogs dominated for most of the day and young Sudha, along with middle-order batsman Vaibhav Panwar, batted fluently. Luck too favoured them, as Vidarbha dropped four catches, a problem that has dogged them through the season.
Sudha didn’t just occupy the crease but also played some fluent cover drives off Yadav. He had practised with Ranji Trophy players in Delhi, so facing a decent attack was nothing new. Sudha and Panwar added 140 runs for the fourth wicket before Panwar fell, edging an attempted drive off off-spinner Akshay Wakhare. Panwar was dropped on 33 and 54. Sudha added 48 runs with Saurabh Rawat, who remained unbeaten on a fine 68, but he himself couldn’t make use of the dropped chance at 87. Soon, he was caught and bowled by Wakhare but by then, he had ensured the game won’t be a cakewalk for Vidarbha.
Brief scores: Uttarakhand 293/6 (Avneesh Sudha 91, Saurabh Rawat 68 batting, Vaibhav Panwar 67; Akshay Wakhare 2/46, Rajneesh Gurbani 2/72) vs Vidarbha