Pankaj Singh has faced a lot of ups and downs in his career. More than his fair share of downs, one would say. From toiling in domestic cricket without corresponding rewards from national selectors, to briefly toiling in Tests without desired returns in the wicket column. He has rarely complained or said a word, accepting his fate and going back to where he is most at home:top of his run up. And doing what he does best: running in to bowl.
Of late though the gentle giant has been seen talking, grumbling, pleading and complaining. But there is a compelling reason behind this behavioral change. His cricket, his medium of expression, is under threat.
Factionalism within the Rajasthan Cricket Association and subsequent cases and counter cases have meant the state, which won the Ranji Trophy twice earlier in the decade is facing uncertainty with regard to its participation in the elite domestic tournament, scheduled to begin in three weeks. Or any form of cricket this season for that matter.
Its prospects hinge on an application in the High Court which is up for hearing on Friday. On Thursday, Pankaj gathered his teammates as well as women and age-group cricketers and organised a press conference to lay bare their collective fear.
“Time is running out,” Pankaj said, flanked by veteran opener Vineet Saxena and wicketkeeper Rohit Jhalani. These are Rajasthan’s old hands, with most of their cricket behind them. But in the audience are the left-arm seamer Aniket Chaudhary and batsman Ashok Menaria, too.
These are two gifted 25 year olds who ought be thinking about their line and length and footwork. Instead they are facing an existential crisis of sorts, wondering where their next match would come from.
“There are a lot of things to do, the team needs to be selected. Only one week is left for the start of the women’s tournament. And three weeks for ours. Please find a solution to this deadlock so that we are able to play in the coming season,” Pankaj continued.
“At least there should be cricket so that these cricketers don’t suffer. I appeal to the court to do what they did last year.”
Let’s leave Pankaj for a minute here and consider this man-made crisis. It is not new. And, therefore, it’s creepy. And instructive. Over here, things are allowed to come to such a pass every year.
Last year, BCCI suspended the RCA for having elected Lalit Modi its president. Modi moved the High Court, there was an attempted coup and the court locked the RCA offices.
As the Ranji season neared, a few players approached the court, which then appointed a committee to ensure their participation in the domestic season.
The season ended in April and it was only in September that the BCCI woke up and appointed an ad-hoc committee for 2015-16. The Modi faction predictably challenged it. And here Rajasthan cricket is, being played in courtrooms than at the impressive Sawai Mansingh Stadium. Which is where we left Pankaj, voicing his frustration.
The press conference has ended and it’s time for one-on-one. A TV reporter wants a few team ‘shots’ and asks Pankaj to tell his players to do some mock practice on the ground. They go and perform a few warm-up drills for the camera. An irony escapes unnoticed. This is the first time Rajasthan has played as a team since April.
In this time other teams have had preparatory camps, selection trials and have participated in tournaments such as Buchi Babu. Rajasthan players, meanwhile, have been preparing for the season at their respective clubs and academies.
“You need to practice as a team to play and perform as a team,” says Vineet Saxena. “When we won the Ranji Trophy in 2010 and 2011, our season had begun almost four months before our first Ranji game.”
More quality practice gives a team a better chance to go deep into a tournament. Which means more money in terms of match fees to players. Which is crucial as many of these players don’t play in the IPL.
“Obviously money is a big thing. But so is opportunity to play big, crunch games when everyone is watching you. Look at Karun Nair, he had a decent Ranji season till the final, and then he scored a triple hundred. No amount of money can beat that. And he is reaping rich rewards. By going deep into a tournament you set yourself up for such chances,” says Saxena.
Something that players are unlikely to get with Rajasthan. Many have started moving out for better chances. Robin Bist for instance.
You ask Pankaj if he doesn’t feel like jumping off the ship.
“Offers are there. And sometimes you do get tempted. But then you look at these players. They would be crushed and demoralised if I did that. I will stay on and fight with them.”