Nagaland's Ranji debut: They too are a cricket tribe

When the state was gearing up for its BCCI induction, we visited their territory for an introduction.

The Sovima cricket ground is located at a two-hour drive from the hills in no man’s land.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

“I want to meet all of you in the lobby after lunch. Make sure everyone is present.”

The powerful voice of P. Bendang Jamir, one of the vice-presidents of the Nagaland Cricket Association, seemed to shake the glass doors.

The only other sound at the Sovima cricket ground — officially the Nagaland Cricket Association Stadium, located at a two-hour drive from the hills in no man’s land — is that of willow hitting leather. Heavy showers and the subsequent floods had wiped out the state team’s training sessions, and the cricketers were set to leave by an evening train for Guwahati for practice matches.

Jamir, the taskmaster, greets his players. He is not just an NCA vice-president; he is also coach and selector. Being 65 — and with a knee problem — has not stopped him from mentoring the players on the field and then escorting the guests up the stairs to the top floor of the association’s building for a bird’s eye view of the cricket ground in Dimapur.

“People still have a misconception that this is a tribal place. But, well, the tribal boys also play cricket,” Jamir said.

The BCCI is supporting the Nagaland Cricket Association by providing equipment — rollers, super-soppers, grass-cutters.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

 

Rising from the plains

“Back in 1965, cricket was popular only in Dimapur and Kohima. After that, the sport reached Tuensang, Mokokchung and Wokha. Since Dimapur is a plains land, it was easier to have cricketing activities here than the hills,” Jamir said.

Jamir had been a local cricketer in his youth and a schoolmate of Neiphiu Rio, Nagaland’s chief minister and president of the association. “I played for my school and university, and in 1981 I stopped as I had to look after the Dimapur district association as its president,” he said.

Joint secretary A. Rahman, too, played in his youth. “Around 20 years ago, when this gentleman resigned as the president of the district association, he put me into administration. I am trying to follow his footsteps,” he said, pointing at Jamir.

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When the Board of Control for Cricket in India included Nagaland among the nine new teams to join the 2018-2019 domestic calendar, Jamir and Rahman’s work really started. They sat through never-ending meetings, and the number of phone calls doubled. As we sat in the office, the phones rang off the hook — local players asking about their BCCI clearance, outstation players proffering their services.

The BCCI has not invested in the stadium, though it is supporting Nagaland cricket in other ways. “This entire project (the campus) is funded by the Nagaland state government. The BCCI didn’t put in any money for this stadium. But, yes, now they are helping us with the machineries and equipments. We have rollers, super-soppers, grass-cutters. But in the North-East, you can’t lead the association individually, you need somebody bigger than you,” said Rahman.

The BCCI has approved an indoor training facility beside the ground, and board curator Ashish Bhowmick inspected it and suggested certain renovations.

“I have gone for a three-layer pitch. That’s the latest technology that was done in 2012. It was under the guidance of Meghalaya pitch curator Peter Lamare. We are planting more grass,” said curator Abei Rups.

In the last two years, the Sovima cricket ground has hosted Cooch Behar and Vijay Merchant Trophy — India’s under-19 and 16 tournaments, respectively — matches and also a 25-day zonal camp for under-19 cricketers.

“People still have a misconception that this is a tribal place. But, well, the tribal boys also play cricket,” said P. Bendang Jamir, one of the vice-presidents of the Nagaland Cricket Association.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

 

Beyond the junior ranks

Cricketing talent in Nagaland has suffered because of the lack of senior games, and the Ranji and Vijay Hazare Trophies will go a long way in changing that. “It is a big stage for the youngsters, too,” said Rahman.

In fact, his son Tahmeed is likely to feature in the state team. The 20-year-old all-rounder — an ardent Graeme Swann fan who had been among the East Zone under-19 probables in 2016-17 — was named player of the tournament at the 2018 inter-districts at both the under-23 and senior levels.

“I want to face fast bowlers like Ishant Sharma and Varun Aaron. My father has been supportive from the beginning. He has always been there guiding me. I am also a regular off-spinner and I can help my team in any situation,” said Tahmeed.

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The inter-district tournaments in the region act as a scouting medium, while school and club cricket also play their role. “Out of 11 districts, nine districts are active in cricket. Due to a lack of funds, we at times miss out on a year or two. But it used to be a yearly venture,” said Rahman, who also heads a cricket development committee. “We also provide gear to kids and at times financial aid, too.” Among the seniors, Hokaito Zhimomi has transferred back to home state after playing for Assam. He’d almost taken up coaching, but is now waiting to represent Nagaland for the first time.

“We never had senior cricket here. It has always been age-group cricket till under-23. I had no option but to coach kids. I also took a BCCI Level A coaching exam last year. I got through. But the board’s sudden announcement made me realise that I could still play. I don’t think I should retire now. I can play for another five years,” he said.

As the day wound on, Imliwati Lemtur, a left-hander who models himself on Suresh Raina, joined the squad. A physical education teacher at the neighbouring Hope Academy, he’d applied for six months’ leave for the cricket season and had been waiting for the school authorities to approve his application. “They allowed me, though without salary (leave without pay),” he said. Lemtur, like most in the region, thank TV and India’s 2011 World Cup triumph to remain motivated. “There were no expert coaches. We were inspired watching cricket on television,” he said.

As the Nagaland players make their way out of the stadium to leave for Guwahati, the capital of neighbouring Assam, four autorickshaws are lined up outsides. There were not enough cars.

That in itself indicates the challenge for Nagaland cricket and the association that is trying to guide its team on its first Ranji Trophy campaign.

Imliwati Lemtur, a left-hander who models himself on Suresh Raina, is a physical education teacher at the neighbouring Hope Academy and has been sanctioned six months’ leave without salary for the cricket season.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

 

The office-bearers: Neiphiu Rio (president), K. T. Sukhalu (vice-president), P. Bendang Jamir (vice-president), Abu Mehta (general secretary), A. Rahman (joint secretary), Basu Damani (treasurer).

The coaches: Kanwaljit Singh (senior men’s team), R. Muralidhar (under-23 men’s team), Samir Ghosh (under-19 men’s team), Uday Banerjee (under-16 men’s team), Khyati Gulani (senior women’s team), Keya Ray (under-23 and 19 women’s team).

The selectors: P. Bendang Jamir, Alum Zeliang, Lohrou Shani. Development committee: A. Rahman, Anihlo Khing, Kitching Sangtam.

Youth cricket: Inter-district cricket tournaments are held from the under-14 to 23 levels for one-day and Twenty20 matches.

Outstation guest players: K. B. Pawan (Karnataka), Pawan Suyal (Delhi), Abrar Kazi (Karnataka).