Puducherry has pulled off a big upset much before India’s premier domestic cricket tournament even begins. The team shocked 41-time Ranji Trophy champion Mumbai in the semifinals of the Sir Vizzy Trophy, held in Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh in late August and early September. But then again, the Union Territory — with districts spread across three states Tamil Nadu (Puducherry, Karaikal), Andhra Pradesh (Yanam) and Kerala (Mahe) — has more than 60 clubs and academies participating in league cricket. That is ample ammunition to begin its maiden domestic campaign.
“...apart from the fact that we did well in the Vizzy Trophy, one more huge motivating factor is that if we manage to top the Plate division, we get to play the bigwigs in the Elite Group C category next year. That is our target,” said head coach Aavishkar Salvi. “We need to prove that we belong to the big stage and we are taking steps in the right direction. Although getting promoted is the ultimate goal, we are keen on performing well in the first season.”
The abundance of league and junior cricket in Puducherry has gone a long way in ensuring that the Union Territory is one of the strongest new teams — which will play in the Plate division, the lower rung of the Ranji Trophy — this season. Puducherry district has about 35 clubs and academies, Karaikal has 20, and Yanam and Mahe have 10 each.
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“We organise a lot of inter-school and inter-college competitions. Apart from that, we also have a rural development scheme where we conduct grassroots training programmes and enable the players to play for any club in our league,” said V. Chandran, assistant secretary at the Cricket Association of Pondicherry.
The association currently conducts 30-overs-a-side league games, but plans to introduce other formats soon. And a women’s league as well as a team to represent Puducherry are in the works, said Chandran. “We only have some college-level teams for women. We are working overtime to identify and bring women out to play cricket,” he said.
Complementing the competitions are the grounds that Puducherry has — the Palmyra and the Siechem cricket grounds. The latter — the home ground for the team — is owned by Siechem Technologies Pvt. Ltd, owners of the Madurai Panthers team in the Tamil Nadu Premier League. Its managing director, P. Damodaran, was secretary of the Cricket Association of Pondicherry till early September, and his son D. Rohit — who captained the Madurai Panthers to the 2018 Tamil Nadu Premier League title — has been named captain of the team.
At the Siechem Cricket Ground, work on the pitch is nearly complete, while construction of a pavilion, fitness rooms and dormitories is on. The outfield is lush and the Cricket Association of Puducherry plans to plant trees along the boundary to add to the scenery. “I get videos of how briskly the work is going on and the status of each pending task. I am very happy with the way the work has progressed,” said Salvi.
But with the work unfinished before the Sir Vizzy Trophy, the team conducted its pre-season training in Anantpur in Andhra Pradesh. The city was chosen based on the availability of a range of facilities under one roof. “We had four grounds available at our disposal in Anantpur. We could have four different sessions at the same time. Also, the pre-season [training] was attended by many players, and with the copious facilities available, it was easy for us to oversee the preparations, too. Also, weather-wise, it doesn’t rain much in Anantpur at this time of the year, and hence we had uninterrupted practice sessions,” said Salvi.
A Cricket Association of Pondicherry office-bearer, who did not want to be named, said the team’s pre-season training in Andhra Pradesh opened the doors to liaisoning. “We now have good relations with Andhra Pradesh thanks to our Anantpur stint. They are keen on hosting us again, if the need arises. This is what we need to do — create a good camaraderie between teams, states and associations. That is when we can do a lot more for cricket in the country to grow,” this person said.
The team will return to Puducherry after the Vijay Hazare Trophy towards the end of October. “We will be having a camp before the Ranji Trophy begins. We have some preparation time after the Vijay Hazare and we hope to utilise it to the maximum by acclimatising to our home ground and the conditions. I am happy with the way the team has shaped up so far. We have experienced players who can help the juniors climb the ladder. I am hoping for a good season,” said Salvi.
The Cricket Association of Pondicherry has identified the potential senior men’s and women’s squads as well as the teams for the under-16, 19 and 23 tournaments. “Selections were held in Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam and Puducherry, with about 200 cricketers attending the trials in each centre. We had a tough time shortlisting and we now have squads of 40-50 cricketers for each team. The selectors will scrutinise further and finalise the teams. The men’s team that will take part in the Vijay Hazare and Ranji Trophy is finalised,” said Chandran.
The Puducherry side has a strong Mumbai connect in Abhishek Nayar and head coach Salvi. Nayar has 99 first-class matches under his belt and his experience playing for Mumbai will be a shot in the arm for Puducherry. The team has also appointed as fielding coach Dishant Yagnik, who has played the same role for the Rajasthan Royals franchise in the Indian Premier League.
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