Cricket for the first time can claim a true pan-India presence with the introduction of nine new teams for the forthcoming domestic season. The sport and its administrators have so far largely ignored the vast stretches of the country’s north-east frontier, much as the mainstream media, its popular discourse and — far too often — even India’s ruling dispositions did.
Almost always feeling disengaged and under-represented, the north-east and its people have remained alienated from cricket, a sport that enjoys a cult-like following across the rest of the nation. Despite the establishment of the New Area Development Programme in 2003 by the then Board of Control for Cricket in India president Jagmohan Dalmiya, the sport’s governing body has done little to popularise the game in a region that has produced many an international medal-winner in other sports.
But the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Justice R. M. Lodha Committee’s reforms has finally opened the doors of cricket to Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim, bringing joy to many unheralded champions who kept the sport alive at a time when there was no reward or recognition.
Sportstar , travelling through the region, met a few of those diehard cricket lovers, whose dreams will soon be fulfilled. But despite their best efforts, the ground reality is that the north-east states will have a baptism by fire this domestic cricket season.
Of course, the expectations are realistic. Bihar, Puducherry and Uttarakhand — the first is making a return after being displaced by Jharkhand at the end of the 2003-04 season, while the other two are playing domestic cricket for the first time — might be able to put up a challenge, but the sides from the north-east will need more time and better infrastructure to come to terms with the quality of the opposition.
“I am excited and looking forward to the season. It is a great opportunity for the new states. I am sure we would be able to unearth new talent. I have seen the preparations in most places and must admit that they are extremely serious and positive. We must back them and not judge them from the first season itself,” said Saba Karim, BCCI’s general manager for cricket operations.
The six north-east states lack infrastructure and will need time to develop a pool of quality players, but a beginning needed to be made. “When the globalisation process began under the guidance of Jagmohan Dalmiya, there was criticism. Why have weak teams? But the concept picked up gradually and today we have additions to the international circuit,” said former India all-rounder Madan Lal.
The International Cricket Council granted Bangladesh Test status in 2000, Afghanistan and Ireland played their first Test matches this year, and Nepal claimed One-Day International status in March. Each instance is a learning opportunity for the new domestic teams as the above-mentioned international teams took years to reach the level they have, yet have far to go to challenge the global powers.
“We should encourage new teams because the game needs a greater pool of players. The north-east was a sector not on the radar for whatever reasons. But now that they are going to be a part of the circuit, we should make them feel at home. You never know. The next big star of Indian cricket could emerge from the north-east,” said former Test middle-order batsman Ashok Malhotra.
Infrastructure could be a factor, but the BCCI is optimistic, said Karim. “The focus is on giving the teams a platform to showcase their potential.. I am sure there would be more gains for us all at the end of the season,” he said.
Uttarakhand coach K. P. Bhaskar said this is an opportunity to give something back to the board. “It is a test for me as well as the players. All my experience as a player and coach should be put to greater use. It’s more challenging, no doubt. There are only gains for me and the team. Having these new teams is a great initiative,” he said. “If you see the trend in modern cricket in India, the players are coming from smaller centres. The BCCI has made an effort to reach out to the far corner of the country, and I see a very constructive role for people like me. We owe it to the BCCI.”
For Gursharan Singh, who’s been named the coach for Arunachal Pradesh, guiding the new side is a task that he says will bring out the best in him. “I love coaching. I am actually excited because for me also it is a recognition by the BCCI. There are so many clubs and academies producing players in the north-east too, and this is the platform for them to make a statement,” he said.
“I will try to improve their technical skills in different formats. How to adapt would be the challenge. Overall, it is a very welcome step and we must provide good competition. My only suggestion would be to have more residential academies in the north-east because I am convinced there is ample talent. Also, we must concentrate on locals. This is a platform for me to serve BCCI in a new role,” said Gursharan, who was coach of the title-winning India Blue team in the recently-concluded Duleep Trophy.
Sanath Kumar, one of the best coaches on the domestic circuit, has been given charge of Meghalaya, and he welcomed the step to take cricket to the north-east. “My experience in the initial stages has been very pleasant. The players are excited and want to quickly step on to the field. Believe me, they ask you very interesting questions. My interactions with them have been really enjoyable. Established players can understand the game well and can read the moves of the opponents well. But often I have seen them do it (taking instructions from the coach) for the sake of it. Here it is very genuine. The players know the interactions with the coach would take them to the next step,” he said.
Not everyone shares the enthusiasm of the coaches and the BCCI officials. One former official of India’s governing body accused some north-east teams of recruiting outstation players — the new entrants are allowed a maximum of three — solely to fill up the ranks. “...these teams are accommodating outstation players of no standing in the domestic circuit. That is not going to help the process of taking the game to small centres.
Strangely, the BCCI has not set guidelines for a guest player. In my opinion, the guest player should have played a minimum of 10 first-class matches. What is the point of a guest player making his debut along with the new team?” the official said.
Singam Priyananda Singh, honorary secretary of the Manipur Cricket Association, downplayed the allegation. “There are players who have played more than 100 games but haven’t played for India,” he said.
The new teams will play in the Plate Group — the lower rung of the Ranji Trophy system from which the top two teams qualify for the knockout stages — this season, and there could be some lop-sided matches. New records could be set. And major upsets may be seen. But there is no doubt that the sides will need time to mature.
“You won’t get the best of talent in a hurry,” Malhotra said, “I would say give them 10 years at least.”
Over the next nine days, Sportstar will publish ground reports on the nine teams that have joined India's domestic cricket calendar this year.
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