Achhe din for Chandigarh cricket as it enters Ranji Trophy?

With BCCI affiliation, cricketers groomed in Chandigarh will not have to explore greener pastures any more.

Thirty-six players have been selected in Chandigarh’s list of probables. This group will be further pruned to 15.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

For the first time since it came into existence as a union territory in 1966, Chandigarh will have its own team playing in the Ranji Trophy. The city has for many years been a cricketing hub and the breeding ground for eminent cricketers playing for both Punjab and Haryana. For aspirants learning the sport here and dreaming about playing for India, the competition for spots was much and the journey to the top — through either of the two states in most cases — arduous. With the affiliation granted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to the Union Territory Cricket Association (UTCA), the roadblocks seem to have been cleared to some extent.

Remarked Yograj Singh, the former India player and a coach in the city for many years, “It’s the greatest moment. I would like to thank the BCCI; you have given all the cricketers from Chandigarh a breather.”

Sanjay Tandon, the UTCA president, told Sportstar, “I think it is a dream come true for all the players in the city. There’s a general euphoria that Chandigarh has got a cake to eat now.”

A major factor in the city demanding this whole cake for itself was its reputation for churning out top-class cricketers. Pointing out the city’s pre-eminence in this regard, Vivek Atray, senior vice-president, UTCA, said, “After 1966, for Haryana and Punjab, there used to be at least four to five or six cricketers from Chandigarh in each of the teams. If you take a total of five playing for Haryana and five playing for Punjab, it would have been 11 playing for Chandigarh. And these were the best players in these two teams. Kapil Dev, Yograj, Ashok Malhotra, then later down the line Chetan Sharma…and they were all Indian players, from Chandigarh.”

In time, however, Punjab started developing its own centres of cricket around the state, and Haryana stopped taking cricketers from Chandigarh. With opportunities few for talented aspirants, many couldn’t make it.

“I think it is a dream come true for all the players in the city. There’s a general euphoria that Chandigarh has got a cake to eat now,” said Sanjay Tandon, the UTCA president.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

The infrastructure began with schools and colleges that encouraged the sport; they provided the early impetus. In time, coaching centres and academies began to mushroom around the city. The Sector 16 stadium, located at the heart of the city, currently serves as the hub. It is a picturesque ground; owned by the Chandigarh administration, the facilities — nets and gymnasium mainly — are decent but cannot yet match those of the best stadiums around the country. It has hosted a few international matches — the last one a One-Day International between India and Australia in 2007 — but is far behind the PCA Stadium in Mohali when it comes to international renown. As of March 2019, however, according to a media report, none of the other grounds met BCCI’s standards for hosting domestic cricket for all levels.

Aiding the cricketing growth is the overall infrastructure of the city and the high standard of living.

Atray, who has also worked with the Chandigarh administration as an Indian Administrative Service officer, pointed out: “Chandigarh had the best infrastructure because it was a union territory. Cities like Patiala, Jalandhar, Amritsar or Ambala will not have that kind of infrastructure. Then, we had Punjab University, then we have national-level institutions. So, Chandigarh being a union territory and the capital of two states — of Punjab and Haryana — always had better facilities. Plus, the population is also educated, so people are more into sports and things like that — into music, arts, sports.”

However, as a representative of cricket in the city, there were three rival associations fighting for prominence. The UTCA, which came into existence in 1982, existed alongside the Chandigarh Cricket Association (Punjab), a district association affiliated to the Punjab Cricket Association; and the Chandigarh Cricket Association (Haryana), also a district association, affiliated to the Haryana Cricket Association. The three had their own facilities and their own activities.

Revealed Tandon, “There are some structures that have been built up by UTCA, some built up by the Chandigarh administration. Then there are certain structures which are [built] by the Haryana Cricket Association and some by the Punjab Cricket Association. So, practically, there were four different kinds of structures which [existed].”

In 1992, a tournament began to be conducted that would over the years raise the city’s stock. Organised in the memory of Atray’s father, a police officer, the JP Atray Memorial tournament, a 50-over competition held in the domestic pre-season in most years, began to attract top cricketers from around the country. Noted Yograj, “Earlier cricketers would go to Delhi and [Mumbai], but with this tournament, they were exposed to the best cricketers. It’s helped the city cricketers a lot.”

Vivek Atray, senior vice-president of the UTCA, pointed out that Chandigarh had the best infrastructure because it was a union territory. “Cities like Patiala, Jalandhar, Amritsar or Ambala will not have that kind of infrastructure,” he said.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

Yet there were self-imposed barriers to affiliation. According to Atray, neither the PCA nor the HCA wanted Chandigarh to be autonomous. “Haryana and Punjab never wanted Chandigarh to get affiliation. They wanted the two or three players from here playing for them. Plus, Chandigarh would have a vote of its own. Chandigarh would be as dominant or prominent as these two. So that would be a problem for them. So nobody wanted Chandigarh to get association. Only Chandigarh wanted it,” he said.

According to Tandon, it seemed BCCI affiliation was around the corner, in 2002. “Somewhere it is felt that in 2002 when this was going to happen, it was curbed. It is a hunch, we do not know; we were nowhere in the picture, and even we don’t know what happened among the higher-ups,” he claimed.

Eventually, it required intervention by the Committee of Administrators of the BCCI to make the final push. It formed a two-member committee — comprising Anshuman Gaekwad and Saba Karim — to look into the matter and all the three rival associations were invited to present their case.

Elaborating on it, Tandon said: “[The two-member committee] came and visited us in March this year; they gave an open invitation on their website and besides our claim, anybody who wanted to make a claim for Chandigarh could come forward. Punjab (CCA-P) and Haryana (CCA-H) also came along and gave their presentation. Haryana was below average. Punjab tried to make some proposal out of it, but it was not in that considerable range because it did not have a structure here and it was a district organisation of the PCA. So, structurally, it lacked that kind of a punch. They had not done their due diligence — their income tax returns, their society returns, their AGMs [annual general meetings], their minutes, nothing was complete. From day one, we had done the minutes, the agendas had been set, our returns had been filed, a provision for society bylaws — we had done a lot of work. We worked separately for cricket and separately for paperwork.”

The three associations were asked to merge with each other. The district association of Punjab, then, decided to merge with the UTCA, but the association affiliated to Haryana did not.

With the big moment arriving so close to the start of the new season, however, the UTCA had to get its selection trials organised quickly. Former India fast bowler and Chandigarh local V. R. V. Singh is the head coach; he oversaw the selection trials for the senior team held at the Mahajan Cricket Academy in the city on August 21. Thirty-six players have been selected in the list of probables. This group will be further pruned to 15.

Five local players who played for other states in the previous season have already switched allegiances. They are Jaskaran Singh Sohi, a wicketkeeper who played for Punjab; all-rounder Bipul Sharma, who played for Sikkim; Gurinder Singh, a left-arm spinner who played for Meghalaya; batsman Uday Kaul, who played for Punjab; and batsman Manan Vohra, who also played for Punjab.

With indigenous talent already present, expectations from the Chandigarh team are high. Tandon expects it to play in the Elite Group in the next two-three years, while Yograj says a Ranji Trophy title in the next five years is possible.

Regardless of the details, Tandon summed up the mood: “Only better days are ahead — achhe din aane waale hain.”