Cricket in Rajasthan

IN days gone by tourists coming to India were promised a lot of sun and a lot of sand. The same two ingredients are also a part of cricket in Rajasthan, both are present in plenty. When Jodhpur (a magnificent city known for its majestic Mehrangarh fort, splendid Ummaid Bhawan Palace and exquisite jootis) hosted a one-dayer the sun was out in full glory. But sand, projected so vividly in film sequences, was some distance away in Sam and Jaisalmer.

For a while, as happens in new centres, cricket conquered Jodhpur, the fever so intense civil authorities debated hard about declaring a public holiday for the match. They, mercifully, decided against it but the city came to a standstill anyway, nothing mattered besides cricket and everyone tried to get into the stadium. With tickets more scarce than water in drought-hit Marwar there was, obviously, unprecedented illegal trading in this precious commodity and satta too received a boost. All this of course worried the police, already under severe pressure to ensure the match passes off peacefully.

To achieve this, they left, what is called, no stone unturned. The scale of bandobast was staggering: The Barkatullah Stadium was protected by 2500 policemen/the STF/armed police and a crack commando team, the entire arrangement supervised by senior officers who camped in the city for several days. Not willing to take any risk, police was deployed at rail stations and bus depots; hotels/dharamshalas were searched and roads leading to the venue blocked at 4 in the morning!

It seemed, though only to the trained eye, that the police and district administration was running the game. The Jodhpur Cricket Association stood helplessly aside, after abdicating its responsibility they did what was asked for and quietly paid the bills, even writing a Rs. 5-lakh cheque for hiring the ground. This money came from the gate collection, an impressive figure in excess of Rs. 50-lakhs which could have been more had the high denomination tickets sold out. But while Jodhpur hosted the game (and met all cost, including the Rs. 20-lakh guarantee to the BCCI) the RCA made big bucks because it retained the Rs. 60 lakhs revenue from in-stadia advertising.

The game, unfortunately, was boring and disappointing, an anti-climax after the run-feast in previous games. The pitch was slow, the ball deadened after landing, but Kartik flighted the ball in an era when spinners bowl like medium pacers. Agarkar too flourished, MOTM here after being banished from the team only a few days back.

Like Jodhpur, Jaipur has a fair amount of sun, sand and cricket, but when Railways played Rajasthan in Ranji the match appeared somewhat bizarre. This was an Elite group contest (with 15 teams, though SMG recommended only 10) with many promising players on view but what did one see?

Erected around Mansarovar Stadium, located in the middle of a housing colony, were shamianas for the teams, as must have been the practice when C. K. Nayudu/Vijay Merchant and Hazare played. The ground wore a sleepy look - spectators were absent, there was no seating, no chairs, no banners, no nothing. This could well have been an insignificant Vijay Club vs Bright Star match in a local 'C' division league which nobody bothers about.

But as that is not the case one wonders whether something is seriously wrong with Ranji. In Jaipur, unlike the Jodhpur international, everything was very basic - the dressing room was just a place to keep kitbags, greasy food came from a nearby caterer and drinks were taken out in a plastic bucket by a reluctant worker. All this makes one realise that, Ranji is a hard, unending serious slog, tough and unattractive; it is not a showy spectacle where players perform for glory on the national stage. Action here unfolds in front of the groundstaff, some officials and the odd journalist.

Among the few people watching cricket this lazy, sunny day in Jaipur was Parthasarthy Sharma, former Test cricketer who was on the circuit for almost 20 years. During this period Parath never saw the inside of a gymnasium, he was not known for fitness, nor was he the most agile fielder in the team. But he could bat, played the most exquisite cover drive and was universally regarded as a shrewd, chaalu cricketer. Watching Railways' Amit Pagnis and T. P. Singh dominate in a big second-wicket stand, Parath sympathised with the bowlers. "The wickets and bats are better, batsmen are bolder, more willing to attack", he said. But added that batsmen need to guard against umpires who, all of a sudden, are quick to give lbw's, that too on the front foot. Earlier, bowlers had to hit the backfoot right in front to get a decision but now batsmen, even when fully stretched forward, are sent on their way.

Parath is a regional TRDO, supposed to see matches to spot talent and report through e-mail on a daily basis to Dilip Vengsarkar. "It is tough work", he said. "Watching cricket requires a lot of patience and there are so many reports also to fill. Tough work." Pagnis, meanwhile, swished around fearlessly but the law of averages caught up with him in the 90's as he slashed a short ball to a fielder on the point boundary. T. P. Singh, a left-arm spinner who become an opener, also perished short of a century. Yere Goud, correct and composed, restored order by some sensible batting but Rajasthan dropped every catch offered by the batsmen to add to their miseries.

It must be said, though, that they are presently in transition, with seniors over the hill and promising youngsters yet to make a mark. Gagan Khoda is their most accomplished batsman, captain Krishna Kumar and Aslam have served the state for a decade. Anshu Jain/Rahul Kanwat/Nikhil Doru/Vineet Saxena are potentially good but need to produce big scores and assert themselves.

Till this happens, Rajasthan cricket is changing unobtrusively. Udaipur no longer supplies players to the team and there is practically nobody from Jodhpur or Ajmer. The Maharajas, generous patrons of the game, have disappeared into history and coffee table books and there are no corporate czars around to take their place. In this situation, while there is considerable talent, facilities need to be improved, more jobs found, more competitions put in place. Without these inputs the game could languish and not move forward.