‘We’ve always had talent’

AKHILESH KUMAR

“Actually, I’m the first from my family to play any sport. My parents were extremely strict about studies. My younger brother is a doctor and I’m an engineer myself. I studied in NIT, Srinagar, for a B. Tech in Civil Engineering and a Masters in Structural Engineering. Up until Class 12, I had not played any cricket. I started only after entering NIT,” says Samiullah Beigh in this interview with Shreedutta Chidananda.

Earlier this month in Hubballi, Samiullah Beigh played his 50th game of first-class cricket. As milestones go, it may not seem all that extraordinary. But in Jammu and Kashmir, there is a whole different perception of what is ordinary. “We cherish small things over there,” Beigh says, without a hint of self-pity or despair. “Life is hard,” he shrugs, “but we adapt and move on.”

Last season, the all-rounder was at the vanguard of J & K’s spectacular journey to the knock-out stages of the Ranji Trophy — for the first time since 2000-01. Rewarded with promotion to Group A this time, the side effected one of the biggest upsets in the competition, defeating the domestic behemoth Mumbai.

But even to a people inured to hardship, things have seemed more challenging than usual this season, for reasons external to cricket. Floods in the Kashmir valley damaged their two main grounds, leaving them without a single home fixture. “When you have to live out of a suitcase,” Beigh sighs, “it is tiring.”

At 33, he is one of J & K’s senior-most players, and a pivotal figure in the squad’s togetherness. A structural engineer, Beigh works in the state’s Public Health Engineering department as an AEE (Assistant Executive Engineer). His side was defeated by Karnataka inside three days in Hubballi, but Beigh sat down with a smile for an interview to Sportstar. Beigh spoke with great forthrightness on his career, the popularity of cricket in Kashmir, the floods, and militancy in the state.

Excerpts:

Question: Did you expect to play 50 first-class matches?

Answer: I wouldn’t have expected it at the start of my career. In J and K there is tremendous competition among fast bowlers. It has always been so. In 2003 when I made my debut, it didn’t go very well. I bowled only six overs (for 35 runs). In fact, till 2006, when I finished my degree, I could play only five games because the Ranji Trophy and my semester exams always used to coincide. I had to rush home after my debut match because I had an exam. My parents were strict about that. It was only after completing engineering that I started playing all the matches and started to perform well.

What does it mean to be a cricketer from Kashmir?

It is a big thing. We cherish small things over there. Not many from there have played at the highest level. Actually, I’m the first one from Kashmir to play 50 first-class matches, though there have been a couple from Jammu province. It’s a proud feeling yet it is one of regret because knowing my potential, I believe I could have played at a higher level given a chance at the right time. I played my first Duleep Trophy match only this year (2014). Nowadays, the selection process is very open and good. But in 2008-9, I got 25 wickets in 5 matches and scored near 300 (271) runs. I went into the North Zone squad and I was not fielded in a single match. I have been in the zonal sides... 4-5 teams and only carried the drinks.

Today, anybody who does well in the Ranji Trophy is noticed, no matter which state he is from. Two seasons ago, Parvez (Rasool) did very well and eventually he played for India A. Last year, selectors came and watched almost all our games. So it feels good. But it should have happened a couple of years earlier. That regret is there, that I did not make it to the highest level.

How popular is cricket in Kashmir?

It is very popular. A few days ago, someone asked me if people were as crazy about cricket as they were in Mumbai. I told him: ‘You may have visited Kashmir but you have not visited the grounds in Kashmir. There are a couple of grounds — Eidgah and S.P. College — where you will find a sea of cricketers. You won’t be able to walk through those grounds because there are so many matches being played every day.’

There is great craze for cricket. The unfortunate part is that the infrastructure is not good enough to polish those players and turn them into better cricketers.

How did you start playing cricket?

Actually, I’m the first from my family to play any sport. My parents were extremely strict about studies. My younger brother is a doctor and I’m an engineer myself. I studied in NIT, Srinagar, for a B. Tech in Civil Engineering and a Masters in Structural Engineering. Up until Class 12, I had not played any cricket. I started only after entering NIT. One of the university coaches, Abdul Kareem Khan, spotted me and within a year I was playing Ranji Trophy cricket.

So do you plan to put your degree to use after retiring from cricket?

I already have. There is a state Public Service Commission examination and luckily I qualified. I’m now an Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE). I chose the water supply division because you get some extra leeway to play cricket there. You’re not required from nine to four. But cricket remains my ultimate passion.

How were you affected by the floods in September?

It was absolutely horrible. Those scenes of horror are yet to fade from memory. But they make you harder and stronger. Life over there is a bit tough anyway. We are born and brought up in a very difficult environment. So we managed. Death was staring us in the face and still we were able to help others. Actually, when the floods came, I did not imagine that any of my friends would be alive. Because 80% of Kashmir was under water. Telecommunication lines were down and we feared that most of the people had drowned because there was 90 feet water all around. The area where I live — Sora — was the only one that was untouched by water. But my sister, relatives, family — all their houses were under water. It was a horrifying period. I was lucky to survive.

Do you yearn for normalcy sometimes?

Who would not like to have a normal, comfortable life? We have seen such things from our very childhood that this life (one without incident) seems abnormal to us. We kind of get used to that life. We were saying in the team meeting today that we have been on the road for the last three months and we are kind of missing that. We were wishing for a couple of days back home. But the schedule is such that we have no gap in between. It’s funny but having lived such a tough life, you don’t feel comfortable living a normal life now.

What was it like growing up amidst the insurgency?

You’re not sure when you leave home in the morning if you will come back again or not. Whenever anything happens anywhere — no matter which side is fighting which — it is the common man who suffers. Those issues are always there. You’re not sure when you’ll be humiliated. This is not necessarily from the militants’ side. Many a time, the humiliation comes from the very people who are there to protect us.

Maybe their job is such that they can’t trust anybody. But we do face a lot of trouble. Even the guys who are public figures — those who are in the papers and the news channels every day — even they get a lot of trouble. Not to speak of the masses.

Does cricket hold extra significance for the people for these reasons?

Even after having such trouble, people over there are crazy about cricket. You ask them the averages of any player and they will reel off statistics in a jiffy. People are following us like a national team. They sit there refreshing the BCCI site every second. We get a lot of flak when we don’t do well and a lot of appreciation when we do well. Cricket has taken up a very important position there — it is a source of pride for them. The people make us feel very good.

What is J and K’s target this season?

We are hopeful of qualification for the quarters. Let us see from there. We have a great bunch of guys. They may not be big names but they have talent. Many of us have not clicked. I have not done enough with the bat and the ball. Parvez has not yet done what he is capable of.

How hard is it to be playing all your matches away from home?

We feel absolutely bad. We have lost home advantage completely. We tried to convince our board and requested the BCCI. But it did not happen. Actually the Tamil Nadu game and this one were supposed to be our home games. At least we would not have lost both of them (had we played at home). Last year, out of our five home matches, we won four outright and drew one. We are familiar with our home conditions. It’s not just that but the travelling becomes taxing. When you’re living out of a suitcase, it’s tiring. It has made us a bit homesick.

What has the emergence of Rasool done for J and K cricket?

We’ve always had talent. I’ve played for this state for the last 10 years and we’ve never had a bad side. What Parvez has brought is something else. He has instilled the confidence of winning in the team. We know where he came from. He was playing with us and he went a long way. That gave all of us self belief. Definitely, things are improving. Last year people said: ‘This is Group C. Let us see how you do in Group A.’ In the one-dayers, we defeated Delhi, which had eight international players, and Haryana, which was also a decent side. The Mumbai win was the icing on the cake.

Does politics spill over into cricket sometimes?

No no no. Cricket is absolutely distanced from politics. Whenever we are asked political questions, we try to stay away from them. We make it a point to say that we are here to play cricket. We restrict ourselves to that only. We don’t indulge in political talk or comments.