Cricket’s hill station
After toiling eight years unsuccessfully in Uttar Pradesh and a year each in Rajasthan and Goa, Karnveer Kaushal finally broke down. “I made the Uttar Pradesh T20 shortlist. And everybody was telling me, ‘you’ll get in this time. You will start your career this year.’ But I didn’t. In that moment, I had nothing, even in Uttarakhand. It was like, na ghar ke, na ghaat ke.”
Last month, Kaushal became the first double-centurion in Vijay Hazare trophy. He scored two more tons in the competition, and since then has led Uttarakhand to wins in its first two Ranji matches. “Time kahan se kahan le aata hai. Now I am not just a first-class player, but I’m also playing for my state. This was such a long wait, but it finally happened for us all.”
Eighteen years after its formation, Uttarakhand has come of age.
Unlike with most of the northeastern states, BCCI’s challenge with Uttarakhand was never about bringing people to the sport, but the sport to the people. The recent domestic expansion may largely have been about reaching the frontiers, but Uttarakhand has long been a proven territory for Indian cricket. After all, arguably the country’s greatest ODI cricketer traces his roots back to the northern state.
“I have always been a huge MS Dhoni fan, because of his presence of mind,” says Kaushal. “But at the end of the day, it’s also because he is from Uttarakhand and everyone here will always look at him with pride.”
While Jharkhand, Dhoni’s birthplace, will always have a stronger claim on the 2011 World Cup winning-captain, Rishabh Pant, heir apparent to the gloves, was born in Haridwar. Anuj Rawat and Aryan Juyal, both wicketkeeper-batsmen, captain the Under-19 four day and one-day sides respectively, and Kamlesh Nagarkoti was part of last year’s World Cup-winning team. Ekta Bisht, Mansi Joshi and Sneha Rana too have represented the national team.
However, despite such credentials, never mind the number of players who represent other states in domestic cricket, Uttarakhand couldn’t get its own team due to four separate bodies — Uttaranchal Cricket Association, Cricket Association of Uttarakhand, Uttarakhand Cricket Association, United Cricket Association — claiming to govern the sport. Earlier this year, a consensus committee was formed using representatives from each body to present a united front.
“Better late than never,” says RP Easwaran, director of the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in Dehradun. “There has always been an abundance of natural talent in Uttarakhand. Why should anybody go from here? But we lost out on a number of players.”
Easwaran claims “those who have moved out will not come back,” including son Abhimanyu, who left Dehradun in 2005 and is an opener for Bengal. “Yes, I would have felt pride in him coming back and playing for Uttarakhand, but not at the expense of his career. Elite group is elite group. My son scores four hundreds here and it won’t get recognised. Tomorrow if he scores a hundred against a team like Madhya Pradesh, he will get noticed and perhaps get closer to playing for India.”
Rajinder Pal played a Test, against England in 1964, and 98 first-class matches for Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. But the Dehradun-born fast bowler, who passed away in May at the age of 80, spent most of his retired life training Uttarakhand prospects and fighting for a state team.
“He was always trying to bring these parties together to some settlement,” says Virat Raghav, who trained at Pal’s academy in Dehradun with current Uttarakhand pacer Deepak Dhapola. “He was a big deal. Kapil Dev used to visit him. He also trained Bhuvneshwar Kumar. He did a lot for the state too, and he was always telling us that we will play for the state for him.”
Opening batsman Raghav, who captained the likes of bowler Sunny Rana and Vaibhav Pawar in age-group competition, took a break from cricket after a number of unsuccessful trials for Uttar Pradesh.
“Everybody will always say, ‘which academy are you from, beta? You’ve got the technique. You should make the team’, and then I will not get selected,” says the 27-year-old. “I went to Delhi to try but that intimidated me. I saw players, some from my state, who had been trying to make the team for years, and I thought what’s the point.”
Raghav made the 100-strong Vijay Hazare shortlist but wasn’t selected because of not playing the state’s league competition. “It’s just the Ranji tag, otherwise I am friends with all of these players. Dhapola stays with me, and even called me Tuesday night after he got only one wicket.”
Rohan Rawat was in the final 25 but wasn’t selected because of some issue with his documents. “It feels so weird. One month ago, I was playing with all of these guys. What’s funny is that a month or two later, I’ll again be playing with them,” says the 21-year-old spinner. “It is still okay. I will get the documents sorted out and age is on my side. But it is heartbreaking for a number of players who have now given up on cricket.”
One such lost cause is Almora’s Harshvardhan Negi, named by members of the current team as one of Uttarakhand’s best batsmen. “I thought I was born to play cricket,” says Negi, who played at the university level and for the Uttarakhand Police team before a ligament injury ended his career three years ago. “I once went to Nepal for a tournament without telling my parents. I tried for a couple of years to give trials in other states. But, it’s not easy for a typical Pahadi family to support such dreams. But I can guarantee, I could have walked into this team if we had affiliation five years ago.”
“Nobody every truly acknowledged the cricketing talent Uttarakhand has produced,” says Dhapola. “You can form a top-class eleven out of the players who have played for Uttar Pradesh alone, let alone other states. Par ab puraane talent ka soch ke kya faayda. We should be thankful that at least we got the chance.”
The Uttarakhand team is a ragtag bunch of jilted veterans who have rubbed shoulders with many-a-star at the Gold Cup and UPL and have been rejected more times than they can remember at a bigger stage. Dhanraj Sharma went to Mumbai last year at Abhishek Nayar’s behest but couldn’t break through. Vaibhav Bhatt played age-group cricket for Sikkim and tried in Bengal but never got a look-in. Sunny Rana was essentially a part-timer in the local circuit after securing a job as an audit officer.
The average age of the team hovers around 28, even after excluding the three professionals Rajat Bhatia (38), Vineet Saxena (37) and Malolam Rangarajan (29). Fast bowlers Dhanraj (31), Sunny (30) and Dhapola (28) are among the oldest lot.
“It’s sad for the current senior players that they are playing at the age of 28-29 where probably, these will be the only couple of good seasons for them,” says Pradeep Singh, member of the UCCC. “But being from this area definitely helps with the physicality and overall fitness. These players will have the motivation to continue after getting a late start.”
Then there’s the lack of long-form experience. “We lost the first match of Vijay Hazare and couldn’t progress even though we won the next seven,” says coach KP Bhaskar. “But Ranji is going to be difficult. It’s an exciting bunch, but most of their experience has been in the shorter format. It’s still early days. They will stumble, hopefully learn. But from what I have seen, I can assure you that in about five years, this will be a team to be reckoned with.”
The signs are promising. On Thursday, Uttarakhand U-23 team defeated Sikkim by an innings and 327 runs in their debut match.
“I am sure the Under-23 players will not have to wait as long as we did for a Ranji Trophy match,” laughs Kaushal. “They will form the core of the team. I hear from people that our good performance is because we are in the plate division. But if we keep performing, the kids will stay here and play in the elite group in the future. You don’t worry. Ab pahadi pahad ke liye khelega.”