Indian domestic cricket October 16, 2012

The cricketer's endless quest for honour

George Bernard Shaw once famously remarked that when he was young, he realised that nine out of ten things he did were failures

George Bernard Shaw once famously remarked that when he was young, he realised that nine out of ten things he did were failures. So he did ten times more work. Youth, they say, is the time to "do"; old age is the time to "have". As a young sportsman, I too remember waking up at 4.30 am while half the world was still asleep. I would hit the road in bitter cold when most people were nicely tucked in warm blankets. Most of my cricketer friends would happily sacrifice the nice things their peers did for an extra hour of practice hoping that one day all that hard work would help us achieve glory.

Such were my formative years too. When most of my schoolmates were off for holidays with their folks or spent weekends with their relatives, I would be busy getting my batting grip sorted and stance balanced. Knowing the direction in which the ball was meant to be hit was far more important than knowing the direction in which one should head during summer vacations. The day I walked out to bat wearing an India jersey made every drop of sweat and sacrifice worth its while. Life ceased to be the same after that day, for there were only 244 Indians who had achieved that before me.

In a snap, from being a player fighting for a place in the state side, I became an important and somewhat indispensible member of almost every team I represented (below the national level) thereafter. It was no longer about checking the list of probables, the squad of fifteen or the final eleven, for my participation in most tournaments became guaranteed. That's how it is in Indian cricket -- once you don national colours, the view of the world changes 360 degrees.

Things remained the same for the longest time. I continued to represent my home state, season after season, though not without scoring enough runs to justify my place in the XI. In hindsight, perhaps that assurance made me a wee bit insulated to the stark realities that many first-class cricketers face each season. The reality of being at a selector's mercy, the fear of being constantly unsure of participation, dwindling between doubts of "whether/whether not".

It was time for me confront this "parallel universe" where a player's career is always hanging by a thread. He doesn't believe he's made it in the team until he sees his name in the newspaper; a formal call from the officials is a far cry.

I became "them", when the "wise men" in Delhi decided to drop me from the Ranji one-day side and broke the news to me through print the next morning. While I was appalled, shaken up and taken aback by this sudden development, it later brought to fore one of the most compelling reasons to continue to play cricket - honour. It was no longer about playing to win an honour, but to restore one.

The insensitivity of my state coach, who was also a colleague not too long ago, and the selectors, who would always put an arm around my shoulder to discuss the future of upcoming talent in Delhi made me conscious of the workings of an apathetic system.

Times had changed and I needed to, had to, wake up and smell the coffee. The easier option would've been to stick around and play in the longer format of the game till I was eased out of that too. The tougher option was to venture outside my comfort zone and tread uncharted waters. I chose the latter, and the rest, as they say, is history. In two years with Rajasthan I achieved more professional satisfaction than the 12 years spent in Delhi. Winning the Ranji Trophy and fulfilling the role I was assigned has been second only to playing for the country. After two seasons and two Ranji titles, the honour was completely restored.

So, why am I on the road once again? Have I fallen in love with this nomadic lifestyle? Or is it the lure of money that has forced me to ditch my old team? No, I don't like living out of a suitcase and away from my family for five months in a year. The older you get, the more you miss the comforts of your home. No, it isn't the money either, for God's been kind enough to provide enough work to keep me occupied and the fire burning in the kitchen. I'm on the road for the very thing that made me hit the road for the first time - honour, a sportsman's eternal quest.

Last season Rajasthan did what Delhi did a couple of seasons ago, which was to not include me in the shorter formats of the game. While that was hardly a cause for concern - after all team selection isn't my prerogative - the fact that the decision was delivered by the press was unacceptable.

This clandestine, niggling affair between shoddy officials and the breaking-news media is an old one. It surprises no one that news of players being rested, their inclusion, exclusion, and a host of other internal administrative issues find their way to the morning newspapers.

This time though, I wasn't alone in facing this predicament, for all three professionals - Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Rashmi Parida being the other two - were given the same treatment.

Once again the easier option was to swallow pride and continue. The tougher option was to hit the road again and create another comfort zone. You know what I chose!

I'm on the road again, quite literally, for it took me about 10 hours by road to reach Hamirpur in Himachal Pradesh from Delhi. Every morning it also takes an hour to reach the ground from the hotel we are staying in. The shift to a new team is never easy, for it takes a long time to bond and feel at home. But all this hardship goes out of the window when the ball hits the sweet spot of the willow.

Roads in the mountains teach you a very important lesson in life - what seems like an end is very often just a bend.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here