October 2, 2013

Two friends, lost in a maze

Thousands of Indian cricketers aspire to play for their college. Many promising ones slip through the cracks

Many players in India find themselves in a system that has no internal logic

In 1984, like thousands of other high-school students in New Delhi, I began the process of applying for university admission. I was joined in this endeavour by two friends of mine, far more proficient at cricket than me, who intended to try out for a college cricket team and gain entrance to the hallowed halls of academia not via marksheets but the cricket field.

They knew their chances were slim. The competition would be fierce; Delhi's college teams were among the champion teams nationwide, and moreover, these lads were from out of town - from my old boarding school in Darjeeling - and would have to be slotted into the tiny out-of-state quota allotted to each college.

My friends had written to me several weeks before the admissions rush began, asking me for any assistance possible in navigating the university's admission process. I was happy to meet them again after a two-year gap, and responded enthusiastically to their plans. I even offered them a place to stay at my home; one had alternative accommodation arranged, the other took me up on my offer.

They arrived soon enough in Delhi, bringing with them certificates of high-school team membership, their cricketing achievements as recorded in school awards, colours, and even newspaper clippings. Their "portfolios" were impressive; I had seen them play, and hoped I would see them play again at the university level. One was an allrounder, a stylish batsman and medium-pacer, the second an offspinner. If things worked out, who knew? Perhaps they would make it to the Delhi Ranji team, perhaps they would go even further. The future beckoned.

Over the course of several days, we travelled as a group to the university's North campus, standing in line for hours, picking up forms and filling them out, submitting the requisite paperwork, and, in short, submitting ourselves to the numbing bureaucratic details that seemed designed to scare us off higher education altogether.

My friends faced a set of challenges quite dissimilar to mine. They had to make appointments with the representatives of the college's cricket team to arrange for trials. Amazingly enough there was no structure present for this. It wasn't clear who was to be contacted and when; there was no contact information provided. You had to simply show up and walk around, asking if anyone was available. No dates were set aside for trials, and of course, no team requirements were clearly stated. Somehow a player had to find his way about himself, his path to college-level cricket regulated by a system that seemed to have no design, no internal logic.

The phrase "pillar to post" seemed to have been invented for the runaround that a cricket player had to go through in order to show off his abilities to a putative future team

The phrase "pillar to post" seemed to have been invented for the runaround that a cricket player had to go through in order to show off his abilities to a putative future team. I had no idea how players from Delhi's school teams were picked for Delhi's college teams; perhaps there were mysterious back channels created for this purpose?

My offspinner friend managed to make contact with the captain - a future Ranji player - of one team; he was walked down to the nets, handed a cricket ball and asked to bowl an over on a matting wicket. No batsman faced him, no stumps were put up. He complied and was told he would be "contacted". That was the only trial he was able to secure during his stay in Delhi.

My allrounder friend tried his best to arrange for a trial of sorts but no coach, no captain, no cricket administrator was visible or available; his written inquiries - like my offspinner friend's - sent well before his arrival in Delhi, had received no response. He contented himself with writing some more letters of inquiry, indicating his interest and his address in West Bengal, and promising to return to New Delhi if required.

Two weeks later, my friends left Delhi and returned home. The offspinner never heard back from the team he had tried out with. The allrounder never heard back from any of the colleges he had visited. A year or so later, I lost contact with them. I heard later that the allrounder had played some college-level cricket but had then given it up on graduation. I received no news about the offspinner.

Perhaps my friends weren't good enough to play college-level cricket for one of India's top university teams. But I don't think that fact was ever properly or conclusively ascertained. Rather, like all too many cricketers in India in those days, and perhaps even today, they had simply slipped through the cracks.

Perhaps India has ample cricketing talent, enough to waste and still have plenty left over. But somehow I doubt it.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here