Rising in the North East
Over the past decade, many of India's stars have emerged from the cricketing hinterland - MS Dhoni from Ranchi, Sreesanth from Kochi, Suresh Raina from Ghaziabad, to name a few - but there is still no national player from the North East. Cricket in the area received a fillip last month when three states, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, played in their first BCCI-recognised Under-19 tournament, a 50-over event in Raipur.
In September 2007, the trio took their first fledgling steps towards joining their neighbours, Assam and Tripura, in the Ranji Trophy when their associations were granted affiliate status by the Indian board. Since then they have participated in a North East Twenty20 Cup in Shillong ten months ago, but perhaps the spotlight was brightest on the region when Nagaland's Hokaito Zhimomi was picked to train with the Kolkata Knight Riders last year (though he hasn't yet played an IPL match). Zhimomi, a left-arm fast bowler who also has a reputation as a hitter, was part of the Bengal U-19s team five years ago and has been a part of the Kolkata club circuit since.
One of the problems that Nagaland shares with Arunachal is the lack of a proper cricket stadium. Cricket is still in its infancy in both states; the games popularity and infrastructure still needs to be built up and only a rudimentary league is currently in place. Arunachal's inability to find a venue to conduct a local tournament shows how far the state has to progress.
"We could not hold it in November and December because we were busy preparing for the BCCI tournament in Raipur,"Tado Kohli, secretary of the Arunachal Cricket Association, says. "We wanted to play in January but grounds are not available because of Republic Day, but we will definitely hold it in February."
Meghalaya, on the other hand, has a more robust cricketing scene with a long history, an established local league and a turf-wicket ground. The game has been played in Shillong since pre-Independence times. "The British played here, the Army, the defence personnel, we had eight to nine players from Shillong playing for Assam then (and till 1972, when Meghalaya was hived off as a separate state from Assam)," says Naba Bhattacharjee, secretary of the Meghalaya Cricket Association (MCA). "We have 42 teams playing in the A division and another 30 teams. Cricket is not new to Shillong but definitely, the local tribals are not very adept because they were more keen on football."
The simplest way to popularise cricket in the region is through the game's shortest format, Twenty20. Recognising this, the MCA held a week-long North East Twenty20 tournament last February, involving seven states from the region. The event, which carried prize money of Rs 3 lakhs (US$ 6500) was won by Assam. "We have made a beginning, next year we will be holding it in March, it will be a Meghalaya Open Invitational Twenty20," says Bhattacharjee, who wants to make the tournament an annual affair .
When asked about the sort of assistance needed from the BCCI, he says: "First we have to help ourselves then others will help us. The Indian board has given all three states financial assistance as part of its new area development project, besides providing equipment such as a mechanised roller to Meghalaya and more basic supplies like bats and balls to Arunachal."
Stanley Saldanha, a Ranji batsman in the 1970s who is now the BCCI's manager of game development, was in Raipur during last weeks Associates and Affiliates tournament. "Some of the states have a long way to go, they are just beginning," Saldanha says. "We have just finished U-16 and U-19 tournaments, which are going to be regular features. We will also have coaching camps and look at the proper way to promote the game in these areas."
Other problems like the lack of qualified umpires are also being tackled. SK Bansal, a former international umpire who stood in six Tests and 30 one-dayers, visited Meghalaya along with Saldanha in May. "I just taught them the basics, what is this cricket, what are the laws," Bansal says. "Umpiring classes take a minimum of three days and the BCCI is interested in holding them, mostly we will have them next year."
Looking ahead, Kohli says Arunachal will produce Ranji-quality players in four or five years if the Indian board continues to hold tournaments frequently. Bhattacharjee has loftier targets in mind. In three years, Meghalaya should be playing in the Ranji Trophy.
However, his state's ambitions are likely to be tempered by BCCI rules, which require at least a ten-year period after affiliation before allowing integration into the first-class structure. "For five years continuously they [affiliates] have to play board tournaments, and reach a certain standard to become associates," Ratnakar Shetty, the BCCI chief administrative officer, says. "Then another five years to become full members [which makes them eligible to play Ranjis]."
The three states also have to avoid the pitfalls of the two north-eastern states which are full members. Tripura has become a byword for demonstrating the gulf between the strongest and weakest domestic teams while Assam, despite being part of the Ranjis for 60 years, still needs to be bailed out by experienced outstation players (like Amol Muzumdar and Sairaj Bahutule this season), for whom the states cricket team is an old-age home before the end of their playing days.
For inspiration, though, the new boys of Indian cricket have to look no further than the north-easts No. 1 football club Shillong Lajong. In their first season in top-flight Indian football, Lajong have stunned heavyweights like Dempo FC and Churchill Brothers to blaze into the finals of the prestigious Federation Cup before falling to giants East Bengal on penalties.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo