February 14, 2014

From the backwaters to the big leagues

Many Indian players from small towns with little to no cricket facilities have made it big recently. One of them is India's Under-19 captain, Vijay Zol

'Familiarity with conditions gives us an advantage'

When Vijay Zol was in class nine, he had had enough. The promising left-hand batsman was busy playing matches in his district, but at the expense of his school attendance, which had fallen well below the minimum 75%.

"My school timings were from 8am to 5pm. I would be up at 5, practise in the morning, head to school, practise again in the evening for a couple of hours, head to tuitions, and then return home only at 9," Zol says. "It was difficult and I did that routine for a year. But despite that, I wasn't allowed to sit for the exams. I was quite pissed".

Juggling cricket with studies was clearly proving to be unmanageable, so Zol decided he had to quit one. He hasn't been back at school since.

It was a decision driven by his passion for the game and a determination to succeed. His parents supported his move, which, in academics-obsessed India, is unimaginable. The most common reason for cases of students dropping out of school is a cash-crunch at home, but in Zol's case, money was not the issue.

Zol's father, a criminal lawyer in Jalna, Maharashtra, where the family lives, had the resources to prepare a cement wicket in their backyard so his son could practise. The small town, hardly a nerve centre of sport, had barely any cricket facilities to speak of. The only ground was used for football and there were no turf wickets.

"I remember Sachin [Tendulkar] telling us that come what may, when the chips are down, you need to deal with it as a team. We really back each other when someone fails or is feeling down"

Zol may not yet have transformed his town's reputation as a cricketing backwater, but he has certainly put Jalna on the map while still in his teens. An aggressive batsman who initially shot to fame with a monumental 451 in a Cooch Behar Under-19 game in 2011, he is now India's U-19 captain, hoping to defend their World Cup title in the UAE. He was part of the previous World Cup as a player, and is now in charge of the most successful U-19 team in the world, on current form. India have won all four series they have played in the lead-up, defeating Australia and South Africa in two finals. Zol's century in the Asia Cup final, against Pakistan, showed his big-match temperament.

Aside from junior cricket, his impressive CV includes a century on first-class debut - against an international attack - and a double-century on Ranji Trophy debut for Maharashtra. His rise coincided with Maharashtra's in this year's Ranji Trophy, in which they finished runners-up. His unbeaten 91 helped beat defending champions Mumbai in the quarter-final, and though the U-19 camp was gathering steam ahead of the World Cup at the time, he was asked to play in the final. Though he wasn't as successful in Maharashtra's last two knockout matches, he remained a player to watch.

On paper, Zol's transition from U-19 cricket to first-class may appear seamless - with an average pushing 50 after 11 games - but he says it has been a humbling experience. "I learnt how to react if things don't go your way. In U-19 cricket you sometimes dominate, but the Ranji Trophy is a different league in which you have to be very patient. I have played well in patches."

Zol was fast-tracked into the India A side before his Maharashtra debut. Against a New Zealand A attack that included Mark Gillespie and Doug Bracewell, he smashed 19 fours in his 110. Recounting the innings, he says he told himself not be overwhelmed by the occasion or the bowlers. "When I went in, the ball wasn't doing much, but I was still nervous. I just focused on facing the ball, not the bowler. I attacked their legspinners."

Zol's father can take some credit for his son's achievements. It was when Zol was recovering from a knee surgery a few years ago that his father had the cement wicket made. There are shades here of the Yuvraj Singh story, but unlike Yograj Singh, Zol's father only mentors his son, leaving the technical aspects to Zol's childhood coach.

"He [my father] is a big follower of the game and understands the game really well. We never discuss technique much, he mostly advises me on the mental side of the game, boosts me when I lose confidence, tells me to stay balanced and not let success get to my head. Even when I achieve something, I don't feel as happy. I would rather see my father happy, and that's not always easy, I know," Zol says with a chuckle.

When he scored his quadruple-century against Assam in December 2011, his father refrained from gushing about the innings. Zol understood then that while it's good to toast a headline-grabbing innings, you're only as good as your last knock. "On day one I was on 261. I got a call from my dad and he told me to chill and play [according] to the merit of the ball. When I passed 400 my coach called my dad. He was happy but he didn't show it. He just told me to concentrate on the next game. [That innings] has a special place in my heart."

That knock, and his latest exploits, have underlined the fact that small-town players have taken Indian cricket by storm of late. Zol insists there was no temptation for him to move to a bigger centre like Mumbai or Pune for the sake of his cricket. In fact, he says the lack of facilities in his town fuelled his determination to grab every opportunity.

"So long as I work hard and smart, the facilities don't really matter. The hunger was always there to play for India. My dedication and motivation always made up for it [lack of facilities]. But cricketers have to face certain difficulties or you don't get there very easily. There are so many players from the bigger cities who have the best of facilities and still don't make the cut."

The squad Zol will lead has a blend of players from cities and towns of varying sizes and cricketing pedigree. He says the sense of "togetherness" has been carried forward in every series and that has made his job easier.

"I remember Sachin [Tendulkar] telling us that come what may, when the chips are down, you need to deal with it as a team," he says. "We really back each other when someone fails or is feeling down. We enjoy each other's success. I don't feel any pressure, because we understand each other's roles."

While Zol will look to take his cricket forward after the World Cup, he insists that he hasn't abandoned his books for good. His brother is also a lawyer and his sisters are teachers. "I come from that environment, so I have to study," he says with a smile, shrugging his shoulders.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo