Flickering talent discovers the limelight
The story of Shivakant Shukla, who batted for 821 minutes to take Uttar Pradesh through to the final of the Ranji Trophy, embodies their cricket.
As a raw, talented 17-year-old, he went with the India Under-19 team to the Asian Under-19s in Pakistan in 2003-04. Many of his team-mates went on to play for senior side - Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan, Piyush Chawla, Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa and VRV Singh - and almost all others have developed enough to at least be permanent members of their state sides.
However, until this match, Shukla was seen as a passenger in the UP team, part of it only because there was no other opener who could have done better than his average of 25 in five seasons of first-class cricket. "I was doubting if I would be picked even in the 15 [man squad] this season," Shukla admits. "When I would see all of them [team-mates] doing so well, I didn't feel good for myself. But somewhere I also used to think if they can do it, so can I."
His innings in this game, under extreme pressure, with all the big players dismissed, spanning over three different days, tackling three new balls, facing a spirited and resurgent L Balaji, and taking the team through unbeaten, clearly shows an average of 25 is not the accurate depiction of his talent. So what had been going wrong until now?
"I don't even know how I scored these 178," Shukla says. "And I don't know how and why I have been failing. My funda is simple: when I go to the ground I give my 100%, and whatever the outcome be I accept happily." There is not much else a youngster can do when there is nobody to guide him, to tell him if his footwork is wrong, if his head position is not right, if something is going wrong psychologically.
Staying in the famed UP hostels, many like Shukla learn their cricket on their own, playing with each other: the passion and desire, and not the technique, matters. Mahela Jayawardene recently spoke of how one needs to fight his own battles, and kill his own demons. But that can hold for an established Test player who has seen a lot of highs, and is going through the lows, and not for a inexperienced player struggling in domestic cricket. In UP cricket if you lose your way, you find it back yourself. "I had lost my way, this has been an experience for me," Shukla says. "This experience will stay with me, not only in cricket terms but in life."
Yes, there was support for Shukla, in that he was being picked for the team. Beyond that there was little. Just like this team keeps on winning without any outside support. They have the name UP to play under, but the rest they do by themselves. There is no computer analysis, there is one trainer-cum-analyst and there are no grounds owned by the UPCA. Yet somehow they find a way, like Shukla did over the last three days.
After close to 14 hours of batting Shukla, chuffed with his effort, is not tired. "I can bat four more days," he says. "No seriously. The little bit of tiredness that I had is gone, because we won."
Two matches ago, he cut a sad forlorn figure in Bangalore. UP had won the toss, put Karnataka in on absolute flat track hoping to get early wickets [they needed to win to be on the safe side]. Both the Karnataka openers offered catches to gully, where Shukla fumbled. He spent the next two days on the field, in the deep, watching his team-mates struggle. And when his turn came, he played a loose stroke and got out for 1.
"That was the low point. I was nervous throughout. Fielding for the next two days was very difficult. I was focusing too hard, thinking I had to convert even a half-chance to redeem myself. My captain and coach helped me that time. They said, 'Don't worry, just give your 100%. There is always a next match.'"
UP have made giant strides in the last four years, winning the Ranji Trophy once and twice making it to the final. There have been many satisfying victories along the way - a win over Mumbai in Mumbai, their maiden Ranji Trophy win in 2005-06, the comebacks after poor starts to seasons, but this one will be one of their most satisfactory matches. In that it is a change for a side that has earned a reputation of relying too heavily on the big star players: Mohammad Kaif and Suresh Raina with the bat, and Praveen Kumar with the ball.
"This is a big win," Shukla says. "We have depended on consistent performers - Kaif, Raina and Tanmay [Srivastava who has done well this season]. So when we were three down, it seemed we would go down easily, and the biggest satisfaction is that two fringe players won the match." He feels he might have turned a corner today. If he can turn that corner, UP cricket could too.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo