If you were to ask someone even remotely connected to one of several cricket academies that have sprung up across Raipur about Vishal Kushwaha, it's unlikely you will come back without hearing stories of how he has destroyed several bowling attacks during inter-district matches in Chhattisgarh over the last five years.
Local journalists, who have covered Kushwaha during his Under-25 days, remember him nonchalantly flicking Umesh Yadav for sixes at the old VCA ground in Nagpur on several occasions. During one such knock, against Vidarbha XI in 2012, he was identified by talent scouts from Kings XI Punjab. "I thought there was some hope," Kushwaha recollects. "But I was shocked by what I saw at the trials."
Kings Cup, a tournament organised by the franchise, consisted of four teams made up of shortlisted players. Kushwaha batted a handful of deliveries in a rain-affected game. He didn't bowl or field. Three days later, he was asked to head home. The reason: he didn't come from a "state that played cricket".
"They asked me how many first-class and List A matches I've played. I told them Chhattisgarh still doesn't have affiliation, so I haven't played any. I was immediately asked to leave and come back when I had played 'recognised cricket'. Was it my fault? No. They picked me for the trials, they called me, and they sent me back."
That wasn't it. Kushwaha was in for similar treatment from Delhi Daredevils. "Shortlisted, but again they asked me the same questions," he says. "It made me wonder if talent scouting is about ability or which association you play for. That is when the gravity of the situation hit me. I contemplated giving up the game at 25."
It was only after employment with the Account General's office as an accountant in Raipur - he completed his commerce degree in a bid to forge a parallel path - did he rethink his decision to quit cricket. For now, it's a decision he's happy with and hopes to play for "seven or eight" seasons.
In many ways, Kushwaha's frustration at being overlooked because of the system reflected the mood around the game in Chhattisgarh.
Between 2000 and 2008, upcoming cricketers would hit a dead end by the time they were 15 or 16. With little help from the association, which was grappling with several issues - lack of funding, affiliation woes - players were left to fend for themselves.
Jalaj Saxena, who learnt his early cricket in Bhilai where his father was employed, moved to Indore along with his brother Jatin for better prospects. He has since established himself as a reliable allrounder in domestic cricket. Harpreet Singh, member of India's Under-19 team at the 2010 World Cup now plays for Madhya Pradesh, having moved from Durg.
Sahil Gupta shifted to Baroda to pursue the game. It was only after the confirmation of Chhattisgarh's status as full member that he returned. Sumit Ruikar, employed by the Accountant General's office in Chhattisgarh during the off-season, played his cricket in Nagpur. They were part of a fortunate group who were able to play elsewhere.
Now with the Chhattisgarh State Cricket Sangh (CSCS) receiving full membership from the BCCI, three years after their five-year qualification period ended, cricketers looking to take up the game perhaps may not suffer the frustration that threatened to derail careers of those who couldn't afford to shift outside the state.
A crisscross of Raipur talking cricket is met with philosophical undertones when asked about Chhattisgarh's Ranji Trophy debut this season.
"Mehnat ki kamai bolte hai na, yeh wohi hai," [This is the reward for hardwork] Rajesh Dave, secretary of the CSCS, says of their elevation, which has arrived after a battle that lasted 16 years.
"It's not like just those who travel with their kit bags in crowded trains from Kandivali and Thane to Churchgate to play cricket struggle. Ours has been a big struggle too," says a local cricketer, trying to fit in to the system despite being branded an "outsider" by the very state that once nurtured his talent.
"Cricket ne bahut rulaya hai. Ab aage, sirf ladne ki junoon hai sab mein," [Cricket has made us cry. Going forward, it will just be the passion that will drive us] Kushwaha says. He was regarded as the face of Chhattisgarh cricket, until Amandeep Khare rose through the age-group structure to become the first cricketer from the state to represent the country - at the Under-19 level.
The 'mehnat ki kamai' (the fruit of labour) Dave, a former Madhya Pradesh player, refers to is the fight for affiliation from the BCCI since 2000, when Chhattisgarh was separated from MP. Two factions fighting for control led to Chhattisgarh cricket being in a state of flux.
It was only in 2005, when Baldev Singh Bhatia, the current president, and Dave came together following reconciliation, that the seeds of recognition were sown. Sanjay Jagdale, the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association secretary, was a key member in the negotiations, according to Dave. Three years later, Chhattisgarh were granted associate status on account of "stability." It meant they could participate in the age-group tournaments conducted for affiliates and associates.
The first signs of promise came in 2009-10, when Chhattisgarh's Under-19 side emerged champions of the Associates and Affiliate tournament. Then they repeated that feat in 2011-12 to earn a promotion to the plate league of the Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy. In 2013-14, the Under-19 side finished third in their group. They narrowly missed qualification for semi-finals, but voices from within the board hinted at full membership in the "not-too-distant future."
"The actual churn started around then," Dave recalls. The association's subsidy was increased from Rs 50 lakh to 75 lakh. With the team having already spent close to four years as an associate, there was a buzz that they could possibly become a full member in 2013. "Cricketers who were lost to the game started to return, while many other youngsters came forward," Dave says.
As heartening as it was to see the pool of cricketers widen, the CSCS was now faced with the challenge of having to build turf wickets across the districts, outside of Bhilai, the most established center in the state. From having only three turf wickets outside the steel city, they built 20 surfaces. The biggest challenge, however, was the absence of qualified coaches and trainers.
Realising the need to put together a system, the association managed to rope in support staff for their functional academies in Raipur, Bhilai and Bilaspur. The funding came via grants from the state government and local industries.
But the challenges continued. Trials would often be disrupted by violence - Chhattisgarh's deep interior is still gripped with trouble from the Naxals - leading to the association's inability to streamline talent. Camps would come to an abrupt halt, leaving academies teeming with aspirants being denied opportunities.
"We had our own share of trouble, but it didn't stop us from conducting inter-district tournaments to bring the best players to Raipur and train them," Dave says. "A lot of them left out too, but we weren't in a position to do much. We also had a financial crunch, but were fortunate to have received the patronage of the state government and the industries in this region for having helped us at a difficult time."
A key step towards Chhattisgarh's realisation of being a full member was taken when the Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh Stadium was slotted to host IPL matches in 2013. Completely funded by the state government, the stadium, for which work started in 2001, was inaugurated with Delhi Daredevils hosting Pune Warriors. A capacity of 55,000, which made it the second-biggest in India in terms of seating, a large outfield with 10 turf wickets, and state-of-the-art facilities meant the association could finally call something their own. Hosting the IPL and the now defunct Champions League T20 also brought in funds.
A final seal of approval awaited them, but it proved a false dawn. The implications of the IPL spot fixing scandal of 2013 - with N Srinivasan being asked to step down as BCCI president - led to the issue being put on the backburner. Jagmohan Dalmiya's death while in office in 2015 led to the issue being sidetracked again. In February 2016, CSCS finally received the "good news."
It brings a financial package that will be at par with all the other full members - Rs 20 crores annually - which the association wants to use to build residential academies in Raipur, Bhilai and Bilaspur, apart from developing a separate women's wing.
Till affiliation was received, players largely relied on government jobs through sports quota to continue playing the game in uncertain times. The less-fortunate cricketers were beneficiaries of industrial development in Chhattisgarh, known for its mineral wealth, steel plants and hydro-electric projects.
One of them is Abhishek Darekar, a fast bowler, who impressed Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai in 2011. After playing league cricket in Chennai for a few seasons, he faded away. The joke among local cricketing circles is, if you don't find cricketers on the field, chances are that they would be in the industries and factories near Raipur.
For today's generation, however, things are looking up, as epitomised by Khare's rise. The 19-year-old batsman, who didn't get a game during India's Under-19 World Cup earlier this year, could have either been a revolutionary or a footnote. He considered moving states, along with the prospect of enrolling into an undergraduate science course from Delhi University on sports quota. Today, he is happy to have waited on the decision.
"I was ready with my application, but in the same week, we got news of the affiliation," Khare says. "My parents were supportive, but after the Under-19 World Cup, they were worried I'd hit a dead end like many other cricketers from this region. Fortunately now, that won't be the case and they are much more relieved than I am."
Realising the need to fast-track their development ahead of their Ranji Trophy debut, CSCS appointed Sulakshan Kulkarni, the former Mumbai wicketkeeper, as the head coach for a three-year term. Kulkarni, who has been a part of six Ranji Trophy winning teams as a player and four as coach, the last of which came in 2012-13 under Ajit Agarkar's captaincy for Mumbai, was returning to the domestic set-up for the first time since 2013-14.
"Developing sides have nothing to lose," Kulkarni says. "If you take one person to the next level, there's a big lift within the group. So that's why I wanted to work here. The background of Chhattisgarh was impressive. They have shown big improvement in in junior cricket, which is the heart of any association. Ranji Trophy is merely the face."
The face of this team will be Mohammad Kaif, the former India batsman who has moved from Andhra, and is the only professional cricketer within the set-up. At 35, the end may be closer, but Kaif knows a thing or two about captaincy, having led India to the Under-19 World Cup win in 2000, and then Uttar Pradesh to their only Ranji title till date, in 2005-06.
Kulkarni, meanwhile, already has a road map in place. He says the passion he has seen among the local administrators is unparalleled. The need to give back to the game, as he calls it, has taken a completely different meaning.
The drive from Raipur to the international stadium, 25km away, in Naya Raipur is a unique one. Congested main roads and narrow bylines dangling with wires on either side with movement of cows and cattle apart from a colony of rickshaws and street hawkers suddenly open up into an eight-lane expressway that has malls and scores of cranes coming up.
Then after a stretch of nothingness emerges a majestic modern-day marvel out of nowhere. It somewhat mirrors the growth of cricket in Chhattisgarh - a steady rise, but not without its fair share of upheavals. For a generation of cricketers who grew up not knowing where they would ply their wares, the time is now.