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From legal battles to last-minute flights: Puducherry's cricketing journey

Puducherry play against Meghalaya in the first Ranji match at the CAP Siechem Ground Saurabh Somani/ESPNcricinfo

At about 10am on September 20, 2018, six uncapped cricketers in Puducherry, the city that is the capital of the Puducherry Union Territory on the southern coast of India, received a call from a Cricket Association of Puducherry official to bring all necessary documents to be submitted to the BCCI as proof of their status as local players. And immediately.

On the previous day, Puducherry had just made a long-awaited debut in senior men's domestic cricket, against Manipur in Vadodara, in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.

What the six players didn't know was that immediately after Puducherry's debut - which should have been a happy one, given an eight-wicket win in 25.3 overs - rumblings of protest had reached a crescendo. The thrust was that the team was 'Puducherry' in name only, with convenient hires hurriedly drafted in as locals. In fact, the BCCI had relaxed the eligibility norms for the CAP, given that it could get operational - due to legal tangles and not administrative incompetence - mere months earlier.

Whether the CAP was right in using the relaxed criteria in the manner it did is a philosophical debate for another day. But the upshot was that the BCCI immediately revoked the allowance it had granted. Suddenly, after a historic first match, the possibility of a second was in doubt - because there weren't XI members remaining in the squad. With eight of them disallowed, the team rallied around those who were forced to leave, while also trying to keep the remaining flock together and upbeat.

Back home, the six uncapped cricketers prepared their documents. The players thought they were being asked to submit them for the Ranji Trophy, which was still two months away. Then, it dawned on them that they were expected to make their debuts the next day, at a place more than 1,000 miles away.

There is one flight from Puducherry to Bengaluru on six days of the week, which leaves at 12.50pm. The players had about an hour to arrange their affairs and get to the airport in time. Thus began a mad dash that would end in the wee hours of the morning.

One of them was wicketkeeper Ranjit Baskaran, who asked for a couple of hours off from his workplace, NCR Corporation India Pvt Ltd, when he got the call. When he got to know that he wouldn't simply be submitting documents but also flying out even before his scheduled lunch break, he went back to his office instead of home because there wasn't enough time. "I just asked my friend to bring my kitbag to the airport," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "Meanwhile, I went to my office and informed my manager that I need leave, and will let him know about the exact situation once I reach Gujarat. From office, I went directly to the airport."

Opener AM Narayanan runs a taxi service with two cabs, one of which he drives himself. Fortunately, he was home. When he later told his wife that he was off to play cricket, she had a touching request. "She told me to take photos in the flight," he says. "It's the first time I was going in a flight."

Saiju Titus has a sports shop that is close to one of the venues that teams have used for practice in the Ranji Trophy, the Palmyra Cricket Ground. He was grocery-shopping when he got the call. "My life is cricket," Saiju says. "I've played Under-16, Under-19, Under-23 at district level. My shop is not as important for me as my cricket is. After this season, I [will] focus a lot more on practicing than on the shop. My younger brothers will look after the shop."

Saiju is a portly 37-year-old. He's been in the Ranji Trophy squad but hasn't played the long format yet. He's among a group that is made to run timed sprints after a day's play, all part of the reserves. You can see the effort, the strain, and the purpling of the face as the intensive training continues. When it ends, Saiju can barely catch his breath. But he's run miles to be where he is today, part of the Puducherry team, playing at the highest level of domestic cricket. What's a few sprints?

All six players made the flight. From Bengaluru, they flew to Mumbai, then travelled by road to Vadodara. A day that began with a 10am phone call ended with the replacement players trooping into the team hotel at about 3 am.

Six hours later, they were making List A debuts against Uttarakhand.

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In some ways, the mad dash that the six players made has been a microcosm of the CAP's existence. It's a mostly uninterrupted tale of waiting, and then there's a final frenzy. Almost as if it's an MS Dhoni innings in a successful chase of yore.

Initially, cricket in the Union Territory was supposed to be run by the Pondicherry Cricket Association. They were happy to be counted as one of the districts under Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. The actual running of the cricket was lower on the priority list. You could grow up in Puducherry as a dedicated, passionate fan of the game, and never know there was any cricket that was played in town.

Tourists came to Puducherry drawn by the prospect of relaxing on beaches, visiting the Aurobindo Ashram, taking in the French cuisine or visiting the international township of Auroville. Nobody came for cricket.

You could be proficient enough at the game to be considered for call-ups from state teams that actually played in the Ranji Trophy. But you wouldn't have played on a proper cricket ground in Puducherry. Mihir Ravikanti, who runs a health-care manufacturing business in the city now, was called up for tryouts with the Andhra and Odisha sides in 1987-1990. He never got to play Ranji cricket, because although he was successful in his tryouts, nobody had told him he needed a 'No-Objection Certificate' from the home association. This was much before the internet era when information wasn't readily available. And there was no one from the PCA to ask. A medium-pace bowling allrounder, Ravikanti was considered by many to be the finest cricketer from Puducherry. His experiences of playing on the ground run by the PCA are of an outfield more brown than green, with a thatched shed as the pavilion. The 'refreshments' were one clay pot of water that would have been barely enough for four players.

It was in this background that the CAP emerged to challenge the PCA as the body that should control cricket in Puducherry. Driven by Damodharen, industrialist and keen cricket fan, whose Siechem Technologies had a full-fledged factory in town, the CAP wanted to cut the umbilical cord that bound Puducherry to the TNCA. A legal battle inevitably followed. It's still not over, and still tangled enough for anyone without a law degree to fully understand. But what had seemed for almost a decade-and-a-half like a fruitless battle, received a shot in the arm due to the Lodha recommendations that sought to fundamentally change the workings of the BCCI.

The BCCI sent a team to the city, of which Anshuman Gaekwad was a part. They looked at what both rival associations were doing, and in their report, recommended that the CAP be given charge of running cricket. "From what we saw, these guys (CAP) seemed to have better plans and energy in place to get things done," Gaekwad told ESPNcricinfo. That favourable report, kickstarted by Lodha's recommendation that there should be a Puducherry team, meant the dream of cricket in Puducherry took concrete shape for the first time.

Whatever claims and counterclaims the PCA and CAP may fling at each other, the fact remains that until the CAP got the authority to do things, senior-level cricket in Puducherry remained a ghost's dream.

Not that everything is honey and sugar in the CAP. In clubs, there are stray angry mutterings about not enough 'local' players being part of the team, and Damodharen having got in people from outside merely to have a good first season, without regard for actually developing cricket in the city. Damodharen himself was the secretary of CAP, but stepped down - again as per the Lodha norms - because his son Rohit D was the captain of the team.

Inevitably, there were mutterings about that too. Comparisons were drawn with the Niranjan Shah-Jaydev Shah situation in Saurashtra. Recently retired, Jaydev played 120 first-class matches, captaining in 110 of those, while having a sub-30 first-class average and still being an unquestioned part of the top order for more than 15 years. Where the story differs is that Rohit scored a century on first-class debut, both his and his team's, and was the best non-professional batsman for the team in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.

His formative years were difficult.

'Why are you banned, have you taken drugs?'

Rohit faced that question when he was 13 years old, and all because he had stopped playing all of a sudden.

"I went for a camp conducted by BCCI in Puducherry, and then an all-India Under-17 tournament conducted by BCCI again," Rohit says. "A week later, I go back to my school in Chennai, Don Bosco. On July 16, I get a letter from TNCA saying 'Rohit Damodharen, son of so and so, is banned from playing cricket in Tamil Nadu.' I didn't even know what being 'banned' was at that age. The next day, there was a new rule in the TNCA league book saying that 'any player who has played in an unrecognised tournament is banned from playing cricket in Tamil Nadu'. The least they could have done is given me a warning. And they cannot call a BCCI tournament 'unrecognised'. A 13-year-old boy doesn't deserve that."

From there, to captaining his team in the Ranji Trophy has been a considerable leap for Rohit.

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Abhishek Nayar is waiting just outside the dressing room, on the morning of Puducherry's first-ever Ranji Trophy match. It's a historic occasion, made more special because it's Nayar's 100th first-class match. There's going to be a ceremony to honour him, and as Nayar walks through a guard of honour, each player holds up a sort of candle-stick, and Nayar walks through a bower of sparks to be presented with a memento for the occasion.

"It felt like the whole association cares about a cricketer, and I've not even played my cricket here, I've just come," Nayar says of the moment. "It made me feel loved. I'm not someone who expects a lot because I've never really got that, but I was really emotional with the amount of love and respect I got. I might not have got that reception in Mumbai, because Mumbai already has a lot of cricketers who have been there, done that. Puducherry hasn't."

It's a minor miracle that the ceremony has taken place at the CAP Siechem Ground. Built 20 kms away from the city centre - which if you live in Pondicherry is like inter-city travel - the ground has been got ready just in time for the season. You wouldn't know it by looking only at the playing surface, a billiards table lush green. The sightscreens in place are state of the art, and because of how they are built, require only one person to move them. Till a day before the first Ranji match though, the pavilion wasn't fully ready. But come match-day, the facilities for players, umpires, official scorers and match referees are in place, and working just fine.

True, there wasn't any permanent arrangement for the media or spectators, though the CAP did make admirable temporary arrangements. That's because apart from the pavilion and the playing area, the rest is varying states of dust and rubble, and beyond that open fields. Even that is being spruced up. From the first round to the fourth, the VIP box - open to the elements in the first match - already had glass doors and an air-conditioner fitted.

The players' dressing rooms are at either ends of the pavilion, and it is from here that Nayar emerges for the waiting fanfare.

Nayar, alongwith Pankaj Singh and Paras Dogra form arguably the most pedigreed 'professional' trio of any team in the Ranji Trophy, and certainly among those of the Plate Group teams, Puducherry's fellow rookies. But while the professionals have been carrying teams in the Plate Group to a large extent, Puducherry have been helped by a support staff made up of former cricketers as well. Aavishkar Salvi is the head coach, Omkar Salvi the assistant coach, and Dishant Yagnik is the fielding coach.

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The three professionals and the coaching group are the ones guiding the larger group, formally or informally. "I believe that if you change teams, you should go to one where you can give more, you can help your teammates, bowlers and give the right guidance," says Pankaj.

Aavishkar Salvi outlines his coaching goals thus: "Performances matter for everyone. But it also matters that people should be happy and feel that their games have developed. They should also feel that someone came and lifted our games, gave us knowledge."

Nayar's decision to move to Puducherry - and Pankaj's - was driven in large parts because of the coaching staff. And nor is that confidence misplaced. M Vikneshwaran was promoted to open in the Ranji Trophy, having batted in the middle order in Vijay Hazare, and has hit a century and a fifty while scoring at 44.66 at the top of the order. Fabid Ahmed, who has played for Kerala earlier but could move to Puducherry since he was born in Mahe, which is part of the union territory, has been an all-round force and credits the coaching staff and professionals for helping him.

Puducherry took the first innings lead against Meghalaya in a rain-affected opening match, and saw their game against Bihar washed out without a ball bowled. Since then, they've gone on a winning spree. Whether it's a story of the underdog fighting against the odds, or the poker player turning the odds in his favour, posterity will decide. But since the disastrous day on which eight players were told they couldn't play for year, Puducherry finished third in the Plate Group in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, and have an outside chance of qualifying for the quarterfinals in the Ranji Trophy.

"A lot of those cricketers made a big call to come and play here, and then to lose out on a year is disheartening as a fellow cricketer," says Nayar. "It's never easy to tell a cricketer that you're going to lose out on a year. That was the toughest part.

"In that game against Uttarakhand I didn't have any expectations, but even then we stood up and fought well. That made me believe that this team can withstand difficulties, and very early in their career as a cricketing state."

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Things aren't perfect yet. There is plenty that could be tweaked or improved, on and off the field. The manual scoreboard wasn't completely up to date at all times. The third umpire's camera stands aren't yet built, so there is no third umpire. If you place your chair in the wrong spot while settling down to watch a day's play, you can feel it sinking in the mud when you sit. When it rained once, a herd of goats from a field beside wandered in and walked around the perimeter of the fenced ground to look for shelter.

But none of it matters. Because it's the Ranji Trophy, and it's happening in Puducherry, with a team representing the city playing. It's magical.