If a Meghalaya player has a particularly bad outing during this Ranji Trophy 2018-19 season, you might find him teetering nervously on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off. No, literally, you might.
This will not be a "leave this world behind" leap, though. It'll be a bungee jump. Sponsored by captain Jason Lamare. Because Lamare runs an adventure-sports business in Shillong, and bungee jumping is next on the expansion agenda. And when asked if he'd let any players do it, he laughs and tells ESPNcricinfo, "Definitely. It will be a punishment - if you don't bowl well or bat well, you're going to jump!"
This propensity to laugh is infectious and heart-warming, and it runs across the team. It's in evidence during their training sessions, when they are on the field, when they are attending an official dinner, or when they are engaging in an impromptu game of foot-volleyball because Cyclone Gaja has stopped play in Puducherry, the venue of Meghalaya's second Ranji Trophy match.
Before the Vijay Hazare Trophy that marked Meghalaya's entry into senior-level cricket, the team bonded by trekking up Shillong Peak in the rain. During the tournament, whose Plate Group was played across three cities in Gujarat, they watched "all the movies that released that month together" - according to Puneet Bisht, the senior-most professional.
The north-east has for long been looked at as football country in cricket-crazy India. It might have stayed that way had the Lodha Committee recommendations not mandated the BCCI to include all of its states in the cricket fold. Nearly all of the cricket in Meghalaya is concentrated in the capital city of Shillong, which has a grand total of one ground. But in this cricketing outpost, there might still be hope for a cricketing future.
There's the captain himself, who at 35 is one of the oldest members in the team. He played for Assam before the Meghalaya Cricket Association was formed, and this, he thought, had ended his cricket career prematurely. So did his cousin Mark Ingty, who is 42. Ingty made his first-class debut in January 2002, when fellow fast bowlers Lakhan Singh and Dippu Sangma were in kindergarten. Fun fact: the combined ages of Lakhan and Dippu fall short of Ingty's.
The BCCI has provided support staff for the team, which is a boon because it's brought them an experienced hand as head coach, in Sanath Kumar. Like each of the other eight new teams, Meghalaya have signed up professionals too, the trio of Bisht, Yogesh Nagar and Gurinder Singh bringing skill, nous and years of experience on the domestic treadmill with them.
But while necessary when the team is in its toddler phase, the professional coaches and players are peripheral to the cricketing story of the team. Sure, it's the professionals who have done the heavy lifting for Meghalaya so far - as they have for every team in the Plate Group. But for those teams right now, the journey is far more significant than the results.
Dippu and Chengkam Sangma's journey to the senior team was an arduous trek, literally. Chengkam stays in Tura, home to the Garo indigenous group. It's 323 kilometres of mountainous terrain from Shillong. For Dippu, Tura is the closest "big town" - he lives a further 100-plus kilometres away, in Baghmara.
"There's not much scope for jobs," Chengkam says, and Dippu nods his assent. An advertisement in local papers for trials for the state team brought them together. There was one initial round of trial in Tura. Both attended, both were selected to go further, and they arrived in Shillong. Both did well once again, and found themselves part of the state team.
Chengkam is one of seven siblings, Dippu counts himself among six. Both grew up on tennis-ball cricket, and neither had bowled with a leather ball until three years ago. "I found it heavy," Dippu says of his first experience with a proper cricket ball. "I couldn't control the swing also, and while batting, I couldn't play the swinging ball well."
Chengkam had a similar experience, and neither had access to any coaching that would guide them. They're now bowling at one level below international cricket, having made an unimaginable journey not just in miles but in learning the game too.
"Our village is a bit backward, so there isn't any big business. I would have done some small business if it wasn't for cricket," Chengkam says. His family wasn't supportive of his foray into the game until recently. Now that he's representing the state, they've relented. Other players might see dollar signs when the IPL comes calling, or in glitzy ad shoots once they make it as international cricketers. Here, the earnings as a journeyman domestic cricketer are gold dust, and a more lucrative career option than any other available.
"I was studying before this, I just did my graduation. My college is not very good," Dippu offers with disarming honesty. "If it wasn't for cricket, I would have looked for a job, maybe in the police."
They speak Hindi with a lilting twang, but despite an obvious communication gap, there is little difficulty in making themselves understood, especially when they are asked if cricket was the best option for them. "Yes," comes one emphatic answer. "Definitely," comes the other.
If any of the Meghalaya team were to break traffic rules while zipping around Shillong, they might cop a fine from Wanlambok Nongkhlaw, a traffic policeman who also happens to be the only left-arm seamer in the Ranji squad.
Nongkhlaw was stationed in Shillong, and was active in the local leagues for the Meghalaya Police (MLP) team. Four MLP players were called for trials, and only Nongkhlaw made it to the state team. Once the season is done, though, Nongkhlaw will return to his job - though he might perhaps let a minor infraction or two pass if he spots a team-mate riding down the street without a helmet. "A little bit you can let go," he says, eyes twinkling.
"I have not turned from a policemen to a cricketer, I've turned from a cricketer into a policeman," Nongkhlaw says. "I've been playing cricket since childhood, and then in 2008 I got a job with the police and I was posted with the traffic police."
There are signs that a cricketing culture could take root in Meghalaya, but plenty of work remains to be done.
"The first challenge is getting enough players," coach Sanath says. "The other thing is enough place to practice. All cricket used to take place in just one ground in Shillong. Now suddenly you have the men's team, Under-23, Under-19, women's team, women's age-group teams… and with just three or four pitches, everybody has to practice. They are used to unexpected rains too. So for their weather, they definitely need a very good indoor practice facility, which they don't have yet."
Funding is an aspect Sanath stresses on. It's needed to build more practice facilities, to send the team for matches outside the state to accelerate their learning, and to maintain and spread the game in Meghalaya.
"I feel people in the north-east love sports," Sanath says. "And they are naturally very agile and athletic. It's just that they haven't been given an opportunity to get into the game yet."
Lamare concurs. "We have kids who play and we have youth interested. There is a cricket academy which has 300 students now. It might take a few years, but it is going to pick up," he says. "Once the youth in all the north-eastern states realise there is potential in cricket, there is a career. You don't have to work now, you can actually play cricket and earn - so interest will develop."
Despite that, Lamare almost didn't want to come back to cricket, preferring to mess about with scuba diving, ziplining, rock climbing and the like. Father Peter, a coach at the Shillong Academy, and Ingty - who has missed the first two rounds through injury - brought him around. "My dad and Mark Ingty convinced me to play," Lamare says. "His (Ingty's) mother and my father are brother and sister, so we've literally grown up playing cricket. We are very close. He's feeling really lousy he's not here. We miss him."
Adventure sports is, in a way, Lamare's first love. His company, Pioneer Adventure Tours, has been in operation from 2012 and has had visits fro Shikhar Dhawan, Unmukt Chand and the actor Kalki Koechlin, among others.
When Meghalaya became an Affiliate member of the BCCI in 2008, Lamare could not play for Assam any more. And at 25, he couldn't play for Meghalaya either, since they didn't have a senior team.
"That winter I went to Goa to become a certified scuba-diving instructor," he says. "I worked there for two seasons till 2011. Then in 2012 I started my adventure business. Adventure has always been a part of me, so that move was always going to happen. It just happened a bit earlier because my cricket career halted in 2008. I thought that since my business is stable now, I can keep it aside for two months. January 2 is the last game, and on 4th it's back to work!"
Standing around on a cricket field for 90 overs must be dull for Lamare after that. "Definitely," he laughs. "When things don't go your way in the game, though, you think, 'Man I wish I was back home diving or cliff-jumping or something.'"
Meghalaya are one of the few north-east teams for whom "home" games are actually at home - and not in a borrowed stadium in a different state. For Lamare, one thing is certain as soon as they have a stretch of games at home. "As soon as we're in Shillong, the team is immediately going," he says. Going, that is, for adventure sports with him.
When they do go, whether they're ziplining or rappelling or camping by the riverside - it will merely be an extension of life as they've known it these past few months. It's been an adventure.
Narasimha Sanath Kumar
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo