How one young man's success is turning cricket in his state around
Abid Nabi is 20. He stands 6 feet 2 inches tall, has wide, strong shoulders, and wants to bowl fast. A year ago he caught Dennis Lillee's attention at an MRF Pace foundation bowling camp. Lillee alerted Greg Chappell, and soon Nabi was bowling in the India nets.
He is nippy, bowls with a smooth and clean action, and along with Punjab's VRV Singh, who has already played for the country, he represents hope for Indian cricket in its quest for that ever-elusive species: the genuine fast bowler.
But Nabi is not merely a fast-bowling prospect. He may not be aware of it, and may not want to contemplate the significance of it, but it is more than merely India's fast-bowling hopes that are riding on his shoulders.
Nabi is no ordinary cricketer. He represents Jammu and Kashmir, a state locked in a bloody conflict over identity, one where the concepts of patriotism and nationalism are shrouded in grey, and where overt allegiance to the Indian mainstream brings perils. For years Jammu and Kashmir has had only a token presence in the Ranji Trophy. No international match has been played in the state since 1986. Rains forced the abandonment of the fifth ODI of the India-New Zealand series in Jammu in 1988. No cricketer from the state has ever come close to being picked for India.
Much depends on whether Nabi succeeds. It could potentially revive cricket in Kashmir. More importantly, he can be a bridge, a symbol. That cricket can heal was demonstrated by India's historic tour to Pakistan in 2004. During that last international in Srinagar in 1986, the crowd cheered for the visiting side, Australia. Would they do the same if Nabi is part of the team?
Ghulam Nabi Ahanger, Nabi's father, has always been a keen follower of cricket. In 1983, when international cricket came to Jammu and Kashmir for the first time, he bought a 50-rupee ticket to watch India play Clive Lloyd's West Indies. But more than a decade later, when his son started showing a liking for the game, he tried to dissuade him.
The Nabis, who come from fairly humble circumstances, felt there was no scope in taking sport seriously, especially in troubled times. "We thought then that education was the best option for our children," Ahanger says over tea at the family's three-storey house in Srinagar, which they share with three of Nabi's maternal uncles and their families.
In the beginning Nabi did not think of playing cricket for a living. But as encouragement came his way from his coach and senior team-mates, he began to dare to hope. "I became hopeful that I can become someone and get good things," he says.
In the limited opportunities he has found to play for his state, he has already made some strides. This season he narrowly missed out on a place in the Challenger Series teams and the North Zone Duleep Trophy squad.
Bowling in the nets at Mohali, in the presence of his heroes, Nabi learned valuable lessons. "Every senior told me to look after my physical fitness, and that if I continued to work hard, I could get a chance anytime."
Does Nabi's ambition go against the grain of the local thinking in his state? Does it mark a departure from a way of life that is thought to be conditioned towards seeking azaadi from the Indian mainstream?
That India is taking its place as a global economic power is not lost on young Kashmiris, who are ready to take risks to better their lot
Ehsan Mirza, the treasurer at the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) doesn't think so. Mirza's family owns a successful carpet business, and Mirza also runs the popular Amateur Cricket Club (ACC), where Nabi, among others, plays. Mirza says that at this point in time he perceives no opposition to Nabi - or anyone else from the state - playing for India. "The state's politics has never influenced JKCA matters," he says. Dar Yasin, who took the photographs that accompany this feature, quit playing cricket after a police encounter near where they were playing a Sunday match in the early 1990s left one dead. He thinks the common man is getting increasingly desperate to see a Kashmiri face in the Indian dressing room. "People have been complaining for a long time that nobody has been selected from Kashmir. There've been some good players, but they were rejected on the basis of being Kashmiri," he says.
Terrorism has ripped holes in the delicate fabric of Kashmir's beauty. It has dried up investment and employment opportunities that may otherwise have come the state's way. That India is taking its place as a global economic power is not lost on young Kashmiris, who are ready to take risks to better their lot.
Samiullah Beigh, 20, a tall, upcoming fast bowler, and Nabi's team-mate, thinks they can't move forward by playing safe all the time. "If I want to be a great player, I have to sacrifice something." Beigh is in his final year at engineering college, and aims to devote all his time to the game once he graduates.
Mirza understands that if things don't improve in the state's cricket soon, youngsters will start looking elsewhere. "They are very ambitious and try to excel at everything they do," he says. The Nabis are impatient too. They have gone through hardship, lived with fear - and continue to do so. Now there is hope, in the form of their son. They cherish dreams of the day when he finally plays for the country and makes Kashmir proud.
Will Nabi live up to the expectations and turn into India's next pace sensation? Only time will tell. For now, he is the poster boy of Jammu and Kashmir cricket and has become something of a benchmark.
Nineteen-year-old Mohammed Mudasir, who started to take a serious interest in the game two years ago, and attended the MRF camp in 2006, says his parents are now asking him to work harder and follow Nabi's example.
Nabi understands the responsibilities of being a role model. Sitting on the grass at the picturesque Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium, he talks of how happy he feels when young cricketers approach him for advice. He himself hardly had the benefit of such inputs when he was rising through the ranks.
For every Nabi who makes it to the verge of the big time, there are dozens who fall by the way. The lush environs of Jammu and Kashmir have produced abundant talent, but it has often withered away for want of nurture.
Players such as Abdul Qayyum Bagoo and Surinder Singh Bagal - who Sourav Ganguly once said was the fastest bowler he had faced - may not have become household names, but they did make it to the fringes of national selection. They may have gone all the way had they had support. Who knows what such talent would have achieved with proper guidance?
"We were sidelined because we came from a weaker state," says Idrees Gundroo, a Jammu and Kashmir fast bowler of the 1980s. "Had we got these opportunities now, as the board is giving these days, we would've made it to a decent level." It is only now that the likes of Nabi have Farooq Abdullah, the JKCA President, throwing their weight behind them.
Still, being a cricketer in Kashmir is hardly easy. The years of conflict have taken their toll. The JKCA has been reduced to a two-room office after the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) took over the complex. Cricketers have to walk past hoops of barbed wire that cordon off the association's premises. CRPF jawans stand guard outside, not letting even officials and players in without identity cards.
Apart from the pitch at the Sher-i-Kashmir, which was once fast and is now flat, the entire Kashmir region doesn't have a single turf wicket. Back in 1996, when after a seven-year lull some senior cricketers and JKCA officials came together to get cricket going at the stadium again, they found it difficult to locate the playing square under the grass, which had grown two-feet tall.
Sher-i-Kashmir continues to languish: the wicket lies barren; the stands are the ones that were installed for the first time in 1983; the scoreboard is lost among the branches of the beautiful Chinar trees that circle the ground; there are no toilets or drainage facilities, no dressing room for the players, no showers. The B ground adjacent to the main one has two practice wickets, but both of cement.
The JKCA says its hands are tied since nothing can be done without the army's permission, even if it is the association that owns the land. Mirza says the JKCA has been asking the security forces to vacate the premises for the last six years in vain.
As an alternative arrangement, Mirza has signed a contract with Kashmir University (KU) under which the JKCA will maintain and use the university's two grounds for the next three years. A new turf wicket and two practice wickets have already been constructed at the KU grounds for the use of the ACC.
It may be too little too late, though. Their patience wearing thin, the likes of Nabi and Beigh are now looking to play outside the state as much as possible. Nabi made his Times Shield debut this year in Mumbai. He thinks playing outside the state more "will fast-forward my development".
Says Beigh, "Earlier we used to play just for the sake of pride and honour and it was a big thing to play one match for the state. Now, after being at the MRF for four months, I am more hungry to prove myself on the national front. I never felt the other bowlers [at MRF] were any special."
If Nabi does eventually make it to the Indian side, he could be the harbinger of a new chapter in the history of Jammu and Kashmir cricket. "If we get one break - Nabi - then there will be a stream of players following him," Mirza says. Abdul Majid Kakroo, the former India football captain, who played between 1981 and 1989, and once was on a terrorist hitlist, says sport can only help unite. "If Nabi goes on to play for India, it will silence the skeptics who feel that India treats Kashmir as an outsider."
As for Nabi himself, he only wants to take his state forward. Kashmir is the rabbit of Indian domestic cricket and Nabi aims to change that. "I want Jammu and Kashmir to move forward. Aage ka toh pata nahin (I don't about what will happen in the future)."