The North-East Railway Stadium is a picturesque ground in Maligaon, on the outskirts of Guwahati. Nestled in the verdant Narakasur hills that envelop the ground is the famous Kamakhya temple, one of the most venerated shrines in India.
Assam's Under-15 side are playing Jharkhand in the east zone edition of the Polly Umrigar Trophy. Construction workers are busy digging up the turf at the basketball end of the ground, and trains chug along every few minutes at the railway end. Keeping a close eye on the cricket is Rajesh Borah, by all accounts Assam's greatest cricketer.
Borah, currently the head coach at the Assam Cricket Association, turned out in 66 first-class games for the state, and made five centuries in a career spanning 18 years. Most of Borah's games were on this ground. His 62-ball 126 against Tripura in 1988, included 11 fours and 11 sixes and remains one of the fastest hundreds in Indian domestic cricket. ("Don't forget the four consecutive sixes," he smiles). Old-timers in Guwahati still speak of his explosive batting.
A forgotten history
Borah is one in a long list of Assamese cricketers who rarely got any recognition outside their own playing fields. Locals still speak of torchbearers such as Munna Kakoti and Anup Ghatak, fast bowlers who weren't noticed in the days when India relied solely on spin. Kakoti, nicknamed "Lillee" for his ferocious bowling, faded away after a promising start. Some say he sought refuge in drugs.
"No exposure, no backing, no patron, no recognition," is how Bimal Bharali, a former Assam captain, describes the cricket in the state. "It's continuing even today. I am not surprised that four promising players have decided to join the Indian Cricket League. They might have thought there is no real future here."
Bharali himself showed tremendous promise early on, including a battling 45 against the visiting MCC side in 1976, but then languished in the lower rungs of the domestic scene.
"There's hardly any infrastructure, no stadiums [the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati remains a multi-purpose stadium], and very little off-season training," he continues. "It rains for seven to eight months in a year, so one can't think of off-season training. There aren't too many indoor facilities. Most of the cricket that used to happen here [until last year] was 25-30 over games.
"The pitches were of poor quality. Most of the administrators haven't played the game, so it's tough to expect too much. Many promising cricketers quit the game early. They either took up other sports or decided to settle down in a job. Playing cricket in the north-east is a long, hard struggle."
Yet Borah and Sanath Kumar, the former Karnataka medium-pacer who is currently coaching Assam, are optimistic about the future. "We started the SP Barua Trophy last year, the first off-season tournament in the state, and cricket is gradually moving away from Guwahati." says Kumar. "Silchar, Dibrugarh and Nagaon have talent. There is one Ranji fast bowler [Krishna Das] from remote Barpeta in lower Assam. Mark Ingty, the medium-pacer, is from a tribe in Shillong. It's a positive sign."
Borah, too, is upbeat about the future. "We were unbeaten in our five Ranji league games last year. We also won the East Zone Ranji one-day tournament. It was the best season in Assam's history. Also, we're sending the Assam team outside the state during the off season more often. Playing in tournaments like Moin-ud-Dowla and Buchi Babu will surely help. We will soon have an exclusive cricket stadium in Barsapara. That's a first."
Assam have benefited from having a number of players from outside the state in their side. This season three veterans from Tamil Nadu - Sridharan Sharath, now the Assam captain; former India opener Sadagoppan Ramesh; and former Tamil Nadu captain Somashetty Suresh - are guiding the youngsters along. "Interacting with these cricketers, watching them practise, seeing them approach match situations, helps the local cricketers immensely," says Kumar. "I am trying to get Assam's cricketers to play in some local leagues too."
One step forward, two back
The positives have been accompanied by setbacks, though. Just when Assam appeared to be tracing a path back to the Super League, and a few youngsters had emerged as future prospects, along came the Indian Cricket League. The departure of four youngsters - Abu Nechim Ahmed, Pervez Aziz, Sujoy Tarafdar, and Pritam Das - and one senior player, Zakaria Zuffri, left Assam depleted.
Nechim and Aziz were seen as two capable of breaking into the national side - which no player from the north-east has yet done - but the lure of the ICL's money was probably too much for them. Local observers point out how these cricketers come from poor families, and how they have cause to be frustrated at the treatment they get from the system. "There is no real follow-up here," says Kumar. "In other states talented youngsters are spotted early and persisted with. Even if they fail, they don't lose their place. Here people want instant results."
He talks of Palash Jyoti Das and Mrigen Talukdar, both 22, who were Under-15 stars in the ACC Under-15 tournament in Malaysia in 2000. Palash was adjudged the best batsman (317 runs, including two hundreds) of the tournament and Mrigen (13 wickets) the best bowler. Yet they find themselves in the Ranji reserves, at a point in their careers when they should have been thinking about national selection.
Early this month Assam suffered a heavy defeat against Gujarat in the opening round of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy. Borah isn't too perturbed, and prefers to look at the bigger picture. "Five years back I wouldn't have been speaking about an exclusive cricket stadium in Assam, neither would I be watching talented 15-year-olds play three-day games. Cricket in Assam has come a long way. Give us three years and you could see an Assamese play for India."