"I just love watching young cricketers perform". This was Manu Nayyar's answer when asked what prompted him to become a match referee at the domestic level. The current generation may not recognise Nayyar, but followers of Indian domestic cricket back in the 1980s would certainly remember him.
A former Delhi and North Zone opening batsman, he announced his arrival with a century on debut in 1986 and notched up 3421 runs at an impressive average of 48.18 before retiring in 1993. He was a part of Delhi's power-packed top order, which included the late Raman Lamba and KP Bhaskar. In seven seasons, Nayyar was part of four Ranji finals and had the opportunity to face visiting international teams, though he wasn't fortunate enough to represent India.
It was almost impossible to play as a professional cricketer back then, Nayyar says, with domestic cricketers pocketing paltry sums as match fees compared to the big bucks players earn these days. Now, with the BCCI's cash windfall, does he have any regrets? "Well yes, I would have loved to play in this era," Nayyar told Cricinfo during the Ranji Trophy match between Tamil Nadu and Mumbai in Chennai. "With that kind of money I'd be practising all night with floodlights on."
Nayyar said he retired at the age of 30 as he felt the vibes weren't good within the Delhi set-up. While cricket is littered with stories of players quitting the game in disgust after fall-outs with the administration, Nayyar chose to stay on and give something back to the game he loves, coaching youngsters at the Madan Lal Cricket Academy, scouting for young talent as a Delhi selector, and refereeing games.
Nayyar is also out there to disprove the belief that the job of a match referee in domestic cricket is a paid holiday, despite the number of incidents a minuscule number when compared to internationals. The domestic scene has had its share of infamous moments, like the time when an enraged Rashid Patel chased Lamba with a stump all the way to the boundary in a Duleep Trophy match in 1990-91, and the more recent incident of Hyderabad's Arjun Yadav uprooting a stump to attack Ambati Rayudu - then playing for Andhra - after a heated verbal exchange between the two.
Nayyar points out that players should be mindful of the fact that the punishments levied are on the same basis as international matches. While it's easy to get carried away in a domestic game where big incidents are few and far between, Nayyar says there are several things which could go unnoticed and that requires the referee to maintain his concentration, especially without the luxury of TV replays. "For example, I have caught players gesturing to the umpires with the bat, indicating an inside edge," said Nayyar. "As a former player, I can understand the frustration sometimes but players just need to accept their dismissal and move on. Moreover, before the domestic pay hike, a player ran the risk of losing a considerable portion of his paltry match fee if caught for dissent. So there was basically everything to lose if he didn't behave himself."
When asked if there is an incident that sticks out in his seven years as a referee, he recounts one involving a current Indian player a couple of seasons back, in Ahmedabad. "It was at the stroke of the tea interval and the players were walking off. Suddenly, this player at square leg, darts off in the other direction and charges towards a small group of spectators and gives them a piece of his mind. Apparently, they verbally abused him so he decided to take them to task on his own. It was so hilarious, I was in splits though I still had to punish him."
Nayyar certainly is a man of many cricketing hats , having been a player, coach, referee and selector. It's the sheer love of the game and watching budding young cricketers which drives Nayyar, roughing it out sometimes in shamianas and stuffy rooms, a world far from the air-conditioned rooms international referees are accustomed to.
Domestic cricket, in all parts of the world may have little market value but players at the Guru Nanak College Ground, hoping to enjoy another day free of the public glare were in for a surprise. News of international players like Ramesh Powar and Ajit Agarkar playing in the quaint surroundings of the college ground must have spread like wild fire as hoardes of autograph hunters assembled from nowhere. It wasn't just restricted to internationals. A budding young cricketer, accompanied by his father, approached coach WV Raman for an autograph and Raman duly obliged, even chatting with the kid. A young Tamil Nadu cricketer, in his second season, got his first taste of stardom when two young kids approached him to sign a cricket bat. After doing the needful, he patted the kid on his shoulder and walked off with a proud smile. As play started, a sizeable Saturday afternoon crowd had gathered, and the portable scoreboard had to be shifted to allow them to catch the progress of the game. The chasing continued after the game, and Powar was the centre of attention, having to pose for photographs with enthusiastic fans. Yes, believe it or not, this is a domestic match.