For close to a decade, Parvez Rasool has been the face of Jammu & Kashmir cricket. He has seen administrations collapse, coaches come and go, the team stranded in the midst of political turmoil, players being affected by natural calamities and even their livelihoods being affected because of things not under their control.
Now, he believes J&K cricket is primed for bigger things. The decision to invest in youngsters and going into the districts is bearing fruit, players are being noticed even by IPL franchises and there is an air of positivity even if everything isn't yet perfect. Rasool opened up on those aspects and more in an interview with ESPNcricinfo.
Tell us about the system you came through?
For fifty years, J&K cricket stalled. Our facilities remained the same. There were just two big venues, two turf wickets. Even today, one venue, Srinagar, remains out of bound for three months during the monsoons and three months during the winter because of snow. So half the year, it's inaccessible. How can you produce players when you aren't able to provide wickets, basic infrastructure? There is no indoor facility yet. This has been the story for the last many years. The selection system was dysfunctional. Ahead of the season, the players used to only get 10 days to prepare. Camps used to be called hastily, players would be informed through newspaper ads. Now, who reads newspapers, English ones, in interior Kashmir? There was no concept of district trials or tournaments. So essentially, whoever turned up formed part of the probables and they used to pick teams from that. How could expect results in a system like this?
How has the court-appointed committee helped grow the game in Jammu & Kashmir?
Since 2018, we've had professionals run the show. Irfan Pathan came in as player-mentor. Someone with international experience like him went door to door, district to district, remote ones even, where there was only violence. He conducted trials, open nets, spent days looking for players. He, along with coach Milap Mewada, conducted pre-season camps, trained and lived with the team for two months. It was through one such camp that we we found Rasikh Salam in Kulgam district in 2019. He had been coming to trials for three years, but kept getting rejected.
Irfan saw him bowl and immediately asked the JKCA to bring him into the system. Imagine, Mumbai Indians, a championship winning team, noticed something and picked him and let him train at world-class facilities, while our own administrators turned a blind eye because he wasn't "talented". Rasikh is now in Mumbai, I think the franchise is taking care of him while he serves out the two-year ban. Here, there was no concept of "looking after" players until two years ago, but that has changed. Take the example of Abdul Samad. He is from Kalakote. Imagine, he's being picked in the IPL from a place where there's no cricket ground, forget a turf wicket. Two years ago, there was Manzoor Dar, who was with Kings XI Punjab. So there is talent. And administrators have to change their process of finding it if they have to grow the game. That is slowly starting to happen now with professionals coming in. The message is clear: 'If you perform, where you come from doesn't matter.' You will be backed, you will get opportunities. The administrators aren't cricketers, but they've got a vision, and have let people who know the game run the show. That is the biggest difference.
"We didn't even know if we will play the season. Phones were blocked, I couldn't even contact my neighbour. Some boys were stuck without electricity, some were stuck in interior areas. All along, even though there was so much political turmoil, you could still see kids playing cricket in the gullies and open grounds. That passion can't be taken away. That passion we've shown as a team as well."PARVEZ RASOOL
Do you see players from small centres now having more confidence now?
This year, for the first time, we had a player from Kishtwar district, It's a hilly area. Henan Nazir got picked for our Under-23 team from here. He scored back-to-back hundreds there and then we got him to the Ranji squad. He was nerveless, and scored 66 on debut against Assam, Abid Mushtaq comes from Doda district. Earlier, people used to come from just two centres, whether they performed or not. Aquib Nabi is from Baramulla, Umar Nazir is from Pulwana, I am from Anantnag. Now, the environment is such they know where they come from doesn't matter. That is a great sign. And all these guys are game-ready, because they're now playing a lot more. I haven't had a bigger selection headache than I've had this year, because these boys are all match-tuned. It's been hard to leave out people. That is the kind of transformation we're talking about. I'm not by any means saying things are back to being at their best or that things are wonderful and everything's rosy, but yes, there has been a massive change in confidence and attitude of players and administrators.
What has pleased you the most this season?
The boys have reached the knockouts despite the challenges which everyone's well aware of. We didn't even know if we will play the season. The political climate was such that there was uncertainty. Their mental resilience is unbelievable. Phones were blocked, I couldn't even contact my neighbour. Some boys were stuck without electricity, some were stuck in interior areas. Our CEO contacted news channels, local TV, newspapers. He sent police vehicles to bring us to Jammu. All along, even though there was so much political turmoil and a tense atmosphere, you could still see kids playing cricket in the gullies and open grounds. That passion can't be taken away. That passion we've shown as a team as well. To get here is a message in how to make the most of what you have. Credit to our CEO Bukhari saab, and of course our coaching staff. They've instilled incredible amount of confidence and self-belief.
Has the team ever been intimidated this season?
Irfan's played a big role in taking the fear out over the last couple of years. He says 'Why look at other teams? You've won six games to get here, others should be looking at you.' That is the line of thinking now. We have a combination of some wonderful young players and a few seniors. The average age is 23-24, the youngsters are hungry, they have that spark.
How have you carried the pressure of being the face of J&K cricket for the last decade or so?
I don't look at it as pressure. It's a proud moment for me that as a senior, who has played at a higher level, I'm in a position to give back to the state. I want to bring that experience and share it with the youngsters. It's not like I had something more than what these youngsters have in terms of ability. It's just that my father was a district cricketer, who played local tournaments. So I had that backing from my family, which some of these guys don't have. That is the difference. You have to give them that belief, back them and show some patience. They will make mistakes, but as a senior, I try to tell them that is how you learn. I tell the boys, if nobody notices you, make them chase you. Win games single-handedly. This group has a chance to make history in the years to come.
How have you channeled the disappointment of not playing for India a lot more?
I was hurt. In my debut tour to Zimbabwe in 2015, 14 of the 15 players in the squad got a game. I didn't. It was tough, but it wasn't like I was meant to be a passenger. I got there because I took wickets and runs prior to that in the Ranji Trophy. I didn't lose my confidence, but it made me more determined to contribute. Again, I had a good follow-up season, got a game on the tour of Bangladesh on a flat wicket, where I dismissed Mushfiqur Rahim and Animal Haque. In 2016-17, I scored 629 runs and 38 wickets, and then got one game against England, where I dismissed Eoin Morgan. So yes, there's a sense I didn't get the chances I would've liked, but if I get bogged down, I can't set an example for the players here. I can't tell them to forget about selection and play freely if I personally feel low or disappointed. How I look at it is, it's nice to be the first player from Jammu & Kashmir to represent India. If I can use that tag to make a difference, that will make me happier. Bishan Bedi often said 'control the controllables'. It's really as simple as that.
What is the best compliment someone gave you?
What I am today is because of Bishan Bedi. If I am an off-spinner today with 250-plus wickets, it's because of him. I remember, when he first became coach and walked in to our Ranji nets and watched me bowl, he casually remarked to one of our selectors about how clean my action was and how I was getting the ball to turn and dip on the batsmen. Our selector laughed it off saying 'Sir, he is a batsmen, he can't bowl.' Bishan sir told him, 'How is this possible? Just watch, if there's anyone from here who can play for India in a few years, it's him. This boy is the best off-spinner in your state'. That much confidence he had in me, I didn't have so much confidence in myself at the time. I hadn't played Ranji Trophy, others felt he was mad. But a season later, the same guys told him, how right he was. That backing helped me a lot.
Despite the challenges, was cricket a natural transition for you?
I was lucky because my father was a district-level cricket. I come from Bajwara, the nearest turf wicket was in Srinagar, 50 kilometres away. I used to take two buses to get there to train. We used to stand in the sun all day. Sometimes at trials, you had just six balls to bowl or bat. You had to show your spark there. No one gave you refreshments or water. No one recognised people from smaller districts. But if you said you were from Srinagar or Jammu, you were looked at differently. So I grew up thinking I'm competing with 1000s of others with my same skillsets, even if I may be better than them. My father's backing was key to pursuing the game. My elder brother has also played domestic cricket, so that influence rubbed off on me.
"There's a sense I didn't get the chances I would've liked [with India], but if I get bogged down, I can't set an example for the players here. I can't tell them to forget about selection and play freely if I personally feel low or disappointed."PARVEZ RASOOL
What is the legacy you want to leave when you finish?
Personally, I want to give back to the area I come from. It's easy saying I want to make a difference to J&K cricket, but I want to start from where I come from. Two years back, from my own pocket and with some contributions from my close friends, we built two turf wickets, purchased rollers and other ground equipment by investing 8-10 lakhs, only because I had to develop the same ground where I grew up. We pooled in money and have started conducting tournaments. We formed a small association - Bijbehara Cricket Association in the area, which I head. I talk and train with the kids when I am around at home. This is the first turf wicket there. I want to give them a facility to train. Last year, 12-13 year-olds played a tournament for the first time. We conduct senior and junior matches regularly. At the nets, the kids don't often get the concept of running between the wickets. They all hit the ball hard. How do you channelise that? By conducting matches. T20 matches are an overkill, they don't have temperament to play 40-50 overs, so we conducted matches with two new balls and proper one-day rules so that they learn and develop game sense. These are small steps, which I hope will make a big difference some time in the future.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo