The Reliance Cricket Stadium near Nagothane is one of the many small-town venues where Maharashtra have been playing their home games
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The Reliance Cricket Stadium near Nagothane is situated 130 km from the nearest city: Mumbai. The population of the township that houses the ground is about 2000. There are villages surrounding the township, the nearest one being 10 km away. Yet, on a Sunday, anywhere between 800 and 1000 watched the Maharashtra-Delhi Ranji Trophy match, something big cities like Mumbai, with a population of 10 million, scarcely manage. And Virender Sehwag, the main attraction, did not even bat on the day.
With a hill overlooking the ground and the winter sun staying mild for the majority of the day, it is fun to play and watch cricket here. A venue far away from the city and amid the hills is bound to evoke the exotic, which one needs to look beyond. Nagothane, staging it's maiden first-class game, is one of the many offbeat, small-town venues in Maharashtra, where Ranji Trophy games are being held.
Ratnagiri, Nasik, Aurangabad, Nanded and Karad are the other venues where they have been playing. After they played Bengal in the first round of the 2005-06 Ranji Trophy, they haven't played a first-class game at Pune. "Maharashtra is a huge state," says Ajay Shirke, the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) president. "And it's not feasible for the talent in the districts and small towns to come to us; we will have to go to them with the game. We realised that for the last two-three seasons we have been working on that."
The persistence has started showing feasible benefits. "Our Under-15 team has reached the semi-finals and is unbeaten so far. The pace spearhead of that team, Yuvraj Pawar, comes from Usmanabad. His parents know nothing about the game. We wouldn't have got him had we just concentrated on Pune. A majority of the population doesn't have the means to come to Pune and play with city players. We have recognsied it as our responsibility to take the game to them. You can see the senior team too: we have players from Aurangabad, Satara, Nasik. Some of them are the first players from their districts for the last 40-45 years."
Our Under-15 team has reached the semi-finals and is unbeaten so far. The pace spearhead of that team, Yuvraj Pawar, comes from Usmanabad. His parents know nothing about the game
There is an unmistakable raw enthusiasm to the young Maharashtra side who have won two matches outright and conceded a first-innings for the first time, against Delhi. Players like medium-pacer Wahid Sayyed from Aurangabad might probably not have made it to the side, but for this policy. Jaideep Narse, former Maharashtra opener, who travels with the team now to assist with the sports mechanics, feels there has been a decisive shift with cricket going to the hinterland. "Earlier Maharashtra cricket was only Pune," Narse, also from Pune says, "but now we play all over, even if that means doing away with the home advantage for the time being."
Bhupinder Singh, the national selector, only vindicated Narse's point. Supposed to watch this match, he landed up in Pune only to find out they were playing in Nagothane.
While staying beyond the exotic, as Sanjay Bangar's said in his domestic diary
, it is also necessary that players get a proper wicket to play, a proper outfield to field in, and a reasonable place to stay. The local journalists say the wickets at Ratnagiri and Nasik have been sporting. The Nagothane track has a good-length spot from where the ball misbehaves, but apart from that the wicket has done itself no disgrace. The batsmen can get runs if they can apply themselves, the bowlers wickets if they keep hitting the length. The outfield is better than some of the international venues in India. And the team have been put up in large resorts where one can lose one's way while taking a walk.
Shirke doesn't refute there are "teething" problems, which will be resolved with time. On the day before the match, there was no-one at the ground to operate the super-sopper. On the first day of the match, when heavy dew caused an hour's delay, an experienced groundstaff could have avoided the delay. It might have only required to time the removal of the covers better. The media-persons covering the match have no decent places left to stay, after the teams have populated the two available resorts. But overall, "teething" problems aside, while the BCCI is busy promoting the game in Singapore, Malaysia and such like, it is good to see a state association taking it to villages. And benefiting from that through the talent they generate.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo