When Mahendra Singh Dhoni smashed the final shot in the World Cup final against Sri Lanka in April, it not just sailed into the Wankhede Stadium stands for the winning six; it was the culmination of sorts for a small-town boy of humble means who had established himself as a formidable leader and player. Amid the cacophony of celebrations that erupted, it was also a big statement, particularly encouraging thousands of young boys from India’s mofussil areas that if they set their minds to it, they can also take their cricketing goals to great heights.
In the year marked by the high of the World Cup and some lows that followed, Dhoni has also been the undisputed leader of a new band in Indian cricket that grew in numbers. That band is the number of players from smaller centres who have risen to make a mark in the game, rubbing shoulders with the big names from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.
In a Cup team, whose flag-bearer was Sachin Tendulkar, there was also Suresh Raina from the less fancied Uttar Pradesh, who played an influential role. Yuvraj Singh, from Chandigarh, who has also had to fight his battles, was crowned the player of the tournament.
As Indian cricket gears up for the New Year, a look back at the 12 months gone by only emphasises the continuing change in the cricketing landscape. The national one-day championship was not won by any of the big teams but by Jharkhand. The state also threw up the fastest bowler in the land, Varun Aaron.
Umesh Yadav, the hot kid who is fit and firing in the India pace department, is a coalminer’s son from interior Vidarbha who seriously pursued cricket only in his late teens.
The complexion of the national team began changing a decade ago when then skipper Sourav Ganguly backed talent even if the players were seen as a bit too wild to fit in. Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj, and even Virender Sehwag, whose batting many felt was too freewheeling to stand scrutiny at the highest level, made a big splash. That trickle has turned into a torrent. The initiatives taken by some of the smaller state associations and the opportunities provided by the IPL are bearing fruit.
Lessons from the past
Former India bowler Narendra Hirwani should know how difficult it is to shake off the disadvantages. The Gorakhpur-born player, as a leggie, represented the romantic aspect of the game after he took a match-winning haul of 16 wickets on Test debut against the West Indies in Chennai in 1988. However, he had to rough it out in an Indore stadium to pursue his dream. Hirwani, now a national selector, spoke to HT about how youngsters from far and wide are making an impact and how things have changed now.
"It is really heartening to see players coming from small cities. Earlier, exposure was limited to big cities. Now, TV shows so much cricket from which youngsters can learn."
“Also, those coming from smaller centres badly want to succeed; boys from big cities are hungry for success no doubt, but those from the hinterland are hungrier. They struggle much early on and learn a lot from their sacrifices.
“In my early playing days, I lived in a small room. I watched video cassettes to learn. These days, there is so much cricket on TV to learn from. “Times have changed,” adds Hirwani. “They are much better prepared when opportunities come. Earlier, they used to be suppressed, but their confidence levels are really high now.
“And, of course, Dhoni is a big role model. Today they feel, ‘if he can do it, I can also do it’.”
Along with their fighting spirit, these players have also not been bogged down by technique. Dhoni is the prime example of someone dealing with challenges in his own way, be it keeping wickets or smashing the bowling at will. “The natural game is very important, but it is also vital to tweak one’s technique. That add-on is the way to improve,” says Hirwani.
The IPL may have faced criticism in a packed calendar, but it has been the prime mover in terms of providing openings, not just to those from small towns, but also to those youngsters from big cities who have struggled to break into the Ranji sides.
This year, as IPL faced a lukewarm response due to the fan fatigue that followed the World Cup, it was Paul Valthaty who grabbed eyeballs in the initial stages of the event. Hailing from Mumbai, and having overcome a career-threatening eye injury, it was the opener’s batting heroics that set the tone.
The IPL CEO, Sundar Raman, says the league has been the perfect launch pad for players from across the country and the trend has caught on. The competition format also helps a player to come good even if he fails initially. “The best thing about IPL is it is genuinely ‘Talent Meets Opportunity’. It prepares the player to get ready to play with the best in the world, to play under pressure, in front of big crowds. IPL provides the elements of preparedness needed to go onto the world stage. This becomes so valuable when they come into the India team; and India’s bench-strength also gets tested,” says Raman.
It is heartening that players are not content with the big bucks IPL offers. All-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, who hails from Saurashtra, Punjab leg-spinner Rahul Sharma, Jharkhand’s Saurabh Tiwary, Madhya Pradesh batsman Naman Ojha and Bengal seamer Ashok Dinda have all grabbed national attention thanks to their IPL exploits.
Rahul Sharma is on a high after his ODI debut against the West Indies. The Jalandhar-born son of an assistant sub-inspector of police almost didn’t make it, suffering partial facial paralysis. But he was the lone bright spot in the IPL this year for an otherwise listless Pune Warriors. So, how did IPL prepare him? “My strategy was to bowl wicket to wicket with variations. You can’t be predictable in T20.” Mentoring also played its part. “I had a chat with Bhajji. He told me my strong point is the bounce I extract and asked me to keep working on it.”
Cricket as a pan-Indian pursuit for players at the top level may still be a work in progress, but the number of steely-willed youngsters around are pressing the fast forward button.