A sprightly Indian Army captain entrusted with handling the logistical issues of the Badgam Badhshahs reaches the Delhi Public School ground in Athwajan where his team is facing the Srinagar Shah Jahans. He is impressed with the pace and aggression of a teenaged bowler in his team. During the mid-innings break he goes up to the young Kashmiri lad. "Quite an arm you've got there," says the captain, just then he pauses, he recognises the face and smiles.
Last summer, during a protest, the teenaged pacer had hurled a stone that struck the captain on his knee. It left his patella tendon in worse shape than Rafael Nadal's, but on this day it is a thing of the past.
If the purpose of the inaugural Kashmir Premier League, an initiative of the Indian Army, is to build bridges between Kashmiri's and armymen it seems to be working.
Overwhelming, to begin with
The T20 tournament may have hit the news recently with the launch of the League Stage featuring 14 teams from all the 10 districts in the valley. However, the qualifying rounds were being held across the various districts since May, with the winner from each district advancing to the League Stage.
The league is the brainchild of Group Officer Commanding (GOC) of 15 Corps, Lieutenant General Syed Atta Husnain.
"One day while watching an Indian Premier League match GOC Husnain came up with the idea to reach out to the Kashmiri people. We (the army) then worked in tandem with the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) and the state's youth services and sports council to put it into place," added Lt Col Vaid, who is handling the matches at the DPS ground, a couple of kilometers away from the Badami Bagh Cantonment.
In districts such as Srinagar, Baramula and Anantnag, which have a strong cricketing tradition, two teams were picked. In addition to the winners, a team of the best players in the qualifiers, selected by former J&K Ranji players, also progressed to the League Stage.
"The Indian Army came to us seeking our help in organising the tournament. We offered them our umpires, advised them which grounds to play on, many of Kashmir's best former players were asked to select teams in certain districts like former pacer Abdul Qayoom choosing the second team from Anantnag," said JKCA secretary Ehsan Mirza.
Chance for the ignored
Mostly comprising of a motley crew of amateurs, the KPL has also given a chance for state's Ranji players to test their skills in the shortest format of the game. "None of our players were picked for the IPL. Eight of our Ranji players tried out for various franchises like King's XI Punjab, Rajasthan Royals and Deccan Chargers, but none of them was selected.
Even when the JKCA hosted our domestic T20 tournament, the JKPL last year it had to be abandoned mid-way because of strife in the valley, in fact we will play the final of last year's tournament later this month. So, in a way it's good for the players. At the same time we must remember that the KPL is primarily a social outreach tool, and then a cricketing tournament," said JKCA vice-chairman Javid Ahmad Kitab.
While it can't be denied that the KPL has had a positive impact in improving the army's image in the valley, crowds are still sparse.
During the match at the DPS ground a handful of students was the total turnout. Crowds, or lack thereof, however is the least of the army's troubles. Many Kashmiri's are still skeptical.
At an eatery in Srinagar's central market, two college girls are not all that impressed by the KPL. "For years they've been killing our brothers in fake encounters, they've been raping our sisters, they've kept us confined to the four walls of our house. Should we forget two decades of abuse just because they're organising a cricket tournament?" asks one of the girls, with her eyes turning red. And then, almost forgivingly, she whispers, "At least it's a start."Indeed, which is greater, the healing power of sport or that of the human mind?