There are some things taken for granted in the northeast. The general knowledge about music ranging from jazz to heavy metal is better than the rest of the country, rarely would you find an obese and unfit person and almost everyone plays football here. The stadium experience of a football match is possibly the best summation of all three. It’s 45 minutes of tough football played by some of the fittest players in the country on either side of a break that’s utilised to blare out a head banging music mash-up.
All seemed fine here till the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) decided to expand their territory into this part of the country some two months back. First-class cricket in this region was confined to Assam and Tripura for a very long time but apart from very few surprises, both teams have generally kept a low profile. There have been a few BCCI organised tournaments for the affiliate members but those were at best sporadic. Between 1983 and 2010, Guwahati has hosted 16 ODIs but that is about it when it comes to international cricket in the northeast.
Football, on the other hand, has always captivated people from this region. From Nagaland’s Talimeran Ao, independent India’s first captain, to Jeje Lalpekhlua, there has been a steady stream of footballers who played for India with distinction. The real surge though happened in the last decade when no less than five football clubs qualified to play in the I-League. For football reasons and beyond however, only Shillong Lajong FC has managed to stay in the top tier.
Now with the BCCI looking northeast and trying to spread the game by arranging camps, improving infrastructure and building teams, there is apprehension that football’s dominance in this region will be under grave threat. “It’s alarming if the BCCI gets in the northeast. They are the most financially strong association and I think it’s a wakeup call for football in the northeast,” Thangboi Singto, senior team coach of Shillong Lajong FC, told HT from Goa few days back.
Singto had no doubt that even though the northeast is called the cradle of Indian football, the game can only thrive with the sustenance of top-tier clubs. “At one point in time there were three clubs playing in an I-League. But I don’t know why Royal Wahingdoh and Rangjadied United closed down. Aizawl FC were relegated this year. United Sikkim has closed down. There is no team from Manipur. And T Ao happened long time back. Five teams from northeast (in the I-League) is called thriving, not this,” said Singto.
The BCCI’s plans are clear --- increase awareness to the point that there is a steady stream of cricketers within a few years. There are reasons behind this expansion too. Not wanting to hit a saturation point in terms of popularity is one. A more complicated one is the recent Lodha Committee report that pitches for ‘one state one association’ and asks why the northeast hasn’t been adequately represented in the BCCI.
The New Area Development Committee of the BCCI has swung into action after Thakur became president. Once a pet project of Jagmohan Dalmiya, his son Avishek now heads the committee. And he has laid out a patient plan to increase the game’s awareness in the northeast. “Firstly we have to build infrastructure and that includes budget stadiums, quality equipment and ground covers. Secondly, we have to generate enthusiasm in each and every state. We are trying to organise exhibition matches featuring former cricketers of repute so that the people get to see them from close. Apart from this we are now holding camps that have got good response,” said Dalmiya.
With good strategy, cricket could spread quickly in this region, feels Anoop Abraham, a former sports management course co-ordinator at IIM, Shillong. “It’s a sport loving region. It doesn’t have anything against cricket but the reality is that the hilly terrain is the biggest roadblock,” said Abraham. Football has had some form of association with cricket too. “When the ISL franchises were formed, they roped in former cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar (Kerala Blasters) and Sourav Ganguly (Atletico de Kolkata). That was good strategy --- using cricket to promote football. And it worked,” said Abraham.
A long term plan however is required to make cricket a viable option in the northeast. “Most tribal communities thrive on football. There is some club cricket in Shillong so you can’t for sure that this region won’t produce good cricketers. Look at how Swapnil Asnodkar put Goa on the map with his IPL exploits,” he said. “Think of it as investment. The I-League came in 2007. In 10 years we have had a flurry of football. With the resources BCCI have got though, it can happen. But they should start with T20 cricket,” he said.
BCCI’s sudden interest in the northeast comes at a time when football clubs are struggling to hold their ground. With the All India Football Federation (AIFF) laying down a roadmap that calls for an eventual merger between I-League clubs and the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL), money has become a huge factor. “Honestly speaking, we keep thinking where football is heading in this region. We had almost met the Asian Football Confederation licensing criteria of having qualified coaches and grassroots level academy when we were suddenly asked to fork out R 30-40 crore for the ISL. It is becoming tough,” said Singto.
Lajong FC secretary Larsing Ming Saywan voiced the same concern. “All sports have to coexist but I am more concerned about football’s infrastructure. Ten years back there was nothing. In the last seven years there were four clubs. That’s progress. But it would be prudent if the AIFF recognises Lajong’s importance and seriously evaluate the situation,” said Saywan.
Both Dalmiya and Saywan had no doubt in their minds that grassroots development will determine the future of football and cricket in this region. Dalmiya admitted it won’t be easy to sway people to take up cricket in a region known for its passion towards football but he is ready to play a patient game. The finances are in place, with each association slated to get R 50 lakh per year. In addition to that the BCCI has been training coaches, umpires and video analysts to set up the support system. “We are even sending medical units to carry out age-verification tests for the junior teams,” said Dalmiya.
“Our objective is similar to the BCCI --- reach out to the grassroots. For us, it’s an internal challenge, a phase of transition,” said Saywan. Football’s job seems easier since their history in this region is undeniable. Having started out as a community game, football has over the years turned into almost a viable source of income for many in the northeast. To be able to hold that upper hand though, football now needs to fight for something they once took for granted.