This tale does not have a happy ending. It is not the proverbial rags-to-riches story, nor one of great success that will inspire people to greater heights. Yet, it is a story that must be told. For, it is a story of cricket, that opium of the Indian masses. It is also the tale of a love gone sour, of dreams that came to naught, of desperation and despair. It’s the story of a man who died young because of the death of those dreams and a system that never gave him a chance.
This is the story of Manish Mishra, who, at the age of 11, fell in love with cricket and decided, like millions of kids around the country, that all he wanted to do was play the game. He did. He played it for 18 years in fact, very seriously.
He was groomed as a slow left-arm orthodox bowler by Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach SP Krishna at the Chowk Stadium, and was good enough to first make it to the (then) cricket hostel in Agra before going on to where the cream of Uttar Pradesh’s young talent went, the Green Park Stadium hostel in Kanpur.
There, Mishra met up with a bunch of similarly talented youngsters with big plans, including Mohammad Kaif. He seemingly had everything going for him. After doing well in the under-19s for both UP and the Central Zone, Mishra made the cut for the India under-19 camp. Just before that, he had scalped 25 wickets, including a five-wicket haul against Vidarbha, in just one season for the under-17 team in 1996-97.
Here on, the story becomes murky. For some reason or the other — his friends and family variously blame a “corrupt selection system” and a “state system that rarely recognises a player without a godfather” — Mishra never made it, even to the Ranji Trophy team.
In August last year, frustrated and tense, a broken man, he died alone, after hanging himself in his house. By that time, his friends say, Mishra’s drinking habit, which had worsened after he lost his parents within six months of each other, had spiralled out of control. He became aggressive, the fights with his wife became worse. Finally, he shunned everyone, even his oldest friends.
So what happened to Manish Mishra? What made a promising young cricketer turn into a hopeless alcoholic? Or had a man who was a dreamy-eyed, sociable person become an embittered, tortured soul, who finally decided that life just wasn’t worth the trouble?
He obviously didn’t have a Plan B after giving up everything for the game. Perhaps he wasn’t good enough, though people who know him and his junior records bespeak a potential that may have been realised if handled better. “Manish undoubtedly had everything needed to become a top state cricketer,” says Kaif. “I always thought him very committed during my time with him in the Kanpur Hostel.”
Kaif says he and everyone else were shocked by Mishra’s suicide. Not just because they had played their cricket together but because, for them, it was the stark and tragic symbol of what failure and a lack of opportunity could do.
Perhaps he might have lived if he had a place to go for recourse, or just someone to hear him out. Like in England, where a 24-hour psychiatric helpline has been of immense help to cricketers and other sportspersons, both the successful ones who have found it difficult to cope with pressure and those not so successful, who cannot cope with failure. India, the largest structure of cricket in the world, has no such system. It is doubtful that anyone in the BCCI even thought of the need for one.
Mishra is an extreme fallout of the madness that Indian cricket engenders but sift through the morass and there are several such stories, most untold, some unheard. Of another side to this game of superstars and supermen, a shadowy, darker side that rarely comes to the knowledge of people outside the fraternity.
Mishra belonged to a lower middle-class family from Katari Tola in Lucknow’s famous Chowk area. “All he wanted to do was play, to play Ranji Trophy and other tournaments, but the politics of cricket and the system killed his dreams,” his cousin and friend Tarun Mishra, who played for the Rest of India in the under-17s, told HT.
“He was deeply mortified because, to survive, he had no choice but to join North Eastern Railway as a fourth-class employee. The higher-grade posts went to those who had played Ranji and other senior tournaments, people he had played with.”
Tarun says Mishra continued playing for NE Railway till he died, but in the interim, his life slowly fell apart. He got married in 2004 but debts and acute depression caused by an unsuccessful career and several alleged misunderstandings with his wife caused untold misery. “Manish was terribly upset the first time he had to carry the luggage of a guard on his head. But as a fourth class employee at the railway station, he had no choice” says Tarun.
Mishra, they say, was quietly obsessed about his loss of dreams and about cricket. He had apparently been living at his in-laws’ home for two months near the end of his life and was frustrated with his lot after his return to his own home. “There were almost 50 phone calls from his in-laws place on his mobile phone on the night he committed suicide,” says a friend.
Yet, no one thought he would kill himself. “Two days before he died, he was very excited after being promoted to the next salary scale. A day later, he was due in Muzzafarnagar for training, but he never turned up… he was dead,” says Tarun sadly. “And we are left unanswered questions.”