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How J-K cricket team is flying high, smashing reputations

In a country united by its obsession for cricket, players from flood-ravaged Jammu and Kashmir – where the finest willow for bats comes from – go the whole 22 yards and make an impact, both on and off the pitch.

brunch Updated: Jan 04, 2015 17:17 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times
Jammu and Kashmir,Ranji Trophy,Reliance Cricket Stadium

"Come on Ram! Well played Rasool bhai. Waria, waria (Kashmiri for more, more), keep batting." The applause from the Jammu and Kashmir team bench is rising with every over bowled. Ram and Rasool are on the crease and all is fine with the world.

A day before the splintered verdict in the state assembly elections – where the Valley and the Jammu region voted contrastingly on divergent lines – was being animatedly discussed in TV studios, an unlikely duo was making its own secular statement with the bat by scoring hundreds against Ranji Trophy heavyweights Vadodara.

Members of the Jammu and Kashmir Ranjhi Trophy cricket team look up to captain Parvez Rasool (centre, spinning the ball) for inspiration.

Captain Parvez Rasool, 25, the first cricketer from the state to wear India colours, found a spunky ally at the Reliance Cricket Stadium in Jammu native Ram Dayal Punia, 26, a medium pacer who has spoilt a few batting averages this domestic season.

Thanks to centuries by Ram and Rasool, as Jammu and Kashmir put to sword a Vadodara attack that included World Cup 2011 hero Munaf Patel and Yusuf Pathan, they were celebrated as the new giant-killers who can’t be taken lightly in India’s cricket circles any longer.

Three months after torrential rains devastated the Kashmir region in September and the team’s preparation came to an unforeseen halt, the Jammu and Kashmir state team is playing in the hallowed ‘A’ group for the first time in more than 50 years. And the boys are busy upsetting cricket giants.

In the second week of December, after beating Delhi in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the ‘minnows’ handed a resounding four-wicket defeat to 40-time champions Mumbai, followed by beating Vadodara at home. But more than mere statistics, the manner in which this group of doughty cricketers has turned adversity into opportunity is a story worth recounting. Hunger for life

The September floods, which killed 277 people and swamped close to 390 villages in the state, apart from some areas in Srinagar, challenged the team’s emotional and mental well-being, but they’ve emerged stronger from it.

Also read: Flood fury hits J&K

Opening batsman Shubham Khajuria, 19, was one of the few unlucky cricketers from Jammu caught in Srinagar in the deluge on that fateful September 7 morning. "I was sleeping in my room at the Batra Hotel at Sonwar, near the Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium," says Khajuria, the son of a teacher father and homemaker mom.

"I woke up at 8am to see that the ground floor of the hotel was submerged under water. Without any mobile signals, I waited for hours, standing in a queue for a rescue helicopter that would take us to Srinagar airport. During those nightmarish six days, I had to sleep on the road and go without food," he adds. On the eighth day, just a day after reaching the safety of his home, Khajuria was back for cricket practice.

One for the album: Jammu and Kashmir players celebrate after defeating 40-time champions Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy Group A match at the Wankhede Stadium.

Perhaps, staying hungry for a week fed Khajuria’s appetite for runs and he made Mumbai pay for it at the Wankhede. He scored 107 in the first innings against the Ranji giants, hitting 12 boundaries and three towering sixes and followed it with a valuable 78 in the second essay, before being caught and bowled by Iqbal Abdulla.

"If you’ve faced tough situations in life, then fielding a few bouncers on the field isn’t so difficult," philosophises Khajuria, who put on a solid 120-run opening stand against Vadodara.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

For the first time in their 54-year-old Ranji Trophy history – thanks to their performance last year, where they reached the quarter-finals – the Jammu and Kashmir team has been promoted to Group A in 2014.

These days, the Ranji Trophy includes 27 domestic teams divided into A, B and C groups. In the past, the 27 teams were classified into Elite 1, Elite 2 and Plate Groups (about 15 teams in the elite groups and 12 in the plate division).

Before the 2012-13 season, the teams competed for separate trophies (Plate and Elite). But now, after playing against each other in preliminary stages during the four-day matches, the best teams from Group A, B and C, graduate to the knockout quarter-finals stage, when the matches are of a longer, five-day duration.

Not quite cricket
Khajuria’s opening partner at the non-striker’s end was Adil Reshi, the team’s highest scorer in the last domestic season. The 25-year-old left hander, rated highly by spin legend Bishen Singh Bedi, almost lost his zest for batting, along with his cricket kit, during the September sailaab.

Reshi, a resident of Srinagar’s Barbarshah locality, a couple of kilometres away from Lal Chowk, didn’t realise when the waters of the Jhelum had entered the ground floor of his residence. Fearing that all the family belongings – including Reshi’s certificates and mementoes – would be swept away, his mother jumped into the torrent in a desperate attempt to save his bats, pads and helmet which were floating away before her eyes.

“Aadil pulled her out of the water and was shattered about losing his cricket kit,” recalls journalist Shahana Fatima, the media manager of the team, who stays next door to the Reshis. “So demoralised was the young Aadil with the incident that he told his widowed mother he wasn’t sure whether he would play cricket again, ever,” adds Fatima.

Centurions Parvez Rasool and Ram Dayal Punia embrace during their partnership against Vadodara.

Those who haven’t played the gentleman’s game might not appreciate the sanctity of the cricket kit. In the same way a soldier values his armaments and a percussionist his drums, a batsman invests enormous emotion into his favourite bat, with which he has scored his first hundred.

A few other members of the Jammu and Kashmir team, such as wicketkeeper Obaid Omar, who had not been as severely affected as the rest, were involved in rescue operations as they joined NGO workers, going from one flood-hit neighbourhood to another, distributing food packets.

“Obaid came along with some of his friends in boats to the Karan Nagar neighbourhood and rescued my family and our neighbours,” says photojournalist Umer Asif, as he focuses his lens on Rasool raising his bat towards his teammates after his hundred against Vadodara.

When the swirling waters of the Jhelum spread outside Srinagar to Bijbehara in Anantnag, 48 kilometres away from the state capital, they caught team captain Parvez Rasool unawares. Rasool stays near Sangam, the hub of the Kashmir willow bat industry.

“The situation during the floods was almost apocalyptic. I, too, was caught at home in Anantnag. Even as I managed to take my bat out of the boot of my car, I was anxious about the whereabouts of my teammates.

For 10 days, without any mobile connectivity, doosron se rabta nahin ho raha tha (I could not connect with the other team members). I was worried not just about those who stayed in Srinagar but also the boys from Jammu, who were here to play in a local T20 tournament and were stranded in hotels near the Dal Lake,” said Rasool.

On the eleventh day, Rasool could establish contact with fast bowler Samiullah Baigh who told him that many of their teammates had been rescued by Indian Army helicopters from hotels in Srinagar’s Boulevard area and airlifted to safety.

While medium pacer Ram Dayal and batsman Hardeep Singh were among those stranded at Hotel Shahenshah, batsmen ID Singh and Shubham Khajuria had to be evacuated from Batra Hotel.

The redemption

Former Indian left arm spinner Sunil Joshi succeeded Bishan Singh Bedi as the state’s team coach this year. Before he took over, Joshi was promised a number of fancy upgrades to the existing cricket machinery.

Suddenly, after the deluge, he had to start from scratch. The Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium, the only first class cricket venue in the Valley, was among the worst hit. "The first level of the stands was submerged in water. And paramilitary personnel had set up base in the upper stands," recalls opener Khajuria.

Without a venue, the team realised it would have to play all its eight Ranji matches away from the state, unlike other teams who revel in home conditions. The one-dayers were just weeks away, to be followed by the Ranji challenge. How did they plan to bounce back?

"We have no control over the vagaries of nature. What was in our hands was to make the best of the circumstances that we were facing," says coach Joshi, who has won the Ranji Trophy three times as a player with Karnataka.

Valley of floods: The September deluge, which killed 277 people, destroyed the state’s cricketing infrastructure and challenged the team’s preparedness for the domestic season.

To begin with, Joshi requested the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association to shift the practice camp to Mohali, to acclimatise the players for the One Day tournament which was to be played in Himachal, followed by a fortnight-long skills camp at Nagpur’s futuristic Raj Singh Dungarpur Institute of Sports. "Those 15 days really helped the team gel together as a unit," adds the coach.

Hot streak

The first assignment for the underdogs was taking on Delhi in the Vijay Hazare trophy, the limited-overs cricket domestic competition involving state teams. The opposition eleven included international players such as Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Mithun Manhas, Unmukt Chand and Ashish Nehra.

Chasing 212, the team upset Delhi, with skipper Rasool top scoring with 74. “It set the tempo for the season. We knew we were on a roll when we followed that up with victories over Services and Haryana. The win against Mumbai was the icing on the cake,” says Rasool, who was detained wrongfully by the Bangalore Police in 2009 for being a terror suspect. The outrageous charge was subsequently dropped after a forensic investigation cleared his name.

The celebrations after the victory at the Wankhede Stadium were never over-the-top. The team members calmly left the field and later in the evening Khajuria, the top scorer, cut a cake at a modest hotel. Although they had upset the 40-time champions, it wasn’t the first time they had proved the cricket pundits wrong, after all.

Hit the ground running: Members of the Jammu and Kashmir cricket team warm up before the Ranji Trophy match against Vadodara at the Reliance Stadium.

Ram Dayal Punia, the man of the match against Vadodara for his 124 not out and his four-wicket haul that helped his team edge out the home team, says the next big challenge before the team is to be consistent. “We want to prove that we are here to stay among the big boys of Indian cricket. And I think our victory over Mumbai has underlined this,” adds the feisty bowler who took eight wickets against Mumbai.

Many of the players look up to skipper Rasool for inspiration, says batsman Ian Dev Singh, who scored an invaluable 70 against Mumbai in the first innings.

“Parvez bhai is the first from Jammu and Kashmir to play for India. He broke a psychological barrier for players in the state and the misapprehension that nobody from Jammu and Kashmir could play for India. Looking at him, we too feel we can wear the Team India jersey,” says the batsman, who cuts a dapper figure with his spiky hair and designer shades.

The days when the opposition took the Jammu and Kashmir team lightly or when they got intimidated by the reputation of their rivals are history, says Khajuria.

“In team meetings, we never discuss whether the opposition is a heavyweight or a minnow. We focus on playing to our strengths and sticking to the roles assigned to us by the coach. I am an opener in the team, so my job is to give the team a good start by laying the foundation on which the middle order and the tail can consolidate,” adds Khajuria.

The Jammu and Kashmir team is being guided by seasoned coach Sunil Joshi, the third highest wicket taker in the history of the Ranji Trophy (after Rajinder Goel and S Venkatraghavan).

But the role of legendary left arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi can’t be overemphasised, says Rasool. “Our winning streak began under Bedi Sir. With him, we won two matches in the Ranji Trophy. After him, the coaches who succeeded him have consolidated.

Last year, when the coach was Abdul Qayoom, we qualified for the quarter-finals after 53 seasons and after Joshi sir has joined, we’ve beaten some big teams. But the one who sparked it off was Bedi sir,” says Rasool.

“Ek jazba jaga diya unhonen. He brought out our SELAF-belief [self-belief],” in an accent reminiscent of the cast of Haider. Take note Vishal Bhardwaj, this is the team to beat in the Indian domestic circuit. J&K have the chutzpah, no pun intended!

Making waves

The rookies from Jammu and Kashmir who are gaining the respect of their rivals:

Parvez Rasool, 25
Part of India’s probables for the World Cup, Rasool is rated as one of the best off-spinners in the country and an explosive batsman. He got his India cap in Bangladesh and has also played in the IPL.

Ram Dayal Punia, 26
Selectors were heard inquiring about the bowler who took eight wickets against Mumbai. Punia, originally a native of Rajasthan, who has shifted to Jammu, followed it up with a century and crucial wickets against Vadodara. He is extremely fit and spin legend Bishan Singh Bedi puts him in the “Kapil Dev mould”

Shubham Khajuria, 19
The plucky opener scored a stroke-filled century and a knock of 78 runs against a Mumbai attack that included Dhawal Kulkarni and Iqbal Abdulla. Coach Joshi perceives him as a future India prospect.

Samiullah Baigh, 30
The experienced pace bowler took the wickets of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag in the Vijay Hazare trophy and scalped Yusuf Pathan against Vadodara.

Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 4, 2015
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First Published: Jan 02, 2015 20:26 IST