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My amazing coal dudes

Team spirit is lifted when individuals fire in tandem. By match end, an edgy bunch had bonded into a bloodthirsty group who pulled off an exhilarating winning draw, recounts Aakash Chopra.

india Updated: Jun 02, 2007 22:54 IST

I wanted to wait before I began scribbling this summer. Every year, I begin writing almost before my English sojourn begins. There's a sense of anticipation, of change and a sense of freedom from Delhi's stifling temperatures.

This year though, I left with a mixed bag of emotions. I hadn't been picked for the tour of Bangladesh. I had had a decent enough domestic season, was fifth in the overall run charts, so some said I would be picked, some said 'no chance'. I had heard everyone.

Finally, I just stopped thinking. Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be. It wasn't to be. So when I left, I spent a lot of time wondering what lay ahead.

I think every cricketer, India level or otherwise, goes through phases, moments where they just shut themselves off from the talk and the reactions, the judgements being passed on them. I did that in England, I cocooned myself in the only way I knew. I threw myself into cricket.

For the past month, I have played as many games as I could get, for my club Hem Heath and for everyone else who asked me to play. I'm playing some games for the Lashings World XI and I'll be turning out for the MCC. I worked out madly, wanting to tire my body so much that my mind, though willing, would be in no position to make the effort to indulge in self-pity.

It worked, in some way. Slowly, along with rediscovering the art of playing the game for the pleasure of it, without worrying about the consequences, I have become more involved in the lives of the people around me. And it has been healing.

They have taught me a lot, not just that whatever happens, I am blessed, but also that whatever happens, there's a beautiful life going on even outside the world of my beautiful game, outside cricket.

I'm writing this just after reading the news of an India camp being organised for batsmen. I'm not there. It is disappointing but maybe better things lie ahead. I told myself what many of us do under these circumstances — you just have to pile up so many first-class runs that you just can't be ignored for anything. Do what Laxman did some years ago, or Jaffer more recently.

You can blame fate, or you can fight. I know I'll fight and that was it. Once that mental course was decided, hope and a hell of a lot of work lay ahead. But you also need to relax. So I decided I'd better start writing again. Ergo, my scribbles have begun afresh.

My lessons begin

This, by the way, has not been an ordinary summer, even for those at my club Hem Heath. We barely managed promotion to the premier division last year. No one expected us to get there. Not so much because of the cricket alone, but also because we're a club of working class people originally from the coalmines. The mines have disappeared but the tag “people from the pit” has remained.

Social divisions seem to exist everywhere and as far as many here are concerned, we definitely are misfits, a rag-tag bunch of “lower class people”, who somehow stumbled into an elite group. Not being from Stoke, I didn't have the baggage of social divisions to contend with, but as I chatted with club mates and others, I realised how much playing in this division meant to them. It was far more than just cricket and they knew it.

Before the season's first game against a club called Knypersly, my team-mates were restless and ill at ease. Our captain had been up since 4am and alternated between hyperventilating and silently (and unusually, I think!) praying. There was a collective lack of belief. ‘Are we good enough for this level?’ ‘Are we going to embarrass ourselves?’

History had told them that most promoted teams were found wanting unless they hired more players. My club had me as their pro but had decided not to hire more players as they did not want to take away the local character of the club and the sense of belonging that it engendered.

These men were not professional cricketers. They played competitive cricket over the weekend, for the rest, they had other jobs, separate lives. Yet, they were quaking. As I tried to rev them up, I knew the only way they would find that belief was if a couple of us fought hard and we did well.

Team spirit is invariably lifted when individuals fire in tandem. Eventually, we did. By match end, an edgy bunch had bonded into a bloodthirsty group who managed to pull off what, for them, was an exhilarating winning draw.

In the weeks since, we have moved between moments of mediocrity and joyous sessions of triumph. We have won a bit, lost a bit, drawn more. But we have learnt that hats can be made to fit, if you try hard enough.

Most importantly, I have watched my band of boys, many, descendents of coal-miners, slowly begin to believe they belong at the top, watched them begin to believe in themselves. And watching them struggle with and shrug off their inner demons, crying and laughing with them, getting involved myself, I too have begun afresh and begun to believe.

First Published: Jun 02, 2007 22:32 IST