They also serve ..

This has been a heady week for some uncapped Indian domestic cricketers. Landing an IPL contract must be one of the major goals of an up and coming cricketer – second arguably to getting the coveted India cap.

Many former cricketers have indicated with a tinge of wistfulness that this is a great time to be a cricketer. Imagine the days before franchise based T20 leagues where the only things people would be playing for would be an International or maybe even an A team call-up. The implication of the limited opportunities was that a majority of cricketers ended their careers unsung and unheralded.

Some former cricketers have gracefully taken this in their stride. Others have made a stray snide remark or two about how T20 is not real cricket and that so much money tied to that is not just vulgar but maybe even not kosher. Its hard not to feel sympathetic to them but I guess you play with the cards you are dealt with. Sometimes complaining helps – most of the time it sounds like whining. An example of the latter to my mind was when one of the more distinguished players of the past Sir Viv Richards complained in his book about not being compensated enough for his skills. It made me appreciate the mental strength and fortitude required to look at the past dispassionately without comparing it to the present and future.

I cast my mind to simpler times in the past and wonder what motivated the cricketers of the time to toil day in and out in long, unyielding domestic summers.  The Indian domestic season can be unforgiving given the conditions and apathy of the people running the show.  You wonder what makes the domestic cricketing scene tick – year in and out. I would assume that one of the factors would undying enthusiasm and positive spirits of the men stepping out in the field.

Reading about the good fortune of the people selected to be part of a franchise I couldn’t help but cast my mind to the unsung domestic heroes of time when as a child I was drinking the cricketing cool aid. These were players who I would look for in the scorecards buried in an obscure columns of the local newspapers. The names would sound exotic and their exploits even more superhuman – I guess all it takes is a vivid imagination that is typical of childhood to make even the mundane look pristine.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s when my immersion into cricket became total there were a couple of domestic teams that I became fascinated by. Not because these had stars or glamour – far from it. These were like the middle children in a large family. Everyone expects them to do the duty but there is seldom any appreciation for their toil.  When one of your siblings is the most glamorous dude in town the plight of the unheralded middle siblings becomes even more obscure.

The superstar team in the West Zone family was of course Bombay (that was what it was called back then).  Players who represented the country were the ultimate in terms of name recognition and appreciation.  A close second were the players from Bombay.

With a team like Bombay around it was only natural that other team in the West Zone like Gujarat, Baroda, Maharashtra and Saurashtra would be also-rans not only in terms of performance but also perception.  Maharashtra seemed to suffer particularly from the perception bias – I believe it was because their home turfs were believe to be absolute featherbeds. I wouldn’t be surprised if the term “paata” originated from there.  Players from Maharashtra seldom made it to the A team.

I always felt a kinship to the names of the players from Maharashtra I would read from the scoreboard. Its amazing how some memories fade and some remain fresh. Not sure why but I still remember the names and the feelings they evoked as they floated from the scorecards into my mind’s visuals of the games.

Players like Prasad Pradhan, Riaz Poonawala, Santosh Jedhe, Surendra Bhave, Shantanu Sugvekar, Milind Gunjal and my namesake Shrikant Kalyani epitomize the unknown obscure cricketer who toils away just for the love of the game.  I don’t remember watching any of them on TV – domestic cricket was never telecast until very recently.  Newspaper reports were my only link to them. These guys were known to score heavily – double centuries were a regular feature. The regularity of the tall scores probably is an indicator of the quality of the bowling and the pitches – but for a kid reading the scoreboard these exploits appeared superhuman.

Closer home Saurashtra was regarded as an easy picking for the other teams in the West Zone.  No one told me so at the time and even if they did I doubt if that would register. The stardom in my mind of these home grown stars seemed approachable. Almost like a distant relative who manages to make it big and becomes a legend and a benchmark in the family. Players like Atul Pandya, Bimal Jadeja and Bipin Pujara (his more celebrated nephew plays for India currently) not only adorned the local English and Gujarati newspapers but also dominated the conversations by the street side ‘paan’ shop.

I would always wonder why these players wouldn’t ever be considered for national selection. They would always be in my fantasy teams – I guess I was ahead of the times with a version of such even when they weren’t called fantasy teams.

These names may not have much of recall value even among die-hard cricket fans today but I know these folks helped me grow and develop an understanding of the effort, perseverance and sacrifice that was on display season after unrelenting season.

The game may not have given them a whole lot in terms of money and comfort but I don’t hear them complain. Forgive me if this sounds melodramatic – but these guys remind me of the quote – A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child”

To these and other unsung heroes of domestic cricket –  you definitely were an important part of my  life as a child. And I sincerely believe my world is better for it.

Thank you for your service Gents.