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Small town cricketers win big.
by Gulu Ezekiel
Aug 27, 2005
The face of Indian cricket has changed over the last few years with the rise of players from the country’s hinterland.

Till less than a decade back it was the metros, specifically Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad (all state capitals) which produced the vast majority of players making it into the big time.

But with the spread of televised cricket and the huge amounts of money coming into the game today, middle class families from all parts of the country are encouraging their sons to take to cricket.

The latest examples are batsmen Y. Venugopal Rao—who scored a match-winning 228 not out for South Zone against England ‘A’ last year in the domestic Duleep Trophy tournament—and Suresh Raina. Both made their debuts in the recent ODI tri-series in Sri Lanka. Rao is from the south-eastern port city of Visakhapatnam (which has never produced an international cricketer before) and Raina from the industrial township of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh state, neighbouring New Delhi. The only previous international cricketer from Ghaziabad was former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar.

Earlier this year India discovered a talented wicket-keeper/batsman in Mahendra Singh Dhoni who made an immediate impact in his debut ODI series against Pakistan.

Dhoni is from Ranchi, capital of the newly-formed Jharkhand state and till five years ago a part of the impoverished state of Bihar. Better known perhaps for being the home of a mental asylum, Ranchi lacks cricket tradition. Dhoni has become such a celebrity back home that he is not able to step out without being mobbed.

Another cricketer originally from Bihar was Syed Saba Karim, also a wicket-keeper/batsman who played 34 ODIs and one Test match from 1997 to 2000 before being forced to retire with an eye-injury.

Karim shifted from his home base to the more glamorous Bengal side where he came to the attention of captain Sourav Ganguly and the national selectors. This was the accepted trend for nearly 70 years of Indian cricket.

But no longer. Now Karim feels it is better if cricketers stick to their home base with numerous examples like Mohammed Kaif (Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh), Parthiv Patel (Ahmedabad, Gujarat) and Harbhajan Singh (Jalandhar, Punjab) proving middle-class backgrounds and small-town roots are no longer a hindrance in Indian cricket.

“In my playing days a shift was essential. But now it appears it is better to be a big fish in a small pond. Further, these players have shown a ferocious hunger to succeed which is lacking in the metros where they are so many other distractions to take youngsters’ focus away from cricket.”

Cricket till the mid-90s was never considered a viable career option. Particularly in middle-class India education was always a priority and the time spent on cricket considered a waste by parents.

Today coaching camps have spread to every city and town across the country with untold numbers of children being encouraged—sometimes even forced—by their parents to learn the game. The lure of fame and money is proving very strong indeed with Sachin Tendukar the foremost example.

Despite coming from a solidly middle-class family steeped in culture and education (his father was a professor and poet), Tendulkar’s own education ended at the age of 17 by which time he had already scored a century for his country (at Old Trafford in August 1990). His parents realized at this stage that the twin burdens of year-round cricket and studies were proving too much for the teenager.

Today Tendulkar is worth millions of dollars through lucrative endorsements with foreign brand names and is perhaps the most famous face in the country. And one of the richest too.

“Every parent who sent his son to my coaching camp told me they wanted me make him into a second Sachin”, said his elder half-brother Ajit shortly after launching his own coaching scheme in Mumbai in 2001. He wound it up after being attacked in his home by three teenagers, angry he had not recommended their names to leading clubs.

Fast bowler Irfan Pathan’s father is a maulvi (Islamic preacher) and the family grew up in a one-roomed tenement in the courtyard of their mosque in Vadodara, Maharashtra.

Last year Pathan bought a mansion for his family in the heart of the city. His face appears on TV screens across the country, endorsing numerous products. Kaif’s father is a ticket checker with the Railways while Dhoni’s background is even more modest. His father was forced to migrate from Almora district (now in Uttaranchal) in search of a living and landed up working as a labourer in one of Ranchi’s many steel plants. The son was employed as a ticket checker with the Railways, but has now received rapid promotions. For the new generation of Indian cricket, the game has been their ticket to name, fame and wealth.

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