Iqbal AbdullahMahendra Singh DhoniAshok DindaRavindra JadejaPraveen KumarMunaf PatelSuresh RainaVirender SehwagHarbhajan Singh S. SreesanthR. Vinay Kumar
This is the story of unique XI made up of cricketers among them Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina, Munaf Patel and S. Sreesanth who made the leap from the hinterland to centre stage.
Difficult as it is to become a top flight cricketer in India it is doubly so for those growing up in small towns and villages. Yet there have been inspiring exceptions who have not let place names such as Azamgarh, Davangere, Ikhar, Jalandhar Jamnagar, Kakur, Meerut, Muradnagar, Naichanpur, Najafgarh and Ranchi deter them from realizing ambitions.
These men have made the transition form rice fields and akharas to hallowed sports grounds from abject poverty and menial jobs to IPL riches from tennis balls and rough hewn bats to shiny red leather balls and sponsored cricket bats.
A combination of a supportive family a determined coach talent and sheer hard work did the trick for them. Without this mix the gentleman’s game would have lost these gifted players to farming a job in Africa or driving a tuck in Canada.
India is fortunate to have this team of small town cricket heroes.
Dhruva must have been six feet tall, but for us eight-year-olds he was the tallest and most fearsome man we had seen.
He was fair, which was a big deal in our arid region of north Karnataka in the mid-1980s. His curly mop, thick moustache, square jaw and the occasional elastic headband made him look like Dennis Lillee. Of course, at that time I had not heard of Dennis Lillee. But even if I had, I would not have believed that the Australian could bowl faster than Dhruva.
For me, Dhruva was the hero. Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar might have been big names, but I saw them only on television. It was bliss for me when Dhruva ran in to bowl. There could not be a better bowler than him. No batsman could have been able to sleep the night before he had to face Dhruva.
And I assumed that some day I, too, would grow up to be a six-footer and bowl like Dhruva. I even had his autograph.
Last heard, Dhruva owned a leading sports—goods shop in Bellary.
It has been nearly twenty-five years since Dhruva and his team, the Youngsters Cricket Club (YCC), played matches an drew huge crowds on the dusty grounds of Municipal High School in Bellary, Karnataka. But to date, the YCC remains my favorite cricket team.
Not even the Indian team comes close. It never will.
The Dream Team
John, Sunka, Raja and Malli must be in their mid- or late forties now. It is hard to say if they follow cricket as religiously as they played it. It is hard to say if they still get together and binge on Khoday’s rum like they used to when they were the most famous cricketers in and around the town.
Their love for that particular brand of rum was well known. If I remember right, Khoday’s even sponsored the team(Khoday’s XI). I did not know then what rum was. I could not care less.
Khoday’s XI or the YCC, they were the gods of cricket, Sachin Tendulkar happened about five years later.
I remember skipping school to watch the YCC practice at the judicial Ground in Parvati Nagar. And I was not the only boy devoted to the team. A few of my classmates were as keen, and we would compete with each other to carry the cricket kit of the captain, John.
I remember I got to carry Sunka’s kit. I do not think I carried it as much as I dragged it along the ground, but Sunka’s pat on my head made the effort worthwhile. When we shook hands, it made me feel like a grown-up. It was then that I decided I would grow up to play for the Youngsters Cricket Club.
In the 1980s eight—year-olds did not dream of playing for India. At least, I did not. Nor my friends for that matter. It never occurred to us that playing for India could mean a bigger honor than playing for the YCC.
Most of my time watching the team practice was spent struggling with my brothers and friends to fetch the ball, which had been hit to the boundary and had got lost in thorny bushes. It was after one such practice session that I shook hands with Dhruva. But I was too shy to tell him that I wanted to bowl like him. I just mumbled my name to him. Afterwards, I told my classmates that Dhruva and I had become friends.
Praying and knowledge
Though I had made my atheistic leanings known to my parents and friends at the age of eight, it did not stop me from sending a quick prayer for a YCC win in matches. And, not wishing to bring any bad luck on Dhruva or the team through any ill-timed movement on my part, I used to sit stock-still when he ran in to bowl.
If Dhruva got a wicket, I would remain in the same position, but if he went for runs, I would quickly find a new place to sit. In one match I covered most of the spectator's area trying to win some luck for the best team in the world.
My eldest brother, who was about four years older than me, was better placed to understand the game.
Once I heard him and his friends discussing why the YCC wicket keeper, Raja, never represented Karnataka in the RanjiTrophy. Raja was called for state-level selection trials, but was said to have been rejected because he was seen smoking on the ground-and that too in the presence of the selectors.
My brother and his friends were furious. Why did he have to do it?’ they said. °Couldn’t he just be a little more disciplined? The story was never confirmed, but I like to think it is a true one.
V/hat I did not grasp then was why anybody should try to play for Karnataka if he was already playing for the YCC. What could be bigger than the YCC?
You fool, if you do well for Karnataka you can play for India,’ I was told.
In 1984, Father surprised us with a black-and-white EC TV. And I soon found out about the Indian team.
The first time I watched a cricket match on that television set, Anshuman Gaekwad got out caught at either gully or point. The action replays were not shown in slow motion in those days. Small wonder then that I thought the next batsman was dumb enough to get out in the same manner.
There was an inexplicable detachment from the Indian team. I did celebrate when the team won the Benson and Hedges tournament in Australia in 1985. That was also the first time I heard of an Audi car. Till then cars had meant only Ambassadors to me.
Still, other than cutting out pictures from The Hindu or Sport star and keeping them in my schoolbooks, I did not think much of the Indian cricket team. But I felt that if the team was a big deal, then all YCC players should be in it.
The 1987 Reliance World Cup caught our imagination and changed everything. I began to understand the concept of playing for India—and resolved to play for the country myself. That was when the YCC became a local team in my eyes. One should play for India, I would tell everyone.
Things stayed that way till 2008, when I was asked to follow the Chennai Super Kings in the first season of the Indian Premier League—as a cricket writer.
The city based franchisee teams reminded me of the youngsters Cricket Club. That was when I asked myself if Mahendra Singh Dhoni could come from Ranchi and play for India, why didn’t Raja? What is he had lit that damn cigarette?
Has anybody from Bellary gone on to play for India? The answer is still a no.
But I realize that there are many such Bellarys in the country and many teams like the YCC that serve cricket as much as any of our celebrated stars do.
Many unsung players possibly some of the best talent Indian has had sell sports goods or work as chemistry lab assistants like Sunka does.
Maybe the YCC cricketers just like their fans were content being YCC players play hard and party with rum at night. Maybe they did not try hard enough or did not dream big enough.
I could never really understand why sportsmen from smaller towns did not believe in themselves and aim higher.
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