Gloom, dread, mayhem and the joy of Jammu and Kashmir cricket
Where there is ‘Good’, how can the ‘Evil’ stay away!
Updated - Jan 25, 2020 11:36 pm
August 6, 2019- Asrar Ahmed Khan, a 16-year-old, had finished playing cricket, and like most teenagers, was about to return home with a joy-filled heart. The sun was busy bidding goodbye to the day on a picturesque evening in Kashmir. In a few seconds, billowing smoke painted a smokescreen all around. Asrar’s stunned body laid there, silently screaming for a helping hand.
The security forces opened fire on a crowd, injuring Asrar, who copped a blow on his face from buckshot. On September 4, he succumbed to his injuries. The Article 370 revocation protests had fizzled out life from a promising juvenile. “Go back, Indian dogs,” read one message against Narendra Modi’s government. Amidst the fire and mess, cricket was an extinguisher, a source of joy.
But similar to most machines, at times even the extinguisher crashed. It couldn’t bear the brunt of the hatred, generated from the Indian government’s move of snatching away Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. The situation was grave to such an extent that Kashmiris celebrated India’s defeat in the 2019 World Cup semis against New Zealand. The loathing had infiltrated cricket as well.
“Kashmiris weren’t celebrating that New Zealand won, they were celebrating that India had lost,” Muhammad, a Kashmiri and working in capital New Delhi, was quoted as saying in The New Arab. “Not supporting India is a way to resist the occupation India has imposed on us.” But there was a ray of hope, a bunch of players going against the tide- The Jammu and Kashmir cricket team.
The rise and fall
Formed in 1959-60, the team has never been counted amongst the most-favoured teams in the Ranji Trophy. Even as news regarding politics, curfews and frequent bloodshed flooded the headlines, cricket could hardly break through. In 2001-02 when the princely state was reeling from the aftermath of the Kargil War, J&K made the Ranji knockouts- pre-quarterfinals- where Odisha beat them by 420 runs.
The side remained in obscurity for the next 12 years. Scams threatened to play spoilsport as well, adding insult to injury. The Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) was alleged for siphoning off 43.69 out of 112 crores given to them by the BCCI. Farooq Abdullah, the then JKCA president, got himself tangled into all sorts of controversies, before being removed from his position in 2015.
The last thing left was for political interference to push J&K cricket deeper into the rabbit hole. But then, rub of the green started favouring them. In the 2013-14 season, a bearded and short-statured Parvez Rasool scripted history. J&K pipped Goa by a quotient of 0.001 to the quarter-finals, the first for the former. Albeit, they lost to Punjab by 100 runs, the dawn had started breaking on J&K cricket.
Journey into light
2014 wasn’t short of events for J&K. Rasool went on to become the first from the state to don the national colours against Bangladesh in Dhaka., though he went off the radar soon after. However, the unit’s greatest heist came in the 2014-15 Ranji season. Rasool’s men turned over Mumbai by four wickets at the Wankhede Stadium. Mind you, Mumbai are the 41-time Ranji champions.
“People wondered whether we will be able to compete with Elite teams; today we have given the answer,” an over-the-moon Rasool quipped after marauding Mumbai at the 2011 World Cup-final venue. For former left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi, J&K’s then coach, the triumph was more than mere numbers on a scoresheet. “This victory will bring smiles to the people of the Kashmir region.”
The win was an earned-one, especially after the hardships Kashmir went through due to the torrential rains in September. Mother Nature had taken its full toll and a few of the squad’s players were stranded at home without water and food for a number of days. One among them was Shubham Khajuria, who scored 107 and 78 to bag the Player of the Match in the epic clash.
J&K didn’t have much to rejoice in the next three seasons. Barring the wins against Goa and Jharkhand, the team mostly found itself in a vicious circle. But the doors weren’t completely shut on the team. ‘Someone’s loss is another’s gain,’ they said. Irfan Pathan, the former all-rounder, joined J&K, leaving Baroda, who axed the southpaw after two games in the 2017-18 Ranji season.
What followed was the most glorious chapter in J&K cricket. In 2018-19, the team beat Tripura, Haryana and Assam. But one couldn’t have been blamed for not paying heed since a number of times J&K fell away after promising. Behind the scenes, Pathan worked out of his skins as a player-cum-mentor. In the previous season, Pathan notched 463 runs in nine games to go with 19 wickets.
The veteran has been mentoring budding cricketers along with coach Milap Mewada and former India trainer Sudarshan. Pathan has always prioritized the future of J&K cricketers, instead of getting tangled himself in unwanted controversies. In an interview with Greater Kashmir, Pathan showed his jubilation after the national selectors took note of cricketers from the U16 and U19 age groups.
After Irfan’s appointment, the likes of teenagers Rasikh Salam and Abdul Samad have become a part of the IPL. 18-year-old Qamran Iqbal has even represented India U19, though he didn’t get picked in the World Cup squad in South Africa. Samad, another 18-year-old, scored tons against Assam and Jharkhand. Pathan has spoken highly of the Young Turk and the latter has also credited his mentor.
But then, where there is ‘Good’, how can the ‘Evil’ stay away!
The blots in the moon
Days after Irfan and his colleagues joined their beloved J&K players, he along with the staff was asked to leave Kashmir at the earliest. The tension in the Kashmir valley was gradually taking the shape of something, monstrous and scary. The scenario forced the JKCA to suspend all cricketing activities. In excess of 100 players, who were camped at the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium in Srinagar, were sent home.
For Irfan, bidding Kashmir goodbye was pain-staking. As if he was leaving a bloodied fragment of his heart in the hotbed of terror, hoping to find it back, unscathed. “Both, my mind & heart are still back in Kashmir with Indian army & Indian Kashmiri brothers and sisters,” his tweet read. Meanwhile, the clouds of uncertainty loomed large over the hosting of domestic matches in Jammu and Kashmir.
Kashmir and its tussle with terrorism didn’t furrow eyebrows anymore. In 2009, Parvez Rasool had to shrug off the tag of a ‘terrorist’ and show his credentials as a ‘cricketer’. Prior to J&K’s U-22 match, he was detained by the Karnataka police after traces of explosives were allegedly found in his kit-bag. “I had to prove that I am a cricketer and not a terrorist which I had to show with my bat,” he admitted.
The antidote to the poison
Despite the turmoil, J&K cricket has crawled, similar to a new-born baby, learning the art of standing on its feet. Here’s where Irfan Pathan shielded the baby as a father figure, not allowing cruelty to scar his precious gift. For their cricket, Irfan was manna from heaven. En route the stop-start voyage, the state team has already had its most successful campaign in the Ranji Trophy in 2019-20.
When they brushed aside Odisha by four wickets in the latter’s backyard in Cuttack, J&K crammed itself in the pages of history. Rasool’s men won their fifth game, the most by them in any season. After the first six games, J&K perched at the helm in Elite Group C with 32 points. Such was their dominance that the team didn’t drop a single match, the only side to do so in the group.
Even as Jammu and Kashmir cricket keeps glowing, the road ahead is filled with pot-holes and a highway remains a distant dream. Nevertheless, baby J&K has now learned how to run, balancing itself. In the last 12 months, their cricket has grown leaps and bounds. Most importantly, J&K knows how to not get swayed away by the distractions and rather, keep marching towards glory.
As they said in the Hollywood movie ‘Fifty Shades Darker’, ‘Every fairy-tale has a dark side.’ So does’ Jammu and Kashmir’s.