Cricket in Kashmir: A dangerous and beautiful game

Back in May this year, a domestic cricket tournament in Kashmir’s Pulwama made national headlines after the opening ceremony before the final was streamed live on Facebook. The video that went viral showed the two teams, Shining Star Pampore and Pulwama Tigers, lined up as the Azad Kashmir anthem was played.

The Pulwama Degree College which was adjacent to the stadium had been the hotbed of student protests leading up to the match.

A month before that, another video had gone viral on social media showing the players of a local team named Baba Darya Ud Din donning the Pakistani cricket team’s jersey as the Pakistani national anthem was played before a match in Ganderbal. The local police immediately swung into action and arrested the cricketers even as there were talks of a possible NIA investigation.

A local cricket player commenting on the incident had said back then, ‘This is not something extraordinary or rare. This happens at most places during sports events, especially cricket tournaments. It becomes news only when the videos are circulated or posted on Facebook’.

Cricket in India has always been an integral part of the post-Independence nationalist project that often leads to aggressive jingoistic rhetoric whenever India play Pakistan.

In a country of wide-ranging topographical, cultural and linguistic diversities, cricket is one of the major unifiers that help further the nationalist grand narrative. Thus, an India-Pakistan cricket match often becomes a spectacle of competing nationalisms spread out against the long-drawn, troublesome history of political conflict and geopolitical tensions between the two nations.

The electric atmospheres in the stadium during the matches and of course in the primetime debates on national television witness a ferocious acting out of nationalist fervour. Slogans in the stadium are laced with proud jingoistic rhetoric and as in case of any battle with Pakistan, on or off the field of cricket, inevitable references to Kashmir, the apple of discord, creep in.

How many times have we heard the old slogan, ‘Dudh mangoge, kheer denge. Kashmir mangoge, cheer denge’ [If you want milk, we will give you curd. But if you want Kashmir,we will slit your throats.] by fans during an India-Pakistan match? Kashmir as always becomes the metaphor for the political slugfest between the two nations.

It is well known that the acrimony and angst against Indian nationalism has by now become deep-rooted in Kashmir. Against the backdrop of decades of what the Kashmiris call the occupation by the Indian army ‘ it is one of the most militarized regions in the world ‘ the sense of alienation and bitterness against India is by now profound in the region.

Cricket in Kashmir thus becomes a tool of political resistance and protest against the Indian state as failures of the Indian cricket team are celebrated with much gusto. Pakistan’s victory over India in the Champions Trophy final earlier this year was the occasion for much celebration as was India’s defeat to the West Indies in the semi-final of the ICC World T20.

In a region where the animosity against India stems from the demand for the right to self-determination and Azadi, the larger-than- life hoarding of Virat Kohli in BSF uniform near the Srinagar airport is a reminder of why Indian cricketers are not liked in the region. The presence of the hoarding situates cricket in the grand nationalist narrative as it an attempt at justifying the presence of the army in the Valley. Indian cricketers therefore are seen in Kashmir as figures used politically by the Indian state to strengthen its control in the region.

This was exactly the case when the first ever ODI was played at the Sher-i- Kashmir stadium in Srinagar between India and the West Indies on October 13, 1983. This was almost a re-match of the just concluded World Cup final where India had defeated the mighty Windies.

The popular perception was that it would be a great first match for the crowd in Srinagar but the locals who packed the stadium that day made well known their vehement displeasure with India.

Clive Lloyd’s West Indies got tremendous support from the crowd as every West Indian boundary and every Indian batsman’s wicket was cheered with rapturous delight. A spectator carrying a poster of Imran Khan taunted Sunil Gavaskar who responded gracefully pointing to the heavens and bowing his head to admit Imran’s greatness.

As Gavaskar said, ‘I don’t think the Indian players were really upset by the behaviour of the crowd. They were stunned and could not understand the crowd’s reaction as they had come to the ground as the World Champions.’

He later wrote in his book Runs ‘n’ Ruins: ‘Being hooted at after a defeat is understandable, but this was incredible. Moreover, there were many in the crowd shouting pro-Pakistan slogans which confounded us, because we were playing the West Indies and not Pakistan.’

To make matters worse, three men invaded the ground during the lunch break and started digging up the pitch. They were chased by the police, arrested under the public safety act, and released in 2011 after a lengthy period of twenty years when the court acquitted them of all charges.

India lost that match much to the delight of the crowd and the Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah later apologised to the Indian cricket team at dinner. When the second ODI was held at the same venue a year later, the locals were not allowed to enter the stadium and the police and army men thronged the stands.

Despite the vehement opposition to Indian cricketers, cricket as a sport is immensely popular in the state. It is a sport that plays an almost therapeutic role as it allows the locals to escape the realities of their dreary political situation.

Muhammad Faysal, a Kashmiri freelance writer and blogger whom the MailOnline India had interviewed, said, ‘Last year, for the first time cricket – which forms a part of our curfew culture – wasn’t played as a mark of respect and solidarity with those who were killed in the streets.

‘Most of the youngsters volunteered themselves at hospitals and soup kitchens to help with the crisis. Obviously due to the circumstances where your safety can be compromised or you may even be killed or pelleted, cricket becomes a dangerous sport to play.’

Despite the obvious danger it poses in a curfew-ridden conflict zone, cricket is immensely enjoyed and played by the locals on a regular basis.

In fact, this year’s Wisden’MCC Cricket Photograph of the Year is a beautiful shot by Saqib Majeed, a photographer from Srinagar, who captured the image of boys playing cricket in the Mughal Gardens.

The rise in militancy in the 90s and the stifling military presence affected the growth of cricket in the region. Clashes between militants and the army and series of protests, bandhs and curfews made it impossible for cricket to grow. Numerous matches have been cancelled and practice sessions missed because of shutdowns and curfews.

Many promising cricketers who could have formed the golden generation saw their careers wasted away in an atmosphere where it was impossible to focus on the game.

Abdul Qayoom Bagaw, who was the leading wicket-taker for J&K and later coached the team, is one such prime example.

Back in 1992, Qayoom who was only 25, had taken 86 wickets after just four seasons of first-class cricket and was poised to make the transition to the national stage soon. A death threat signed by the militants warning him to not play for India spelled the virtual end of his career.

Though that letter turned out to be fake, Qayoom, who had played with the likes of Nikhil Chopra and Harbhajan Singh, had already taken a break from cricket and his form was never quite the same after he returned.

With the rise in militancy, the CRPF occupied the JKCA building in the Sher-i- Kashmir Stadium and started storing their ammunitions in the dressing room. Therefore, a generation of promising cricketers saw their careers sacrificed due to the political upheaval. Others like Mithun Manhas who wanted to develop their careers left the state.

The death of Nayeem Qadir Bhatt, a promising 18 year old cricketer, who was shot dead during a demonstration in Handwara last year, showed exactly the reason why it is so difficult for cricketers to prosper in the state. Bhatt had captained the Jammu and Kashmir team in the National School Championship in Delhi while he played for Kashmir Gymkhana, a Srinagar-based club, and in the Downtown Champions League, a T20 competition in the Kashmir Valley.

Apart from the political tensions, the other obvious challenge to the betterment of the game in the state is the deplorable lack of proper infrastructure.

Administrative problems have over the years led to unsubmitted accounts, improper audits, players’ salaries going unpaid, and failure to provide accounts for funds totalling almost Rs. 60 crore (around $9.5 million).

This led to a slugfest between the Jammu & Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) and the BCCI, with the former being accused of misappropriation of funds and heavy sanctions being imposed upon them in the form of a two-year fund blockade. The JKCA accounts were frozen which made it impossible to develop the cricketing infrastructure in the state. The frozen accounts meant that the JKCA could not even utilize the Rs. 34 crore in its coffers making it impossible for them to run cricket efficiently.

Speaking to the Indian Express, JKCA secretary Iqbal Shah said, ‘We have written to everyone in the BCCI, but till date no response has come. You tell me how shall I run cricket here. The tournament (Ranji Trophy) is starting next month. We have to conduct selection trials here. If a boy comes from Jammu, where shall I put him up? Who will pay him daily allowance? If such is the case, what shall we do other than taking a drastic step which will hurt cricket badly? There has been no word from the BCCI so far.

‘I was told that the matter will be taken up by the Committee of Administrators (CoA). I went and met them in Delhi. They said it will go back to the office-bearer. Now these office-bearers have been given a notice by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The other day, I was told that the decision on my state association can only be taken by the general body.

The next hearing in the Supreme Court is on September 19. So where is the general body now? Chances are that the BCCI AGM will only take place next month. And from next month, the domestic championship is starting.’

The Committee of Administrators however strongly admonished the JKCA stating that funds were being held back due to their non-compliance with the Lodha Committee recommendations.

In their August 23rd letter, the CoA noted:

‘The Committee of Administrators has also noted certain media reports to the effect that the JKCA may pull out of BCCI tournaments due to lack of funds wherein you have been quoted as saying that this is due to inaction on the part of the BCCI and/or the Committee of Administrators.

This is a completely misleading picture that has been portrayed by you and appears to be an attempt to pressurise the Committee of Administrators into releasing funds in a manner contrary to the orders passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, which will not be done under any circumstances.

Release of funds has been withheld solely to comply with the orders passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and, as mentioned above, it is non-compliance by the JKCA which is preventing release of funds. If cricketing operations in Jammu & Kashmir suffer as a result, it is the JKCA and its officials who are responsible for the same.”

With the deadlock between the JKCA and the BCCI, it looked almost certain at one stage that J&K would withdraw from this year’s Ranji Trophy thereby severely endangering the careers of many of their domestic cricketers.

Their veteran seamer and former captain Samiullah Beigh had told the Times of India, “As players, we’re very worried as our careers are at stake. Being a senior player, I have written a detailed e-mail to Vinod Rai (CoA head) requesting his timely intervention, before we lose this season or miss out on some of the matches. The situation here in JKCA is grim as no pre-season preparatory activity has started yet.

“Irrespective of the fact that we are yet to receive our dues of 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons, we, as players, are more bothered about our participation in the prestigious national events rather than our dues. I hope the COA takes a considerate view of my e-mail and issues all necessary orders enabling us to participate in the Ranji Trophy.”

Though the deadlock was later resolved and the players were instructed to start preparing for the tournament, the damage that the fund blockade caused was incredible. And this was not the first time that such a fiasco had hit the state. In March 2012, two JKCA officials were accused of embezzlement of funds which unearthed a multi-crore scam that had affected the reconstruction work at the Sher-i- Kashmiri stadium. And then, the massive floods in Kashmir caused severe damage to the cricketing infrastructure making life more difficult for the cricketers.

There were however silver linings in the cloud. The recruitment of Bishan Singh Bedi as  the coach for the state team in 2011 helped improve the team by leaps and bounds. And it was under Bedi’s tenure that the state’s iconic all-rounder Parvez Rasool rapidly rose through the ranks.

Born in Bijhbehara in the Anantnag district, Rasool had a great 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season where he scored 594 runs including two centuries and picked 33 wickets. The very next season, he followed it up with 663 runs including two centuries and took 27 wickets.

By then, he had also become the captain of J&K, a regular in the India A side, and earned an IPL contract at the KKR. The next year, he was bought by the SRH in the 2014 auctions for a sum of INR 5 lakh (US$150,000). But his proudest moment was his maiden call-up to the national side in 2013 as he became the second cricketer from J&aK after Vivek Razdan to get selected in the national side. His debut came against Bangladesh the next year where he bowled his quota of 10 overs and picked two wickets.

Despite his claim to national fame, Rasool had his fair share of controversies thus highlighting the plight of a cricketer from Kashmir. In 2009, he along with his team-mate Mehrazuddin was detained by the Bangalore police with allegations of explosives being found in his kit bag. And there were the usual threats from the militants to contend with. Rasool had always harboured ambitions of being a cricketer from his early boyhood days, travelling almost 50 km to the Sher-i- Kashmir stadium along with his brother Asif who played seven T20s for J&K and his father Ghulam who used to open the batting for the district.

Today Rasool is a big name in his state and a local hero as countless Kashmiri children take pride in his achievements and seek to emulate him. In a way, braving the adversities, Rasool has shown his generation what it takes to succeed at the national level.

‘When I first sat in the team bus among some of the best players in the world, I thought I was dreaming. When I bowled, Dhoni paaji gave me tips on bowling to a field. Even though I wasn’t part of the main team, Suresh paaji (Suresh Raina) and Ajinkya paaji (Ajinkya Rahane) helped me out,’ he told the Indian Express.

‘When I traveled with the Indian team, I saw that a player’s only job was to worry about his game. You didn’t have to carry your luggage. You stayed at the nicest hotels. You didn’t have to worry about whether you had nets.’

Rasool has inspired thousands of Kashmiri youngsters now to pursue their cricketing ambitions with a newfound fervour. Arshid Magray, a young all-rounder from Pulwama district, is now the talk of the town after he amassed 231 runs with scores of 56, 75 and a century against Mumbai in the Jaipur Premier League. He also took eight wickets.

Magray is obviously following in the footsteps of promising fast bowlers from J&K such as Samiullah Beigh and Umar Nazir. Nazir whose name featured in the IPL auctions list, is an upcoming fast bowling talent with a classical action and regularly clocks above 140 kmph. His performances helped J&K defeat three strong team in the Mushtaq Ali trophy and got him selected in the North Zone squad.

The J&K Ranji coach, Abdul Qayoom Bagav, is full of praise for Nazir. “He swings it both ways when the ball has shine and reverses the old one. Moreover, because he drops the ball from a good height, he extracts lot of bounce,” he told News 18.

Following in the tradition of Rasool, Manzoor Ahmad Dar is another promising all-rounder from the state. Employed as a security guard in a private company in Bandipora, Manzoor’s hard-hitting batsmanship has enthralled crowds at the Ranji Trophy level.

Known as the Ravindra Jadeja of the Valley, Manzoor is always humble about his achievements. “I don’t remember the exact number of runs that I have scored. But I am sure that I have smashed more than 40 centuries till now. My career’s highest score is 211 which I hit at Narbal ground,” he told ANI.

“I had extreme financial problems due to which I had to leave my schooling and earn a living for my family. So I joined as a security guard at Tata Motors, but cricket was my life’s passion and I couldn’t leave it. Even cricket didn’t leave me. So I worked in night and practised otherwise,” he added.

And then there are the ones who challenge the stereotypes despite hailing from a region torn by political conflict and facing severe infrastructural challenges. Amir Hussain, the captain of the J&K para-cricket team, is a differently abled cricketer without arms.

Having lost both his arms at his father’s sawmill in 1997, Hussain holds his bat between his neck and chin. A self-professed fan of Sachin Tendulkar, Hussain has mastered his idol’s flick shot to perfection. While bowling, he utilizes his toes to grip the ball and delivers loopy leg-spin.

‘I met with an accident in 1997 at our sawmill when I was reading in Class II. There was nobody at that time. I had gone there to drop the lunch for my brother and while playing got entangled as a result of which both of my arms got amputated,’ he told NDTV.

‘I had to face a lot of struggle in life, but never gave up. I adopted various techniques to overcome the challenge of being armless.’

The other Rasool from J&K who has recently shot into limelight is a 17-year old schoolgirl from the remote Dangivacha area of Sopore in north Kashmir. But it is not just her namesake but Virat Kohli that Iqra Rasool idolizes.

The star cricketer of the government high school Dangivacha, Iqra went on to represent her district and then her state. Tales of Iqra’s brilliance have already travelled far and wide. Invited to bowl after the finale of Baramulla Premier League Boy’s Cricket Tournament held at the Showkat Ali Stadium Khojabagh, Baramulla, Iqra had bowled the accomplished batsman twice her age only off her third delivery.

She also put in a match-winning performance in the U-17 tournament against the Jharkand team where she picked up three vital wickets. But it has been far from smooth sailing as she faced repeated opposition from her family and her neighbours.

As she says, ‘Kyun khel rahi ho?’ would always be the attitude of everyone. “I go to practise by hiding my bat under my phiran – where do you go to practise?’ she told in her interview to the NDTV.

‘Here only in the school in the evenings- every day? Yes almost every day – why do you hide your bat? I am asked not to play- who tells you- the villagers- but you don’t agree, you go ahead- yes”, said Iqra Rasool.

Having represented her state at the U-19 and U-23 levels, Iqra has now re-located to West Bengal for better opportunities. She has now joined the Aditya School of Sports and her trails were taken by the legendary Jhulan Goswami.

“I wanted to play cricket from my childhood, but now I am more into it, why? It will give me respect and name, what do you want to do? I want to play for the Indian cricket team,’ said Iqra Rasool.

Amidst the rampant corruption, militancy and military occupation, Iqra’s resolve is yet another story of determination and Kashmiri resistance. Thus, despite the obvious challenges, these remarkable stories of resistance are a huge cause for enthusiasm that furthers the interest in that game. The latest development that has been generating rapid interest in the sport is the inaugural edition of a T20 tournament for women.

Srinagar’s Bakshi Stadium, which doubles up as a football and hockey turf besides hosting the Independence Day parade every year, was the unexpected venue for the tournament. Thirteen teams took part in the tournament which won hearts across the state for being a remarkable story of women’s empowerment ‘ the women cricketers had to defeat the insurmountable obstacles of inadequate training facilities, lack of proper infrastructure and the general patriarchal mind-set. This is exactly how the romance of the tournament was scripted as word got out that most of the cricketers had almost no cricketing gear and had to make do with rented, borrowed or makeshift adjustments.

The popularity of the tournament despite the odds made everyone sit up and take notice of these women who face several layers of marginalisation in their day-to- day lives because of their gender and ethnic identities. Moreover, it re-emphasized the faith the state had in the game of cricket. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti promised her support to the sport and announced an allocation of Rs 45 crore under the Prime Minister’s Development Package for infrastructural developments.

T20 cricket is rapidly gaining popularity and is being used for not just cultivating talent at the grassroots level but also for institutionalising the game. The State Cricket Academy (SCA) in Kashmir, which was set up for Rs. 1 crore under the ‘Khelo India’ programme this year, has roped in 3,300 players to form 22 teams across 10 districts.

In an interview to The Hindu, Waheed-ur- Rehman, secretary of the Sports Council, spoke of the importance of promoting the game in militancy-hit areas of the state. ‘It’s the most popular game here. In the past, there were events organised by the police and the Army but not on this scale. This event is just aimed at institutionalising the game and [will] take it to a new level. We have deliberately kept politics away from it. It’s a reach out also.’

Cricket in Kashmir therefore poses a huge paradox of ridicule and reason. In a state that has witnessed massive shutdowns, radicalisation and human rights abuses, the sports will always remain the last vehicle of passion and the first tool of resistance against the Indian state.

Simply nothing however can overstate the enthusiasm of the youngsters battling the depravity of the system and lack of infrastructure to play the game.

Only in Kashmir will you find a batsman braving the bullets to play a copybook cover-drive amidst the curfew. Only in Kashmir will two players congratulating each other mid-pitch talk about the leg-glance and Azadi in the same breath. Only in Kashmir’

Like everything else in Kashmir, even playing cricket becomes a political act, an act of assertion and resistance. This is particularly true when the team that you cheer for might land you up in prison for months without a trial. Or trying to play a quick match in an impromptu setting might cost you your life thanks to a stray bullet from a militant or a pellet from a soldier.

Playing the game thus is both a political and passionate act of unimaginable rebellion and compassion. So hopeless and despairing is the situation at times, that the will to play the game is itself strange and miraculous. Nowhere else in the world is cricket such a dangerous and beautiful game.