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'Curtly Ambrose of the northeast' prepares to take on world's best

Bishworjit Konthoujam is the most dreaded pacer from northeast India who never sledges. He is now watching videos of Prithvi Shaw, Shreyas Iyer and Ajinkya Rahane as he prepares for a historic Duleep Trophy debut.

Curtly Ambrose of the northeast prepares to take on worlds best
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Bishworjit Konthoujam - the strike bowler for Manipur who is soon to be the strike bowler for the Northeast zonal team.

By

Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 2022-09-08T22:00:52+05:30

As the first ever combined cricket team to represent northeast India goes through their drills at the preparatory camp in Dimapur ahead of the 2022 Duleep Trophy, one head sticks out above all the others.

Not only is the 26-year-old Bishworjit Konthoujam the tallest person in the Northeast Zone squad, he is also their best hope as they look to counter the likes of Prithvi Shaw and Ajinkya Rahane when they face West Zone on Thursday (September 8) in Chennai.

"My reputation for five-wicket hauls have made me a feared bowler within the northeast. They always look to play out my overs and attack the others. But players like Ajinkya Rahane and Prithvi Shaw belong to a different level. If I can repeat the same feat against them, it will be a big step in my career. Who knows, I can even hope for a call-up to the India A team," the right-arm pacer told The Bridge.

"This Duleep Trophy match will be the biggest of my career yet. I am watching videos of the Mumbai batters to prepare a plan for them," he said.

Since Manipur's debut at the senior level in Indian domestic cricket in 2018, Konthoujam has been the state's leading wicket-taker in all three formats. His 43 wickets in the Ranji Trophy, 21 wickets in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and 19 wickets in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy over the last four years places him among the top 10 bowlers in Indian domestic cricket in this period and makes him the undisputed pace leader among teams from northeast India.

But there is none of the aggression in Konthoujam normally associated with fast bowlers. When he puts on his spectacles, he looks more like a jovial college professor than a deadly pacer.

"Dodda Ganesh (former India international and Manipur bowling coach) told me I am a carbon copy of Curtly Ambrose. He also did not speak much while bowling, never sledged," laughed Konthoujam.

As the Manipuri enters his delivery stride with a smooth, leggy action and releases his delivery from a high point with a fast-arm action, it does seem like watching an action replay of the dreaded Antiguan who terrorised batters in the 1990s.

A promising Boxing career

Back when Ambrose was still playing for the West Indies, Konthoujam was part of the Boxing revolution taking over Manipur. He was part of the SAI coaching camp and won national-level medals in the heavyweight category. He sparred with coaches Ibomcha Singh and Dingko Singh, luminaries of the sport, and was best friends with Devendro Singh, a boxer who represented India at the 2012 Olympics.

"In Manipur, there is a craze for individual sports, because that is where all our success has been. My family loved that I was a boxer, they did not like my fascination with cricket at all. I secretly made cutouts of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag from toothpaste boxes and hid them under my pillow," Konthoujam recalled his earliest fling with cricket.

Bishworjit Konthoujam (right) with a state-level Boxing gold medal around 10 years ago

Rohindro Singh, a former batter who was one of the best players for Manipur's age-group teams in the 1990s but who could not progress any further because northeast India did not have teams in Indian domestic cricket's senior level back then, was Konthoujam's first idol. When the young Konthoujam passed his coaching academy on way to school, he wished he too could one day join in.

In 2014, the then-18-year-old Konthoujam found his life's calling. He had taken a break from Boxing after a side strain and was wondering whether to continue in the sport, especially in the light of the prevailing four-year ban on the Indian boxing federation.

"I was bundled into a car and taken to Rohindro's academy and told to bowl. Immediately, I was marked as a fast bowler. Rohindro sir told me my height, my anatomy was perfect for bowling," he recalled the 'funny story' behind his introduction to playing cricket.

Always the tallest person around, Konthoujam finally found some more advantage in his height other than being the designated person to take selfies in group photos and get a lot of reach inside the boxing ring.

Building a platform for future generations

Konthoujam knows that playing for the Indian national team might be a dream too far for the moment, but he is determined to keep working hard so that he is ready to take any opportunity that comes. Having lost some of his friends from his childhood to the menace of drugs, he knows that a path in cricket is also a path to a better future.

"I want to build a platform so that Manipuri kids who are playing at the U12 level right now can one day have a realistic dream of playing for India," he said.

Bishworjit Konthoujam with VVS Laxman at the NCA in Bangalore earlier this year

His only regret is that despite four years having passed since Manipur's introduction to mainstream cricket, there is still very little recognition of the sport in his state.

"When I came back after becoming the first bowler in Indian cricket to take 7 wickets with a hat-trick in an innings, there was no newspaper coverage, social media posts or any reception at the airport. There is still very little knowledge about cricket in Manipur," he said.

"I have been entering my name in the IPL auctions without luck so far. Last year, a bowler from Mizoram became a net bowler for Rajasthan Royals. Maybe my time is also not far off," said Konthoujam.

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