What the end of the Gufran Memorial means to Kashmir's young cricketers
For 15 years, a tournament in Kashmir's Doda gave a chance to local cricketers to rub shoulders with international players. That tournament is gone now, taking with it all hopes and dreams.
Doda, J&K: Rehan Dar, 25, sits on the edge of the commentary box, watching kids play cricket.
"What if these kids get a better platform? Look at the pace of this kid. I can easily say there is no dearth of Umran Malik or Parvez Rasool here, but lack of infrastructure is ruining dreams of our players," he chirps as a lookalike of the Sunrisers Hyderabad pacer clatters the stumps.
Dar looks around with sorrow at the mountains surrounding the stadium, which have just started to be covered in snow with the approach of winter. Though his mind is bitter, the stadium is as picturesque as it can get.
Doda, a small town in the Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir, has this small but pretty stadium at its centre. This stadium has even attracted national and international cricketers for the past one and a half decades.
On the edge of this beautiful town, flows the mighty Chenab river, which crosses through the famous Ganpat Bridge, the only route to connect Doda with Jammu City.
This stadium is one of those rare ones where players of international caliber have played on matting turf, but the stadium is yet to have a green outfield. This stadium has been a part of Doda's identity since 2005, when the first ever All India Gufran Memorial championship was held here - involving some international cricketers. Owing to this tournament, Doda captured the imagination of local cricketers and newspapers. Since that year, 15 editions of the tournament were held till 2019.
"The Gufran Memorial tournament was one of the greatest platforms for players like me. I was fortunate to have played alongside Ranji trophy players. It was a nice platform at our doorstep but it is really sad that this opportunity has vanished," Dar says with a tinge of bitterness.
What is Gufran Memorial?
The Gufran Memorial Championship used to be held in the memory of Gufran Manzoor, a 14-month child who fell into a tub of water and died in 2004. Since then, Gufran's father Manzoor Ahmed Bhat held this tournament under the banner of Young Star Cricket Club, Doda.
As the tournament started attaining some fame, cricketers from different parts of India, as well as some cricketers from Afghanistan and Bangladesh, started arriving to take part. When Pirates of Chittagong (POC) from Bangladesh won the tournament in 2015, the team was studded with players like Nizam Uddin and Yasir Ali, who recently played in the T20 World Cup.
Public emotions associated with the tournament made it one of the leading tournaments in Jammu and Kashmir, but lack of sponsorship has meant the tournament has not been held since 2019.
The Bridge reached out to current Bangladesh international Yasir Ali Chowdhary, who said the crowd in Doda was unlike anything he has experienced anywhere else.
"It is really sad to learn that the Gufran Memorial has ended on a sad note. I have played international cricket and Bangladesh Premier League, but the electric crowd in Doda was unforgettable. I still remember how people carried us on their shoulders and took us to their hearts. Those moments are still fresh in my mind," said Yasir.
"The local players have a thirst to learn but they don't have a green outfield and turf wicket to practise on. Despite that, the skills and passion of the young cricketers of Doda surprised me," he added.
Not just the players, the setting in Doda could make for some amazing matches if by some chance world-class cricket returns. The stadium here has stands on three sides decorated with different colours, a pavilion and a commentary box on the backside of the ground. The ground is known for lusty winds, helping the ball swing like a cobra and making the batter's life difficult.
A crowd-pulling platform for peace
Manzoor Ahmed Bhat, chief patron of the Young Star Cricket Club told The Bridge that the Gufran Memorial was not only a cricket tournament but also a peace-spreading platform.
"Initially when we used to invite teams from other parts of the country, they were reluctant. We put all energy into convincing them that there would be no danger for players here and we would take care of them. We were messengers of peace, but due to financial constraints, we were not able to continue it," he said.
"I still receive calls from players throughout India inquiring about the tournament. I haven't got the strength to tell them that it has been stopped, and may not be held again," Bhat added.
All the players The Bridge reached out to from the U15 to U23 levels expressed deep disappointment about the tournament's future. "We had seen several players on TV screens but the Gufran Memorial brought them in front of our eyes," said a junior cricketer.
Sameer Ahmed Malik, a former player who is now engaged as the video analyst of Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association, said the town of Doda seems to have lost its identity since the Gufran Memorial tournament has stopped drawing breath.
"The Doda area came into headlines for the first time through the tournament. It was the only platform where locals could rub shoulders with national and international players. In its prime, the atmosphere was so electric that no championship anywhere in the Chenab Valley could match up to it. It was an amazing crowd-puller," he said.