Here is What is Plaguing Cricket in Kashmir

QUITE in tune with its ‘reputation’, Jammu and Kashmir cricket team has failed to qualify for the next round of Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy (SMA) in the Indian domestic Twenty20 competition this season as well. That has been the story for long.

Stronger opponents like Punjab and Karnataka thrashed J&K, raising some serious questions about the process of selection of the squad for the shorter version of the game.

But who will take the blame for this debacle?

Lack of accountability in Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) is an irrefutable fact. There is absence of professionalism in the association and among those who run it on their whims and fancies. Favouritism is the hallmark of the people at the helm. Sadly, their bloated egos make matters worse.

Players are supposed to play on the ground and deliver, and let their bat do all the talking. But some seniors in their prolonged monologues sound self-righteous to avoid scrutiny of any kind. As if no one has the authority to ask them genuine questions about their alleged clout, conflict of interest and dubious role in selecting their favourites based on personal rapport, not merit.

Let’s ask some questions: Why a player of Jatin Wadhwan’s calibre was unceremoniously dropped from the T20 squad?

Wadhwan, aged 26, averages 35 with a healthy strike rate of 121 in T20s. He has amassed about 600 runs in only 21 T-20 matches in SMA competitions. Laced with five fifties, with unbeaten 70* as his highest score, Wadhwan is known as a T-20 specialist. But he was not part of J&K squad.

Instead, players like Shubham Khajuria, Shubham Pundir and Qamran Iqbal were picked. In all fairness, the trio comprising Khajuria, Pundir and Iqbal has done well in the longer version of the game (First-class). But their brand of cricket is not suited for the shorter version (T-20).

At Ranji level, First-class format is four-day cricket which is played with the red ball while List-A is one-day cricket. T-20 is the shortest version of the game.

Qamran Iqbal, for instance, averages 31 in List-A and 27 in First-class (which is not great by any stretch of the imagination) but only 18.6 in T20s. To put it politely, his strike rate of 94.91 in T20s is dismal.

Same is the case with Shubham Khajuria and Shubham Pundir, both reasonably good players in First-class and List-A. Their strike rate (111 and 107 respectively) in T20s is below par. Strike rate below 120 in white ball cricket is unacceptable.

So why would you pick Khajuria, Pundir and Iqbal, and drop Jatin?

Jatin was not the only casualty, though. Other T-20 specialists from the Kashmir Valley which include Jehangir Lone, Manzoor alias Pandav, Shabir Nengroo alias Shabir Lefty, Omar Alam, Owais Shah, Adil, Mehjoor Ali Sofi etc were also ignored.

In the recent past, careers of many a talented player like Abid Nabi, Adil Reshi, Sameer Ali, Zahoor Sofi etc have been ruined. Many former Ranji cricketers and current players have overtly slammed the selection process for all three formats of the game.

Ahmad Banday is a fine opening batsman for J&K. His game is suited for First-class cricket. Banday is stylish and can occupy the crease for longer periods. Strangely, he is ignored for the longer format and picked for the T20s. The story is very similar in the case of both Pundir and Khajuria. Their game is not suited for T20 cricket.

During the last one decade services of international players including legendary spinner Bishen Singh Bedi, former India players Ajay Jadeja, Sunil Joshi, Irfan Pathan and Suresh Raina, and even Ranji seniors like Mithun Manhas have been hired by the JKCA. The problem, however, is that the process of selecting coaches is as dubious and mysterious as is the selection of the playing squad. Mostly, it is a result of personal rapport with individual players that becomes decisive in selecting coaches and players. Earlier, it used to be the club clout. No transparent process was followed then. No explanation is given now.

To be fair, stints of Bedi and Jadeja did bring some results. Same cannot be said about the rest. Their involvement has mostly been limited to photo ops, melodrama and lofty statements.

In 2013-14 Ranji season (First-class) competition, J&K had qualified for the quarter finals for the first time in its cricketing history. This rare feat was achieved under the leadership of Abdul Qayoom, a former fast bowler and local coach. At the time, J&K had a battery of fast bowlers comprising Samiuallh Beigh, Mudhasir, Ram Dayal etc. Samiullah with his five-fors and important contributions with the bat in the lower middle order was instrumental in team’s success alongside some good performances from Parveez Rasool. Batsmen like Bandeep Singh, Hardeep Singh, I D Singh and others had chipped in at the right moment. It was a well-oiled and well-balanced side which had a judicious mix of experience and youth.

Prior to the 2013-14 season, the farthest Jammu & Kashmir had progressed in the Ranji Trophy was the pre-quarterfinal against Odisha way back in 2000-01.

Again, in the last Ranji season (2019-2020), J&K reached quarter finals with a reasonably balanced side comprising Khajuria, Pundir, Suryansh Raina, Parveez Rasool, Abdul Samad, Mujtaba Yousuf and Umar Nazir Mir. However, selection of few blue-eyed boys in the squad had raised many eyebrows.

It was Karnataka that comprehensively beat J&K in the third quarterfinals in Ranji Trophy in February last year. Though Karnataka was reduced to paltry 206 in their first innings, J&K failed to take advantage and were bundled out for 192 runs. In their second innings, Karnataka posted 316, leaving an improbable target of 331 runs for J&K to chase. The team fell short by 167 runs after being bowled out for 163. In both innings, J&K failed to cross the 200-run mark. What is there to celebrate about?

Despite this, some people in J&K cricket team and JKCA indulge in self-congratulatory chatter. There is this mutual admiration club whose members live in an echo chamber. They do not want to hear any constructive criticism. They do not want to answer any questions. Obviously the control freaks want to control cricketing affairs as authoritarians do. They only parrot the line that J&K is now in Elite-A group. Okay, fine. What next?

The word “elite” sounds nice to ears. But the story starts and ends there. The unpalatable truth for the proponents of this “elite narrative” is that Punjab beat J&K by 10 wickets and won the match inside 15 overs. And Karnataka beat J&K by 43 runs.

Is this ‘feat’ to be celebrated? Why is J&K’s mediocrity being showcased as success?

Consolation wins against Railways and Uttar Pradesh are just fine. But when you beat the weaker opponent like Tripura you do not get complacent. The squad that was selected for SMA trophy was not suited for T20 format. Ram Dayal is past his prime. You need horses for courses.

Previously, J&K cricket has been marred by corruption of scandals, club clout, and petty politics. Now it is all authoritarianism, nepotism, favouritism and lack of professionalism at all levels. No serious competitions are held for three separate formats to ensure fair selection for First-class, List-A and T20. Those at the helm only play to the gallery by making big announcements about district level trials. That is all done with the aim to stifle criticism.

The lone Sher-i-Kashmir cricket stadium in Sonwar Srinagar is used more for political rallies and events than for cricket tournaments in various formats. If cricket’s pride in J&K has to be salvaged the game should not be treated as an ‘encounter’! Remember, it is a gentleman’s game!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Gowhar Geelani

Gowhar Geelani is a journalist-author who served Deutsche Welle as editor. He is author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason

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