‘Wasted Wizard’: Kashmir’s Cult Cricketer’s Comeback as Coach

Ex-cricketer Feroz Ahmad in coach's shoes. KO Photos by Special Arrangement.

At a time when a premier Kashmir cricket league is making noise around the world, a celebrated cricketer who could’ve been the first international star from the valley is busy boosting the contest. In his second coming, the ‘victim of the game’ has only become a guiding light for others.

ON April 9, 2000, Pampore United, the then “best cricket team” in Kashmir, hosted a knockout match against the Islamabad Cricketers in the final of the week-long Pampore knockout tournament. That restful morning, hundreds of fathers along with their children drifted to Pampore ground where Feroz Ahmed, the “greatest player” known to the spectators, led Pampore United onto the pitch in their classic Green and white striped jerseys.

From the perch on the east-side stands known as Bijbehara Lowfields, children strained to get a closer look of the “legend” that their fathers had always boasted about. Of course, there was just one team everyone in the stands was rooting for — the Feroz’s side. For a few hundred cricket zealots, the privilege of seeing Feroz was a joy more preferred over any momentary thrill of victories.

That Pampore ground was the same pitch where Feroz had established himself as a wonderfully creative player since the armed insurgency flared in the nineties—when most of his compatriots were choosing guerilla warfare across the Line of Control over the wooden sticks.

But it wasn’t just Feroz’s solo skills that had set him apart. He made his teammates better. Under his leadership as a captain and later as a manager himself, he helped to perfect the fluid playing style of the game, in which, rather than executing set plays and chasing down heavy targets, players constantly exchanged fielding positions, filling up spaces and making extensive pressure on the opposition team in order to flummox their batting order. “With Feroz as its orchestrator, this style of play wasn’t just effective, it was beautiful to watch,” Farooq Islambaed, an old friend of Feroz said while remembering the long-forgotten master of the game.

After two decades, since Feroz’s eventful life witnessed a colossal fanfare across the region, the cricketing cult’s career has taken an about turn with hardly anyone left to rejuvenate this man’s dexterous life.

Now, here he’s—the man who reportedly ran Farooq Abdullah’s Jammu & Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) on his own behind the curtain from 2005 to 2008, the period when Feroz received several acknowledgments from veteran Qayoom Bagga for his match winning tactics—sitting on the perch inside the silent settings of Polo Ground, sounding alarmed while explaining that period since when he hasn’t even had one of his better nights. He now trains Kashmir’s new talent on the turf game.

Presently, living away from the crowd in the hushed neighbourhood of Pampore on the outskirts of Srinagar, Feroz’s playful expedition began from Srinagar, his birthplace.

During his school days, he would take a tennis ball on rent from John Mohammed Sports House, an obscurely small shop near his school in the old city. “At that stage of life, buying a tennis ball was a rich kid’s hobby,” recalls Feroz, now a private cricket instructor in Gindun Ground. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those kids, so renting a tennis ball was all I could afford.”

But the ball affair that merely started as a fun activity soon turned out to be a hobby and then into a profession.

During his prime playful days.

Feroz’s professional journey began immediately after he pointed out that Kashmiri players playing in the Ranji have no career ahead and what they’re left with is to play in the local matches around the valley. “Players from Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab and South-India were celebrating an international career but when it came to Kashmir, not one player had found solace in cricket,” he says. Apparently, it was the rush for the same solace that drove Feroz into creating a niche of his own.

In 2005, when JKCA had already taken two years to decide the year-long fixtures for cricket tournaments to be held in Kashmir, Feroz came up with a supportive idea. “The idea was simple,” he pauses, to say, “water your own sapling.”

Those days, not many Kashmiri players made it to the Nationals usually held in Chandigarh and Haryana. Feroz requested Qayoom Bagga to organise a selection camp in SP College Ground for a National level tournament. Bagga, who’d closely seen Feroz growing up into an aesthetical cricketer, curtly supported the “master-plan” and gave a “good to go” nod to the man.

“In Chandigarh, Anil Mehta, a state-level head of cricket association from Punjab was delighted to see our Kashmir team in the Nationals,” says Feroz.

But more than Mehta’s joy face, his words boosted Feroz’s morale: “You (Kashmiri) players deserve to play International cricket more than anyone in India.”

With more than a dozen “Winners” certificates in their hands, Feroz and his team came back to Srinagar exhilarated. “Those days,” he says, “National certificates had to be accredited by state committees, so JKCA was bound to do the same.”

But rather than accrediting those sheets of paper, the state cricket board which faced the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)’s whip on corruption charges, reacted in the exact manner for which it had gained notoriety among the masses: It deconstructed the whole journey by discrediting those certificates.

“That struggle towards Nationals didn’t happen overnight, it had taken years of practice but then JKCA movers and shakers destroyed dozens of growing careers including mine in mere seconds,” Feroz rues. “It was all out of resentment as I had exposed their failures by selecting a team of real players over JKCA brats.”

Nominally, his teammates who were the smart sets in Kashmir, were themselves thinking of ending their journey, but in an era when Kashmir was yet to introduce its international talent in the celebrated cinema of cricket, Feroz’s unsurpassed positional sense and ability to read the future barred him give up.

Back then, a unique form of cricket was gaining traction in England and Australia. No one in Kashmir had ever heard about Twenty20 before. Rather than letting the JKCA’s decision overshadow his professionalism, Feroz invested into the same cricket form by organising a tournament in the lushed ground of S.P College. It was simply called the “SP college Twenty-20 knockout tournament.”

Apparently, the biggest drawback for the tournament was the teams participating in it had no idea what T-20 was all about. But for “the maestro”, this problem was akin to another cricket match where he was supposed to culminate opposition team’s defence. “For almost a week,” Feroz says, “I trained the participating teams about the ways to gain control of the limited overs game in an instant; how to score strong targets; how to effortlessly chase opposition teams’ score and the preeminent skill of how to practically play a Super-over.”

Feroz has now distanced himself from the board and is focussing on his coaching.

As Feroz’s principles proved successful, JKCA adapted them. A month later, Rauf, who led JKCA as a coach, said that Feroz “painted the chapel, and Kashmiri coaches since have merely restored or improved it.” The religious metaphor was fitting. “Feroz’s admirers didn’t just like the way he and his team played, they believe the world could be a better place if his vision of cricket prevailed. Kashmir’s cricket, they felt, is more beautiful, more fun and more spiritual than other approaches,” Qayoom Bagga wrote that month, in an insightful report to the JKCA.

Thereafter, with the report being discussed among the JKCA cadres, Feroz was called by the association to display his skills in a National selection camp held in the Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium. “For the first time,” Feroz says, “I was going to participate as a player in the JKCA National selection camp.”

There, an “impulsive coach” had asked Feroz to play a free-flowing cover drive. “With that cover drive, my career concluded,” he says. “It wasn’t out of exhilaration that JKCA had called me for a selection but out of resentment for me.”

That’s where the legend of Feroz came to an end, says Fayaz Kanth, a national level cricketer from Downtown who had accompanied Feroz that day for his selection trials. “The resilience of his character was such that he never went for such selection camps ever again but had constantly motivated me and others especially when it was getting difficult for me to develop trust for the JKCA procedures. But Feroz himself ended up as a wasted wizard.”

After curtains fell over his celebrated career, the Kashmir team seemingly slackened. Fifteen years down the line, senior JKCA members and several statistics voted him the ‘Kashmiri cricketer of the decade’. Was he better than Abid Nabhi or Parvez Rasool or Manzoor Pandev? The arguments will go on forever. But he was certainly on their level, and his artistry was appreciated well beyond his sport.

After all these years of obscurity, a slim figure with neck-length black hair, Feroz is still smiling but reciprocates one last thing before the conversation ends, “The man who rechristened a unique form of cricket in Kashmir, was left to stay put on his own.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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