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Living by cricket

With the game's glamour and high visibility in the media, cricketers often appear to be wallowing in wealth. But there are very few true cricket professionals in Kerala. K. PRADEEP meets P. S. Manoj, a rare youngster who makes a living by playing cricket.

IT IS morning and the cluster of islands across the Kochi backwaters is slowly waking up to another day in their normally routine life. A motorcycle, with a long heavy bag in front and a well-built youngster at the wheel, whizzes past, leaving a group of curious youngsters gaping at the rider in awe, the women at the dry water taps stifling their giggles and the motley crowd at the tiny teashop exchanging meaningful glances. These folks have not been able to understand how this young man makes a living out of playing cricket.

Meet P. S. Manoj. This young man from Njarakkal, is the State's only true `professional' cricketer. Cricket is the main source of income for him and this has been so for the last five years at least. It is a huge part of his life playing, on an average, for three days a week during a cricket season that lasts almost five months.

It all began when Manoj turned out as a `guest' player for AGs Arcon, a Thrissur-based club. He was paid Rs. 150 for a game. The club had found a consistent run-getter and a more than useful bowler, while Manoj found that he was making some money to keep his cricket going. Since then Manoj has been enlisted as a professional by clubs like Rayro CC, Century CC and Ernakulam CC, with whom he is registered this season.

"We were on the look-out for someone who could play and also help in assisting the youngsters of the club. We pay him roughly Rs. 15,000 for a season, which is around six months. Personally, I have felt that this fine batsmen started cricket a bit late. He is committed to the job and sincere. We have also found that he is a talented coach and a good umpire. One of his wards, Jithin, represented the State under-13 side this year. He is a good talent spotter and has brought many young boys from the islands near his home to our club," says P. Sivakumar, president of ECC.

To be good at one's work is one sense in which the word `professional' is bandied around. It then implies that he can be depended upon. This implication is not that easy, for it may be easy to do a job but to do it well, is where the catch lies. And Manoj has been quick to realise this. He knows that to be in the reckoning for a contract every year he has to keep scoring runs consistently and picking up wickets at a steady average. He is not one to set personal performance goals and his thinking is quite uncomplicated. "I have always strived to put in 100 per cent on the field. I work hard at the nets and try to achieve what the club expects from me. I never feel the pressure when I'm playing. But later, when I sit down to write down the details of the game, I feel a bit guilty if I have not performed well. For, I know that I'm being paid for a job to be done well and it hurts when I'm not able to do so."

Manoj keeps a diary of his performances, a routine he began right from the time he began playing the club circuit. "This activity has helped. I keep a record of the manner in which I was dismissed, some of the dubious umpiring decisions that hit me, along with the number of runs I muster every year." In his nearly five years of club cricket Manoj has so far played 218 matches, scored 7,000 runs at an average of 45.00. This season Manoj has an average of 66.00. "I have not counted the number of wickets I have taken. My bowling is mainly restrictive, for most of the matches we play here are over-based ones. Maybe, as a bowler, I have been used to contain rather than attack."

Unlike most youngsters, Manoj has never been bitten by the selection bug. His consistent performances have never tempted him to try his luck with the district and State teams. This year he is the highest run-getter in the Ernakulam district league, a feat he missed out by three runs last year and a couple of years back he was the top wicket getter in the same event. And his logic in not aiming for a State cap is, again, so simple: "There are so many talented youngsters playing the game in the State. But the final 14 or 15 who play for the State are surely not the best."

However, former State cricketer Joe Oswin, who was instrumental in luring Manoj from tennis ball cricket to the serious stuff, refuses to buy this line of thinking. "I have always been trying to din it into Manoj that he needs to think of an alternative career. He has the material to go much higher and perhaps even land a job with his cricketing talent. This interest of the clubs to hire him, as a professional who can deliver the goods will wane once Manoj begins to perform inconsistently. I'm sure they will not have the patience to keep him on their rolls then. So in a few years from now, he needs to find his footing."

By the time the motorcycle winds its way back home, through the narrow streets, it is well past sunset. Manoj, his cricket kit in tow, goes around the shops on the islands collecting deposits on the loans he has given. "This is part of a small-time family business which was begun by my father (P. V. Sukumaran)," he says sheepishly. This is a business that the islanders understand. They are still not quite sure of the heavy, cricket kit.

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