Take some time out to watch Delhi's summer cricket. The media may have taken its eyes off, but it is still absorbing stuff all the way, says VIJAY LOKAPALLY
In scorching heat, when few venture out, cricketers and their fans spread out in the North, just as they have been doing for three decades now. Summer cricket, or hot weather cricket as it is popularly known, has played a significant role in enriching cricket in the North, and Delhi in particular, with some heady stuff. Of course not the kind that comes alive on the television screen from those fascinating cricket fields across the world, but local cricket has its own culture, magic, and a tradition that has remained strong over the years. Kamal Juneja, a steady cricketer from the 1970s, has an interesting experience to share. "We would wait for the summer to arrive, for it gave us opportunities to explore our abilities, and swell our coffers." The prize money tournaments in peak summer were a great attraction in days when commercial interests did not dominate the game.
"We used to play to earn," confesses Juneja. He recalled how the Mohan Meakin team would hire a mini bus at the start of the summer and take off on the cricket caravan that would travel to Ghaziabad, Jaipur, Ferozabad and Agra before returning to Delhi."The players would be away from home for a month but our booty kept the family happy. There was intense competition because prize money had to be earned by winning. The teams were very strong and there was a huge sense of achievement in ending up with nearly 20000 rupees each at the end of it. Plus we were loaded with gifts from the organisers. To tell you the truth, the cricketing fraternity was one big family. There was room for everyone," remembers Juneja, who runs a cricket academy now. Tournaments like Lallu Mandhata (Ghaziabad), Shahid Smriti (Agra) and Sheesh Mahal (Luckow) provided selection platforms for the season. Navjyot Singh Sidhu hit his way into the India team for the 1987 World Cup through a sterling show at Lucknow. "It was a great tournament. Some of the best players of the circuit were competing and it was always considered prestigious to excel in the Sheesh Mahal tournament," recalls Sidhu, known for his big-hitting. The Shahid Smriti tournament was watched by lots of spectators with players like G.R. Visvanath, Brijesh Patel, Dilip Vengsarkar, Syed Kirmani, Roger Binny, Ashok Mankad, Sandeep Patil, Yashpal Sharma, Ashok Malhotra in action. Among those who graced the Sheesh Mahal tournament, one of the finest in line with Buchi Babu, Moin-ud-daula, J.P. Atrey and Arlem Trophy, were stalwarts like Salim Durrani, Hanumant Singh, Bishan Singh Bedi, Kapil Dev. Sadly, the Sheesh Mahal tournament had to be discontinued because of lack of patronage. Local cricket in Delhi had its own charm and stars. No eyebrows were raised when bowlers like Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma, Manoj Prabhakar, Atul Wassan, Sanjeev Sharma were clobbered by unsung `Richards' of local cricket like Kamal Talwar, N.P. Singh, Ashok `Macchi' Bhardwaj... . Such was their ferocity at Hindu College, Railway Stadium, Modern School, it was said that even Dennis Lillee would have received shoddy treatment from these buccaneers who would sweep fast bowlers even in the first over of the innings. There is no safe target, for totals over 350 have been overhauled many a time. Sanjay Manjrekar played a few tournaments in Delhi and concluded it was an absorbing experience. "I have not seen some of the shots these local heroes possess," he admitted honestly even as he crafted a last-ball finish with a reverse sweep. Years later, bowlers like Dodda Ganesh and Munaf Patel, the latter now in the West Indies, discovered how tough it was to bowl in the Delhi summer circuit. Munaf was slammed for four boundaries in the opening over by Rushil Bhaskar, an under-17 batsman, while Ganesh, former India fast bowler, could not even complete his quota.Delhi's summer circuit included mainly four tournaments - Lala Raghubir, Goswami Ganesh Dutt, DDCA Hot Weather and Ajmal Khan, not to forget the Sharma Memorial outside the Old Delhi Railway Station. Even Ranji Trophy matches could not command the audience these tournaments consistently enjoyed. Teams were packed with international stars and the fans would relish the month-long cricket feast. Indian Airlines used to be the team to beat those days, with performers like Raman Lamba, K.P. Bhaskar, Ashok Malhotra, Kamal Talwar, N.P. Singh, Rajesh Peter and Shankar Saini setting the tempo by taming the best of oppositions. It remains the only team to have performed the `Grand Slam' of local cricket by winning all the four titles in the same season.
Stars shine still
Delhi's local cricket has not lost its sheen, even though the media coverage has waned over the years. It continues to attract players like VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, who have, at various times, tested their skills in the most testing conditions. For young players these competitions are big because they allow them to compete with the stars and understand the nuances of the big league. For veterans too it enables them stay in touch with the game. The local league has had its own stars like Rajan Sachdeva, S.S. Lee, Subhash Sharma, who could not make it to first-class cricket but had a big following. Local cricket may not be among the priorities of the present-day media. It, however, has its own charm. To discover, please brave the heat and watch. It is worth it!