Our forefathers fought the British with swords against guns. We have that blood streaming through our veins,” says boxing coach Ibomcha Singh, explaining in a nutshell Manipur’s upward mobility in sports.
A corner of the Dronacharya award winner’s office at the Special Area Games centre inside Imphal’s Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus has cabinets that are stacked with trophies.
MC Mary Kom, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, former Asian Games boxing champion Dingko Singh, and recent Asiad wushu bronze-medallist Roshibina Devi. These facilities have helped dozens reach the podium in prestigious events.
Ibomcha notices a surge in the number of parents bringing children for coaching and training that are on offer in nine disciplines over here. He cites this as evidence that the desire to prosper in Olympic sports is rising.
To see this state’s true love for sport — it has a population of around 30 lakh, roughly one-fourth of Bengaluru and one-third of Chennai — a late afternoon trip to almost any vacant plot will suffice.
Chances are high that a bunch of boys or girls will be seen chasing a ball. They will be neatly dressed, and some of these games will be supervised by some sort of a coach. Renedy Singh and many more to almost the entire Indian team for the 2017 U-17 World Cup, there are role models and inspiring football stories in every corner of this state, one that is troubled often by ethnic unrest.
About 8km from the sports hub that is Khuman Lampak Stadium, off the national highway that leads to Nagaland’s Dimapur, is Luwangpokpa Cricket Stadium.The plot provided by the state government has one block of galleries that can accommodate 1,600 spectators. It’s also the working address of Manipur Cricket Association (MCA).
Compared to what surrounds such activities in these hills where sports is a tool of social mobility, cricket is low key. They are up to date with IPL. They know India did badly in England. Hitting tennis balls with a bat is an occasional activity for them. Even local cricket finds a mention in sports pages.
But cricket stirs no emotions. Not many are aware that Manipur will officially become a part of India’s cricket map along with five more Northeast states, when Vijay Hazare Trophy starts on September 19.
Problems are well known. A prolonged monsoon — typical to these parts — allows for a short window for cricket. Grounds are difficult to come by because of the topography. They are impossible to maintain without equipment and manpower, which have not been available due to lack of funds. An associate member of BCCI since 1998, Rs 50 lakh in 2009 is all that Manipur has received over all these years, according to association officials.
Players have had rudimentary formal training. Exposure for coaches, umpires or curators has been minimal. Like most other states from this region, Manipur formed a committee of selectors who have no experience in organised cricket, and cobbled together a team that mostly comprises players of indigenous origin, apart from the three outstation professionals that each association is allowed to field. From the U-23 lot that topped the plate group last season, just two have made the cut.
Because of experience in the local league and natural proximity to football or sepak takraw at some stage, the boys don’t appear out of place on the field of play. They are not complete cricketing novices either. But with unpolished abilities, barely a week’s practice because of rains, and no taste of anything other than limited-over cricket, the team coached by Shiv Sundar Das is headed for the unknown.
“We have to attract kids,” says MCA secretary Singam Priyananda Singh. Formed in 1975, it conducts a league with 31 teams in two divisions. If the number suggests there is interest for cricket, it’s difficult to sustain in the absence of incentives. There are no returns for these players. “No one sees cricket as a career. Jobs are for those into Olympic sports. Naturally, there are role models in football, boxing, weightlifting, etc,” remarks Singam.
Following the Supreme Court’s order to make Northeast states voting members of BCCI, MCA expects a tectonic shift. A lot of that is based on money. “Inter-school football is very popular. We can revive our school tournament. Scholarships can be offered to talented kids. We have to take the game to the districts, which wasn’t possible all these years.“There was a tournament of three-day matches and an U-19 event featuring two-day games. Both stopped. But with an inflow of funds, we can make people realise that cricket too can be a career option in Manipur.”
Why do only a handful play cricket, then? Money is a part of the answer now. Players will receive standard BCCI domestic fees, which was around `10 lakh for those who played 75 per cent of matches across all formats last season. There are talks of a raise this year. But for those toiling in the fields of Imphal, this was not a reality until recently. In their words, an aimless pursuit has brought them close to something that can change their lives.
“I started taking a liking for the game after watching older boys play near our house. Bowling interested me. I used to play football before I enrolled myself at an academy. I’ve learnt from my local coach,” says Rex Rajkumar Singh, a bowling all-rounder whose primary activity is left-arm medium.
The 19-year-old son of a truck driver had no clue about what was in store for him when he started six years ago. “It was difficult, and I don’t know how my parents managed it. For me, it’s not about money. This is an opportunity to play at a higher level against top teams. It’s the same for my teammates as well. I want to be famous and play for India.”
This ambition amidst obstacles may have to traverse a fair distance to get close to fulfilment. Even with the crores that should start flowing sooner than later, it’s not known as to how long cricket will take to acclimatise in unfamiliar conditions and then compete with established sports.What lies ahead for Rex and his friends is in a way akin to a fight with swords against guns. But then, they have history to take heart from.