It was September last year. The Northeast states had begun the countdown to their maiden entry into the mainstream of Indian cricket. None took him seriously, but sitting in a corner of Imphal’s Luwangpokpa Stadium, a teenager had said his dream was to play for India.
In February, Rex Rajkumar Singh made it to the national under-19 team for two four-day matches against South Africa. The first player from the Northeast to represent the country at any level of cricket got his chance in the second after sitting out the opener. Wicketless in the first innings, the left-arm pacer took four for 90 in the second as India posted a big win.
The story is not complete without a background check. One of the six states from beyond the cricket map inducted into the first-class system in the 2018-19 season following a Supreme Court directive, Manipur’s credentials and infrastructure are as rudimentary as the other five.
Like most of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Sikkim, kids from the state mad about football have been drawn towards cricket post IPL. They play when the long monsoon takes a break, on grounds first division clubs of most other cities will refuse to. Only Meghalaya and Nagaland hosted Ranji Trophy games. The rest played ‘home’ matches in other states. Coaching and local competitions are unorganised at best.
“There can obviously be no comparison with states that have a longer cricket history. Resources, coaching, funds — there are many shortcomings. Local tournaments don’t provide adequate match practice and the season is short due to the weather,” says Yashpal Singh, the former Services and North Zone batsman, who played for Manipur as one of the three outstation professionals. “Considering all that, to see Rex in the India U-19 team is a big surprise indeed. He is a talented boy who needs harnessing.”
Rex played two Ranji matches and six senior one-dayers with moderate returns. His U-19 record in these formats in the Plate Division was spectacular, including a 10-wicket haul and an eight-for-three. Described in the past by Manipur coach Shiv Sundar Das as one who can swing the ball, this son of a cab driver who turns 19 in August is concentrating on his strengths at a zonal camp in Dimapur. Having outdone what he had dreamt at the start of the season, he is back to the grind.
“Rahul Dravid sir and Paras Mhambrey sir (chief coach and bowling coach of India A & U-19) instructed me to work on the one which comes back to the right-hander, since that makes me effective at this stage. It comes naturally to me. I was a bit dazed when I found myself in front of Rahul sir. But I was confident,” says Rex, who calls himself an all-rounder. “I had the experience of bowling to boys from states where cricket has been played for longer and not felt out of place. Before the series, I wasn’t sure if I would get a chance and am glad that I took a few wickets.”
Rex’s story was an aberration in the Northeast’s otherwise quiet entry into the mainstream. Players with the experience in leagues of other cities took advantage of competing against rookies to break a few records. None of these teams came close to securing progress from the Plate Division in the senior section. In the only tournament where they played against the established teams — the T20s — the newcomers lost all the matches. There were talks in the BCCI of a performance review, which has not happened yet.
The cricket associations of these states are waiting for funds, which they can get only after being declared compliant by the CoA. As of now, only Meghalaya, Mizoram and Sikkim have obtained that certificate. These three are expecting an initial sum of Rs 10 crore, which a few associations have received for fully implementing the Supreme Court’s reform order.
On the playing front, they want their pre-season to be extended. Last season, the BCCI provided a coach, physio and trainer to the senior and age-group teams of these states. They arrived a month before the first tournament in each category. “We would appeal to the BCCI for competitions before the season or camps. Because our season is shorter due to rains, these camps should be held in other states. Also, it would be better to have the coaches earlier. A month in advance is not enough,” said Naba Bhattacharya, convenor of the committee which communicates with the BCCI on behalf of these teams.