Kulgam: Hilal Ahmad Bhatt has his gaze fixed on the ball. As it approaches, conscious of his bottom hand, the opening batsman tightens his grip on the bat, and swings. It’s a six.
The next ball is in the slot again, Bhatt swivels and heaves it into the legside for another hit over the boundary, or the grass banks that serve as one, making his way past a half century.
There are very few people to witness it, but the small crowd present applauds.
This is no IPL, and not even the numerous glitzy T20 leagues that have sprung up across the country.
The ground itself is a patch of land wedged between alpine trees-dotted mountains at remote Pachanpathri village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Its dimensions would give Auckland’s Eden Park a run for its money. As for the pitch, it’s a cricket mat that has seen better days.
But for once the sporting clique may just hold true — it’s more than just a game.
For every year, Kulgam district in South Kashmir has its very own Home Pathri Premier League, an inter-village leather ball cricket tournament between 32 teams that is held thrice or four times (depending upon funds), between May and August.
These cricket premier leagues have become a phenomenon across Kashmir, with many villages building their own teams and holding matches.
The crowdfunded tournaments aim to give the militancy-riddled region’s youth “direction” and “solace”, even as its stars harbour greater ambitions.
Such is the dedication that for the day’s game, Bhatt’s Youngster XI Chimmar and opponents Super King Ahmedabad had to undertake a 40-min rocky uphill trek to reach the venue.
For the record, at the game played on 15 July, Bhatt top-scored with 54 as Chimmar went on to make 160 in 20 overs. Ahmedabad’s faltering reply finally folded at 130, leaving Chimmar with a 30-run win.
‘Collect funds on our own, prepared own ground’
The Home Pathri Premier League began in 2014. Since then, every summer, youngsters from adjoining villages get together for practice sessions and raise money to hold these tournaments. Some even take up jobs at construction sites to raise the funds.
“The participants do not come from very well-off families but still they put in whatever they can, just to play,” said Tariq Ahmad Malik, a coach and organiser of the tournament. “We raise all this money and then arrange for all logistics including fees for the umpire, refreshments, the prize money. Whatever we can do on our own, like readying the pitch, putting flags, we do it on our own.”
To be a part of the tournament, each team has to cough up a fee of Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500. With that pool, the organisers then arrange for cricket gear including pads, bats, balls, shoes, uniforms with their names on it.
Everyone across the villages — from a relatively well-off businessman, to orchard owners and even shopkeepers, pool in money. From the money that is collected, a chunk is also kept aside for the prize money, which varies between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 depending on the funds collected.
All the villagers, including the ones who contribute, then trek the ground to watch these tournaments and support their teams.
To level the ground and ready the pitch, the teams get together, a few days before the tournament starts, and do the work.
Malik said just to reach the Pachanpathri village venue, all of them had to get together and clear the rocky path uphill in 2014 leading to the ground.
“To reach here was a task. There was no path, people had to climb the mountain. We all then made a kachha path, by removing the hard stones, flattening the ground, levelling the mud, wherever we could. It took us one and a half years to do that,” Malik said. “Then we prepared the ground here. There was a nullah that we filled with mud so that there was a flat surface to play on. All this is teamwork.”
Learning from their favourites by watching videos
In spite of no professional coaching or set-up, the players between the ages of 18 and 28 years have picked up techniques from their favourites — Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma for batting and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jaspreet Bumrah and Mohammad Shami for bowling.
Their ally — YouTube videos. Whether it is imitating Mohammad Shami’s “wrist positions”, emulating Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s technique to “swing the ball both ways”, or Rohit Sharma’s “hand-eye coordination”, to Virat Kohli relying heavily on “running between the wickets to keep the scoreboard ticking”.
“We are all very passionate about the game and wish to learn from professionals. Since we do not have access to them, we rely on cricket videos. The favourite bowlers of the team are Bumrah and Mohammad Shami. We often imitate Bumrah’s short run and try to copy how he throws the ball. We watch these videos clip by clip,” Sharif Choopam, a member of team Ahmedabad said. “For batsmen, Kohli and Sharma are the favourites. Many of us trek and come to this ground every morning just to practice running, so that we could be as fit as Kohli. We wish we had someone who would teach all those techniques.”
All they now seek is some professional support and opportunities.
“We are our own coaches and all of us love the game. We have our own practice sessions when players from across 32 villages come together to learn techniques,” said Nawaz Ahmad, a coach and organiser. “They all learn from watching their favourite players. There is a lot of talent and enthusiasm among players, but no support.”
Nawaz added that cricket is what gives the youth of the region “direction and solace”. He, however, said they lack the required opportunity.
“Many youths drift to drugs, some to different paths but cricket is a binding factor,” Nawaz said. “If we keep encouraging this game, it will give direction to the youth. The government can really make a difference by providing us the required support. If they promote us, it will be a good way to reach out and connect with the people here.”
The youth services and states department of J&K government also holds inter-panchayat cricket matches, which are conducted at Kulgam’s Nehama stadium, a more professional set-up. But the players for these matches are picked after trials.
Speaking to ThePrint, Mudasir Ahmad, a district sports officer, said they give out ads on social media, asking players across 136 villages in Kulgam to come for selection trials.
“We take the sarpanchs of these villages into confidence and hold trials. We then pick the best players and make a team,” Ahmad said. “Players from three to four villages play in one team representing one panchayat.”
Whoever does well in these matches then reaches the next level of inter-district matches that are organised by the J&K Cricket Association.
The organisers of the Home Pathri league complained that despite these tournaments, selectors do not reach remote villages to pick the best players.
“They hold matches but they only pick players they know. No one takes the pain to trek to these villages in search of players,” Nawaz said. “Sometimes our players manage to reach the trials, by arranging money, but they are just a handful.”
These village premier leagues also have the option of participating in the private tournaments held at Nehama stadium, but the fees to play for that is Rs 2,500 per team.
“If we have to play in a professional setup, we have to raise more money and everyone then has to travel to Nehama to play, which is over 40 km from here,” Nawaz said. “No one has the resources. Sometimes when we are able to arrange that kind of money, we play matches there because playing there would mean that we will be noticed.”
He added: “Moreover, if a match is being played there, some sponsors like bakery owners, give money if their banner is put up at the stadium.”
Dream of playing for India
For most players, it is their dream to someday play for India or at least an IPL team.
“We need a better field, we need road connectivity so people can come and play together. We also need professional trainers. If given a chance I would love to play for the Indian team. But who will trek to this place and come and see our talent?” Gowher, who was maintaining the score board during the 15 July match, said.
Another indicator of cricket being such a popular sport in Kashmir is different cricket clubs that have come up in villages — Avengers Cricket Club, Elegant Stars, Nehama Nights, Kanwal Tigers, for example.
“These are clubs that are created by the best players from across the villages here. They promote their game on social media and also arrange for sponsors in no time. Such is the passion among youngsters for this game and it is very competitive here,” said Malik, the sports officer.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)