Team Sikkim
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(The writer played as a professional for Sikkim in the 2018-19 domestic season)

“I have been dreaming of the chance to play for Sikkim for the last six years,” said Dichen Ongmu Lepcha. “I can’t believe it has finally happened.”

Dichen is 26 years old. She is a left-hand batter, a right arm medium pacer, and a member of the Sikkim senior women’s team. She has a slingy bowling action, low release point, perfect seam position and gets the ball to curve away from the batter at the very last second. In only her fourth match, Dichen became the first bowler from Sikkim to register a five-wicket haul in List-A matches when she finished with figures of 5 for 14 against Mizoram last December. It was an effort that gave Sikkim their maiden victory, and she was part of a little slice of history.

At the start of the 2018-19 season, when the BCCI introduce nine new teams into the domestic fold as a part of implementing Lodha Committee recommendations, the dreams of many girls like Dichen finally came true. As part of the board’s efforts to take the game to every corner of the country, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Pondicherry, Sikkim and Uttarakhand took their first steps in senior cricket.

New teams, new dreams, and new opportunities.

Over the last few years there has been much talk, both at the domestic and international levels, about improving and expanding grassroots cricket for women. With regard to domestic cricket, that involves starting an under-16 state tournament, organising inter-school matches, playing more tennis/ soft ball cricket in primary school and basically finding ways to provide young girls with the opportunity to play the sport.

Dichen Ongmu Lepcha

Dichen Ongmu Lepcha

While the introduction of nine new teams does not directly cater to these needs, it does help expand the pool of players within the country. Regardless of age or ambition, more girls are being allowed to play a game that is fast growing in India, and that can only be a good thing. Sometimes, simply increasing the numbers at the start, can lead to a creation of greater depth in the years to come.

After having represented the Hyderabad senior team for ten years, this season, I shifted over to Sikkim and got a chance to watch a team develop from scratch. It was an incredibly eventful, thoroughly enjoyable, and slightly frustrating journey, but when the season ended I knew that it was all worth it. I remember leaving our first training session in Bhubaneswar and thinking to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’. However, the speed at which the girls learnt, their drive to improve, and their general energy and attitude towards the game was extremely impressive.

Sometimes, in the rut of professional sport— the training, meetings, performance reviews and practice sessions— you forget why you started playing. You overthink strategies, and tactics, you overthink your technique, and more often than not you lose perspective and forget to enjoy yourself.

In Sikkim, I got to play alongside a group of girls who were genuinely excited by the smallest things. They clapped and whistled for every dive (whether the ball was stopped or not), they stood up and applauded every boundary, and jumped, hugged and passionately celebrated every wicket. As Purnima Rau, the former India captain and head coach of Sikkim said, there was an innocence that they brought to the sport— the kind that allowed them to enjoy every win, however small.

Cricket is a hard game; especially when you are playing against people with almost ten times the experience you have. The easiest thing is to throw in the towel, grumble that you aren’t as skilled as them, and allow your opponents to run away with the game. However, not once over the course of 14 matches, did Sikkim do that. There was a consistent effort to get better, and that’s all they were really focused on.

If anything sums up the fight that the team showed through the season, it was the last-wicket stand I shared with Pranita Chettri in our 50-over encounter against Meghalaya. Having chosen to bat first, we collapsed to 80 for 9 in 25.5 overs. Vandana Mahajan, Meghalaya’s professional who was in the middle of an incredible spell, was on a hat-trick, when Pranita walked in to face the music. Our conversation was simple: ‘Watch the ball, and make sure you get bat on it’, I said. She nodded her head, and followed my instructions to the ’T,’ playing the perfect back-foot defence to an in-swinger that was honing in on middle stump.

As I spent the next few minutes trying to collect my thoughts and formulate a game plan, Pranita walked up to me and squeaked, “200 ke liye dekhenge!” (Let’s look for 200). In the midst of all the nerves, I couldn’t help but laugh. Here was a 14-year-old in her first year of senior cricket, with her team struggling to play out 50 overs, telling me we needed to score at least 120 more runs… And there I was worried about getting through the next five overs!

That was the statement that made it clear how much each of my teammates wanted to succeed. There was a dogged determination about them — an attitude of ‘whatever it takes.’

What happened next was beyond my imagination. The two of us shared a 123-run stand, and successfully batted out the remaining 24 overs. Pranita managed a stoic 42-ball 11, and was extremely disappointed to be bowled off the final ball of the innings. Quite fittingly, she was carried off the ground on the shoulders of two excited teammates who had run on to the field to celebrate her efforts!

Pranita Chhetri & Ananya Upendran

Pranita Chhetri & Ananya Upendran

While Sikkim’s overall results this season were not too impressive, the pace at which the team developed and improved was astounding. There was a football player, who changed from a medium pacer to an off-spinner only a couple of days before the one-day matches in December, and by the time the T20s came around in February, she had become an indispensable part of the playing XI. There was our wicketkeeper who came into the season with only three days of ‘keeping practice, but ended up taking the ‘catch of the T20 tournament’ according to one of the umpires. There was our point fielder who after just one session of practice began to throw herself around in the field and stopped a countless number of runs, including a series of incredibly hard cut shots by Anagha Deshpande. Over the course of three months, every single member of the team improved dramatically— with bat, ball and in the field. While they all still may not understand the technicalities and intricacies of the sport yet, there lies within them a fire that drives them forward.

In Hyderabad, we call it ‘khunnas’ or ‘junoon’… In Sikkim, it is ‘avage’ (pronounced aa-vague)!

#CricketForAll is something most international boards are now talking about, and India has finally taken a step in that direction— making sure boys and girls all around the country at least have the option of playing cricket. There is, of course, a great deal of work that needs to go into the development of the game in these regions. Administrators need to set up basic practice facilities, hire (and groom) good coaches, and also find ways to identify, develop and retain talent within the state. While the introduction of these new teams is a rather small step in the large scheme of things, I certainly believe, that in time, it will not only help increase the depth in our system in terms of numbers, but also bring in a different kind of competitiveness and hunger.

As the 2018-19 senior domestic tournaments come to and end, that cricket has reached these far corners of the country is the best and most promising news of the season. The impact lies beyond the numbers you see in the scorecards, and is more than a simple win-loss record. These girls have waited a long time to be invited into the system, but now they are here to stay, and Indian cricket is better for it.

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