When beginning a new project, one often needs to go the extra mile. In a state like Sikkim, which has a small population of approximately 6.19 lakhs, a push was needed to grow women’s cricket in the region. It came in the form of the Khangchendzonga Shield, the first-ever women’s T20 tournament in the state organised by the Sikkim Cricket Association (SICA) at Rangpo.
In a football-mad state that has produced international stalwarts like Bhaichung Bhutia, the introduction of a cricket tournament dedicated to women comes as a boon for the youngsters keen to get involved in the game.
“The response was far better than what we initially expected,” SICA Joint-Secretary Karma Sonam Lhendup told Women’s CricZone.
Sikkim came into the spotlight in the year 2018 when the BCCI granted nine member associations ‘full-member’ status. Since then there has been no looking back as the sound of willow hitting the leather ball in the hills increased gradually.
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“It started off with our selection trials. We went to the districts, organised camps there as part of the selection process, and as soon as we finished that for our men’s and women’s team, then we successfully organised the first two-tier men’s tournament and the first women’s tournament,” Lhendup said about the current season.
In India, unlike the men, women’s cricket doesn’t have a club culture at all. SICA wants to inculcate the club culture in Sikkim in order to unearth more and more talents in the future. And he wouldn’t mind if other states follow suit.
“The whole conceptualisation of the tournament was based on the fact that there is no club culture in Sikkim as of now and the competition is a brainchild of our president Lobzang G. Tenzing. SICA wants to promote club culture as well as women’s cricket in the state, so we thought that what better way (to do so) than to organise our own tournament,” he said.
63 players were equally divided into four teams – Mount Sinolchu, Mount Pandim, Mount Kabru and Mount Simvo - who each played against each other once. Team Kabru and Team Pandim made it to the summit clash owing to their top-two finish after the round-robin stage.
In the final, batting first, Pandim managed a total of 115 for 3 in 20 overs. In reply, their bowlers' discipline helped restrict Kabru to just 91 for the loss of 8 wickets to claim the inaugural Khangchendzonga Shield.
Like other big cricketing nations like Australia, England and New Zealand, club culture in Indian cricket is required. Not only will it encourage more youngsters to take up the game at a very young age, providing them with an opportunity to simply play the game, but also give players more exposure to playing competitive cricket even at the lower rungs.
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“As soon as we set about organising the tournament then the women were very keen to participate. Sikkim, being a small state with a low level of interest in cricket as of now than earlier, we got about 25 new participants. For a state with a small population like ours, this is really a huge number,” said SICA General-Secretary Tshewang Lama.
He also added that they adjusted the rules to make it compulsory for the coaches to see that each and every player gets a chance. “We re-implemented systems like super-subs and made it compulsory for the coaches to give opportunities to everyone including the new entrants. In that case, each and every player got a chance to play rather than sit in the dugout and get discouraged,” he explained.
Interestingly, there were also players who had not even picked up either a bat or ball until the competition began. “Basically this tournament is a grassroots level competition. We accepted players who had never even played the game before,” stated Lama.
“This group of 25 new players were purely fresh players; some of them have not held a bat before. These young players, who were just trying out the sport for the first time, we tried to give the opportunity to at least play the game, enter the field. These are baby steps taken to ensure that new girls at the grassroots level get the opportunity to try it out and give a space for them to develop.”
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Besides hosting the tournament, SICA also organised a three-day Level-O coaching course at the Sikkim Cricket Ground that was attended by 21 participants and was conducted by the BCCI-certified high-performance coach Atul Gaikwad.
Gaikwad also spent time with the players giving them an insight into what happens in top-level cricket. “I saw the girls were excited by his presence and coaching - they got a lot of confidence from his sessions. So if the girls are inspired by a single person coming in and teaching you at the right time, then these girls would go on to become top players in the state and then nationally and so on,” Lhendup said with plenty of hope.
In their first two seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20), Sikkim didn't experience much success, managing only five wins across both one-day and T20 formats. While the results weren't very promising, Lhendup stressed that results are not everything.
“Firstly, participation. The number of young girls that are coming up – 25 new young girls coming in and taking interest in the sport – that’s a massive thing,” Lhendup continued when asked about rise in popularity of cricket in the region.
“The veterans have improved their game and are teaching the youngsters about the craft and then getting exposure and chance to play within the state. So, what I have noticed is that everything is happening in a step-by-step manner. There has been a spike in the interest among the girls especially from various districts and it is in a way encouraging other women, who are already established in the team improving their game as well."
“Because now they know that they are not the only ones competing for a place in the team. The more the players, the more the competition, and as soon as the competition increases, the level of the game rises. It’s like one chain affecting the other chain,” he stated.
With new facilities and infrastructure at the Sikkim Cricket Ground in Rangpo, about 40 km from Gangtok, it is incidentally the Himalayan state’s only cricket-dedicated stadium. Approximately, Rs 2 crores have been spent in the initial phase for the development that includes relaying of the entire ground.
As many as nine pitches have also been set up in the middle of the ground and eight practice pitches along the sides. The ground has also got a proper drainage system and the entire playing arena has been fenced. “Incidentally, the facility was inaugurated by the women’s team,” Lama stated.
“Not just the veterans, but the new players got the opportunity to get a taste of what it is like to play in the nets in the first place. These players got exposure from every aspect, not just the match time but from practice sessions to a coach of caliber of Atul Gaikwad keeping the essence of the game and how to approach the sport.”
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Asked if they are considering organising a tournament on the same lines with the entire northeast region coming into play, Lhendup reacted positively. “Oh! Yes. That’s definitely is a very good and vital suggestion,” he said, adding the “players would get something to play for.”
“All the state associations in the northeast have been in close contact with the president Lobzang G. Tenzing and SICA will definitely discuss the proposal with everyone. It will be a huge exposure for the players,” he said. Lhendup also added they are aiming to increase the number of Khangchendzonga Shield teams in the future.
“That’s our aim and we hope to see more numbers. I am sure there will be an increase in numbers (players) and if the player base increases, automatically there will be more teams. This time we sponsored the whole tournament starting from the kits to logistics to everything.
“Hopefully someday we will have clubs who are entirely governed by the organisation. We hope that in the future we organise a tournament and there will be clubs participating from all districts.”
With uncertainty looming around the domestic scene for the upcoming season in the country (entirely due to COVID-19), Sikkim has definitely shown the path.
Other states should also take a leaf out of Sikkim’s book and aim to organise a league of their own keeping the players on their toes all the time. Not only will it recreate the momentum which has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic but also will give a lot of options for the selectors to choose from, especially with a massive 2022-23 on the horizon.