Vijay Hazare Trophy: Life comes full circle for Mizoram

With limited facilities on offer in Aizawl, the Mizoram team had to prepare their own pitch.

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ONE DAY at school in 2003, G Lalbiakvela’s teacher started raving to the class about how Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath were both engineers apart from being high-profile cricketers. Incidentally, the 15-year-old from Aizawl had come across Kumble and Srinath for the first time only a day earlier on TV. He’d never seen a cricket match previously, and had also only freakishly landed up on the channel broadcasting the cricket World Cup — a remote control mishap. Not only was the youngster taken in by the sport, but his teacher’s revelation about these cricket stars’ academic achievements told him that he could pursue it without perhaps letting his education get affected — a non-negotiable as far as most families in Mizoram are concerned.

By the time, Ricky Ponting Co had crushed India’s hopes of a second World Cup win in Johannesburg; Lalbiakvela had joined the handful or so playing cricket “for fun” at one of the nearby football fields in Aizawl. Little would he have known then that in 15 years or so, he could call himself a “domestic” India cricketer, with a graduate degree to boot.

“Education is paramount back home. Jobs aren’t easy to get. In fact, there are some with a masters’ degree who end up getting a peon’s job at the government level. But for me, getting to watch that World Cup match by chance was like some kid who wants to be a doctor after accidentally watching a show about medicine on National Geographic and getting inspired,” says 30-year-old Lalbiakvela.

On Wednesday, Mizoram recorded their first win in the Vijay Hazare Trophy against Sikkim in a close-fought encounter. For all but one — captain Vanlal Ruata— of their home-grown players, including Lalbiakvela, this was only their third 50-over match at any level. None of them had ever played in a match longer than 40-overs-per-side before they reached Gujarat less than two weeks ago. “Luckily I went to study in Delhi, learnt cricket and played for the under-16 team there and for the Karnataka under-19 team alongside Stuart Binny. But all the other boys hadn’t seen a turf pitch till 3 years ago. Our opening match against Arunachal Pradesh was the first of any kind we’d played in over six months,” says Ruata, who returned home to Aizawl in 2004 and helps with the family-run school.

While Mizoram are taking their first bows on the domestic cricket scene along with five of their north-eastern neighbours; they were the farthest away from this becoming a reality before Justice Lodha and the Supreme Court came into the picture. Unlike Meghalaya, Manipur, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, who have all been associate members of the BCCI on and off and competed at the age-group tournaments, Mizoram were completely out of the picture and have never fielded a cricket team at any level.

“We applied for becoming an associate team on many occasions but the BCCI kept saying ‘let us wait for two years’ or that your infrastructure isn’t there or something along those lines and we never got in. The corruption scandal became a blessing in disguise,” says Ruata before exclaiming, “We are totally new.” And it’s no surprise that most of their headline-worthy performances in the tournament have come from their professional players, Taruwar Kohli in particular. The complete alienation has meant that all the Mizoram players are self-taught, and with no access to any form of coaching. Ruata has by far been the most qualified when it comes to providing inputs to cricketers in his state.

The local association does host a league, made up of three divisions, in Aizawl where teams compete in 40-over matches. And they’ve even conducted a Mizoram Premier League (MPL) where players get coloured jerseys — “but no coloured pads, which they’re seeing here for the first time and getting very excited about,” according to the skipper — and each one of the six teams is allowed one outstation player.

“But cricket was still just played for pastime till now. Football remains the main sport, and even more so after we won the Santosh Trophy. Life is slow in Mizoram, and our lack of population means that you can survive there without too much of a hassle. Coming into the BCCI fold changes everything. When there was no reason to play cricket, we gave it our all. Now we can actually pursue it as a career,” says Lalbiakvela.

He’s not the only one in the Mizoram camp for whom cricket and life and have come a full circle. For Ruata, there’s a tinge of serendipity involved too. “PV Shashikant sir was my coach at Karnataka under-19, and 16 years later he’s back to coach Mizoram, and I’m leading the side. How can this not be destiny?” he says. In around a months’ time, Ruata will also fulfil that one life ambition that he was sure to have eluded him. He’d received an offer to play Ranji Trophy for Tripura in the mid-2000s, but had turned them down. “Not in my wildest dreams, I thought I would get a chance again, that too for Mizoram. I had made a promise that someday my kids will play Ranji. But guess what, looks like I’ll do that before them.”

Brief Scores: Mizoram 252/6; 50 overs (Taruwar Kohli 113) beat Sikkim 210 in 47.3 overs by 4 wickets.  

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