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Sanatan Pani

Cricket in Odisha was at its glorious best from 1997 to 2002 when Debasis Mohanty, Sanjay Raul and Shiv Sunder Das represented the country in Test or One-Day Internationals. The State men’s team also reached Ranji Trophy semis for the first time in 2001. Unconventional swing bowler Mohanty pioneered the golden era, playing 2 Tests and 45 ODIs, including the World Cup, between 1997 and 2001. Now a member of the National Senior Selection Committee, Mohanty was more successful in ODIs, where he bagged 57 wickets, compared to 4 in Tests.

SS Das, a technically sound opening batsman, did much better in Test format, scoring 1326 runs, including 2 hundreds and 9 fifties in 23 matches between 2000 and 2002. He also played 4 ODIs between 2001 and 2002 with a total of 39 runs to his name. In between Mohanty and Das, all-rounder Raul got to play 2 ODIs in 1998 and his modest performance featured 8 runs with the bat and 1 wicket with the off-break bowling.

The history of Odisha cricket witnessed another purple patch between 2012 and 2014 when three women played ODIs or T20 Internationals for the country. Among the trio, Bolangir opening batsman Madhuri Mehta was the flag-bearer, contributing 25 runs in 2 ODIs and 23 runs in 3 T20Is. Taking the cue from Madhuri, her Bolangir town-mate and off-spinner Rasanara Parwain played 2 T20Is and 1 ODI. She went wicketless in the ODI, but did well in T20Is, scalping 4 wickets. Jajpur all-rounder Swagatika Rath was the last woman cricketer from Odisha to don the India cap in 2013. Playing all of her 5 matches in April that year, she scored a total of 58 runs in ODIs and 14 in T20Is. With his off-break bowling, Swagatika captured 3 wickets in ODIs, but none in T20Is.

Odisha cricketer Madhuri Mehta
Madhuri Mehta during a practice session

Over the years, many more Odisha cricketers played for India A, Rest of India, Board President’s XI and India U-19, but none could make it to the Senior National team. Prominent among them were: Rashmi Ranjan Parida, Pravanjan Mullick, Ranjib Biswal, Sritam Das, Natraj Behera, Govind Poddar, Sanjay Satpathy and Basant Mohanty.

But post 2013, an India cap has remained a distant dream for Odisha cricketers. Without an international player, cricket has lost much of its popularity in the state. Nowadays, Odisha cricketers are not even considered for India A or IPL teams. No wonder that as a cricket playing state, Odisha has slumped from strong to ordinary level and budding cricketers have no role-models to draw inspiration from.

Needless to say that to be eligible for an India cap, a cricketer should be exceptionally talented and perform consistently well in domestic competitions, given the competition at the next level. But to enable a cricketer deliver his best performance, the state governing body for the sports has an equally important role to play. In order to take its players to international level, the state cricket association should create/provide top class facilities, adequate opportunities and befitting incentives for them.

NOW THE QUESTION IS: Does Odisha have quality players and a competent state association? Ask anyone who is associated with the sport in the state, the most likely answer would be `No’. That is simply because players are not willing to work hard for longer periods and the state body is not functioning in a professional line.

Getting a place in state teams and holding it for as long as possible has become the sole motto for most players of Odisha. That is because it is not too difficult to achieve that goal and the place assures a secured and comfortable life. A player stands to earn Rs 15 to 20 lakhs per season as match fees and allowances for playing First-Class, List-A and T20 matches for the state. A government or public sector job, travel by air, stay in star hotels and pension are other benefits a player of state senior team avails.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the benefits which no sport other than cricket offers at this level. But at the same time players must earn the benefits by putting up an equally good performance. Ironically, this is not happening. Some players have been undeservingly holding to their places, thereby impeding the success of the team.

The poor showings of the state senior teams this season speak volumes about the malady. In Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 Tournament, Odisha men’s team crashed out of the league stage, losing four matches and winning the last one in Elite Group B. Similar was the case in Vijay Hazare Trophy One-Day Tournament, where Odisha finished fifth among six teams in Group-C League, losing four and winning just one.

Odisha women, of course, salvaged some reputation, reaching quarterfinals in Senior One-Day Tournament before losing to Railways. But then, Odisha has a well-set women’s team comprising a number of experienced players and the team composition was not altered as frequently as it was in the case of men’s teams. Another reason is that the competition level in women’s cricket is not as strong as that of their male counterpart and barring undisputable No 1 Railways, Odisha is reckoned as one among other top-five strong teams.

It is not that the mediocre or poor performance of Odisha men’s teams occurred only this year. In fact, excepting two/three seasons, this has been a regular feature for the past 15 years. So, when the team is not able to display outstanding performance Ranji, Vijay Hazare and Mushtaq Ali Trophy tournaments, how can its players aspire to get chances for India teams?

Of course, it is unfair to put all the blame on the players even though their performance on the field eventually determines the success or failure of the teams. People who select and manage the teams should be held equally responsible. Ironically, that never happens. Ever heard of any office-bearer of the Odisha Cricket Association (OCA) or its selector and coach stepping down, owning the responsibility for the failure of the team? “We can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make him drink’’ – would be their common explanation.

Barabati Stadium, Cuttack
Barabati Stadium. The stadium is home to Odisha cricket team, owned and operated by OCA. (Image: Pinterest)

The new OCA governing body, which came to power in 2019 with Pankaj Lochan Mohanty and Sanjay Behera as president and secretary respectively, has initiated several measures for the development of the sport in the state. It has appointed experienced former Odisha cricketers as selectors and coaches.

OCA not only introduced new domestic tournaments under the programme, Vision @ 2024, but also conducted these events safely during Covid pandemic. Similarly, an exclusive app to follow players’ performance in domestic matches and a dedicated Point of Contact (PoC) for participation in domestic tournaments has been created by the state association.

OCA also claims that it has been developing infrastructure facilities, including turf wickets across the state by providing funds to affiliated district associations. The state association has announced to set up a state-of-art State Cricket Academy at a place in between twin city Bhubaneswar and Cuttack and non-residential academies in affiliated districts.

But how good are these steps and how successfully they are implemented only time will tell. We have seen many such plans and projects in the past, however, instead of developing cricket and helping state cricketers get India caps they have acted as a medium to justify a huge sum of fake expenses.

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Nepotism, favouritism and age-fudging during the selection of players for state teams – there are reasons galore for Odisha’s below-par performances in National level competitions and its players not getting berths in team India. Office-bearers put pressure on selectors to include undeserving players in the team. They do so in order to please district units and clubs who voted them to power or will do so in the future. Same has been the case in appointing selectors, coaches and support staff. Everybody knows but nobody speaks about this in public.

Contacted former players, selectors, coaches and current top office-bearers of OCA to seek their views on why the India cap remains out of reach for Odisha players. But most of them dodged speaking on selection issues or simply did not respond. However, a few among them, who did not want to be named for obvious reasons, showed the guts to call a spade a spade and also suggested ideas to accomplish the most important goal for cricket in Odisha.

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One among them, a former India A player, felt that Odisha cricketers should be smarter in converting opportunities into success. “When you get an opportunity to play for the state, you must know what is expected of you. You should be smart enough to judge the situation and put up a performance that makes you worthy of your place. If you do well consistently, especially against stronger teams, your chances of playing for the zonal and national teams will be bright,’’ he said.

He urged the current generation of cricketers not to be content with playing for state teams and advised them to make their goals sky high. “Playing for the state you earn in lakhs, but playing for the country you can earn in crores,’’ he opined.

Another former cricketer, who led Odisha in Ranji Trophy, observed that the defunct State Cricket Academy must be revived as soon as possible. “State Academy can help to work extensively on aspiring India players, improve their standard and iron out their flaws,’’ he explained and exuded confidence that Odisha would get its next international within two years if OCA Academy is revived.

“Odisha lacks a proper cricketing environment and people with knowledge, analytical brains and vision to guide players in the right direction. They include coaches, mentors, selectors and administrators,’’ said yet another ex first-class cricketer, who is known for his frankness and deep knowledge about the game.

He felt that Odisha needs mentors like Lalitendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra, who played an instrumental role in Odisha reaching Ranji Trophy semifinals. “Former Odisha players Debasis Mahanty, son of legendary sports promoter Bharab Chandra Mahanty, Asjit Jayaprakasam and Abakash Khatua could be fine mentors for state senior teams,’’ he indicated.

All of them were unanimous in their opinion that, to prepare a strong senior men’s team, Odisha needs to play some invitation tournaments (20-25 matches in a season), especially against stronger teams such as Mumbai, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi. “Playing matches against stronger teams will help our players judge their standard and improve,’’ they pointed out. They also suggested OCA needs to improve bench strength of state teams. “Odisha should create a big pool of reserve players and groom them as future India prospects.”

Speaking on women’s cricket, an eminent coach observed that women are not getting as much opportunity as their male counterparts. “There is no inter-district tournament for under-19 women and state teams are formed on the basis of selection trials. Focus should be on youngsters,’’ said the coach.

Another coach lamented that young and talented woman cricketers are not given scope to showcase their potential in national level tournaments. “If you don’t allow a good batsman to play in the top order and a good bowler to bowl a good number of overs, how can she prosper? This is what is happening in state women teams,’’ he disclosed.

It is disheartening to conclude that the knowledgeable observers of the game did not find a decent number of Odisha players having the potential to don the India cap in future. However, one player they all pinned high hopes on was woman allrounder Sushree Dibyadarshini Pradhan.

Sushree Dibyadarshini Pradhan Odisha woman cricketer
Sushree Dibyadarshini Pradhan

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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