Jalaj Saxena wasn’t thinking ‘God’s Own Country’ when he focused on Kerala two summers ago. He was thinking opportunity.
“It wasn’t an overnight decision. I spent many sleepless nights thinking about the move because there were a lot of questions in my head,” the 30-year-old reflected. “I was taking a huge risk, shifting from an established, elite group team to a side which was in the plate division. Looking back, I have no regrets because my dream is to play for the country one day and I’m working on it.”
Saxena, the Indore-born, Madhya Pradesh pro, who signed up for Kerala last season, was adjudged the best all-rounder in the Ranji Trophy for two consecutive seasons (2014-15, 2015-16) by the BCCI. Despite his success he failed to find a place in the Duleep Trophy or the Irani Cup teams, triggering his move to Kerala, a team languishing in Group C.
“I felt that if I could lead a team like Kerala from Group C to the upper division, my performance would get recognized a lot more,” pointed out the top-order batsman who is also an offspinner.
Cricketers switching states/sides to prolong careers is as old as the game itself in the country. Be it Chandu Borde who at the age of 30, moved to Maharashtra after spending 10 seasons with Baroda some 50 years ago. Or Sandeep Patil, who debuted for Mumbai in the 1975-76 season, and then came out of a two-year retirement in 1988 to prolong his domestic career with a five-year stint with Madhya Pradesh.
Swashbuckling batsman Virender Sehwag, who began his journey in Delhi, made his final domestic appearance for Haryana, while former opener Aakash Chopraplied his wares in Delhi, won the Ranji title with Rajasthan and finally wound his career down at Himachal Pradesh. Mumbai’s Amol Mazumdar and Karnataka’s J Arunkumar captained their home teams with success and called time on their careers at Assam and Goa respectively.
The 31-year-old Robin Uthappa, a batting force for Karnataka for over a decade now, got a no-objection certificate from the Karnataka State Cricket Association earlier this month, joining a list of players from across the country who’re plotting moves with the domestic season due to commence in a couple of months.
A fresh twist
In recent years – the concept of turning professional, or becoming the professional player in a side – has received a fresh twist. Cricketers are leaving home states and seeking opportunities in lesser known sides, not to prolong careers, rather to showcase their talent. Warming the bench for their formidable ‘original’ sides is no longer an option. They’re unwilling to lose their best years playing the waiting game, especially when their home teams are battling problems of aplenty.
At 23, batsman G Hanuma Vihari has already turned out for Hyderabad and Andhra, while 25-year-old Karnataka pacer Ronit More moved to Himachal Pradesh two seasons ago, but returned home last year. For More the presence of the established trio of R Vinay Kumar, Sreenath Arvind and Abhimanyu Mithun, all pacers with internationals caps, breaking in was a tough ask.
The Belagavi boy admitted he hit a wall with Karnataka two years ago. “At 23 you are at your prime. Not making the playing eleven because of competition from established players and not performance hits you hard. With seasoned pacers like Vinay and Arvind in the mix for the next few years, I knew I wouldn’t get too many chances. I understood the situation, but it still affected me,” More says. “After six matches in three seasons I started losing confidence, doubting my abilities. My friends from age-group cricket days, mostly batsmen, had established themselves and here I was warming the bench after a five-wicket haul. That’s when I decided to go out and play for another team which offered better opportunities.”
More explained, “I had offers from three states, but I chose to go to Himachal Pradesh because the conditions there suited my bowling. I thought if I got some good match-time there, I could showcase my talent and get noticed. But unfortunately, an elbow injury ruled me out of the season after two games and I returned home.”
Likewise, coming from the rich batting culture of Tamil Nadu, KB Arun Karthik, who scored a century on debut in the Ranji Trophy in 2008, has since moved to Assam.
“I started my career reasonably well, but when your state side has two openers who have played for India — Murali Vijay and Abhinav Mukund — you get your chances only when they are away or injured. As a result I wasn’t getting the opportunities I deserved. At an age when I should’ve been knocking at the doors of the Indian team, I was fighting for my place in the Tamil Nadu XI. It was a tough call and when I look back, sometimes I think I should have stayed back and proved myself, but the lessons learnt on and off the field would have never been the same,” said the 31-year-old batsman-wicketkeeper.
Lure of IPL contracts
Left-arm tweaker Pragyan Ojha, who has featured in 24 Test matches and 18 ODIs, pointed out that the need to be recognized, the hunt for chances and the lure of the cash-rich Indian Premier League has helped forge a new mindset.
The Bhubaneswar-born Ojha moved to Bengal, lodged in the upper echelons, from the then-struggling Hyderabad to give his career a fillip. “Apart from the cricket part of it, it is an emotional journey you embark on. Over the past few years, many youngsters are turning pro. They are bolder now and know what is best for their careers. Emotions don’t come in their way while making career moves. That’s how it is in countries like England and Australia, and the IPL has helped people overcome the fears. Also, the IPL has made many players financially secure, which allows them to take the risk. For younger players, the fact that performances on domestic circuit translate into IPL contracts is a huge motivation,” explained Ojha.
Arunkumar, who spent the last five seasons as Karnataka coach, left the state for greener pastures during his playing days after being told he didn’t fit into the scheme of things in his home state. He was getting older, but the spirit was still young.
“At 29, after playing for Karnataka for 11 years, I had to move on. I knew there were youngsters who were pushing for a place in the team, but the situation shook me a little because there was a lot of cricket left in me. That’s when I moved to first Assam and then Goa because my career may have been on its last legs, but my passion for the game was intact. There were no India ambitions per se, but I thrived on the new challenge of helping youngsters and sharing my experience,” recalled the former opening batsmen.
Drawing from his experience as a player, Arun the coach has advised players to move on. “Over the years, I have told many youngsters that it does not matter which team you are playing for, just go out there, seek opportunities and when you get them, make the most of them. Sentiments should not come in the way of careers and with the kind of competition we have at all levels, you can’t waste your good years waiting for chances.”
This journey, however, isn’t for the faint-hearted. Just as ambition and passion are not the only requirements. In a country of contrasts, the road calls for plenty of adjustments, from pressure to expectation and food to language. But then, in sport, you can’t gain if you haven’t learnt to make sacrifices.