Cricket

Cricket in Northeast India – a review

By Amit Shukla

As cricket spread across various parts of India, we started to see even small towns and villages produce cricketers who represented the national team. Even non-traditional regions like Jammu & Kashmir and Kerala have also produced quality cricketers in recent years and their teams have also become stronger. But one region that falls behind when talking of cricketers or teams is the Northeast. However, in recent years things seem to be changing for the better in this region as well.

Till 2017, only 2 out of the 8 Northeastern states, Assam and Tripura had teams in Indian domestic cricket but with Lodha reforms in 2017, where one of the recommendations was that every State and Union Territory should have a team in domestic cricket, 10 teams were added in the Indian domestic set up and they were allowed to compete in Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2018, which included Bihar, who made a comeback to domestic cricket, along with 9 debutantes in Puducherry, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and the 6 Northeastern states, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim.

No cricketer from the Northeastern states has played for the national team till now but that could change in the coming years especially with players like Riyan Parag Das showing great promise. 3 players from Assam have featured in the U19 World Cup – Khanin Saikia in 2002, Abu Nechim Ahmed in 2006 and Riyan Parag Das in 2018. Some others from Assam like Parvez Aziz and Krishna Das also played for India U19 in recent years. Abu Nechim Ahmed and Javed Zaman are the only cricketers from Assam and Northeast to make it to the India ‘A’ team. Krishna Das has also represented the Rest of India in Irani Trophy. Excluding Assamese players, only Rex Rajkumar Singh of Manipur has made it to the India U19 team. He played a Youth test against South Africa U19 in 2019. Abu Nechim Ahmed and Riyan Parag Das have also got their opportunities in the IPL. Recently Mumbai Indians signed up Khrievitso Kense from Nagaland as a reserve player in IPL. Hokaito Zhimomi of Nagaland, who was playing for Assam, was a part of the Kolkata Knight Riders squad in 2008 and 2009 but he didn’t get to play any matches.

The newly added Northeastern states have assembled their squads in a short time. Jonathan Rongsen of Nagaland was the only ethnic Northeast player from the newly added states to be actively involved in domestic cricket at that time as he was involved with Railways in domestic cricket and was also a regular in Karnataka Premier League. Jonathan Rongsen returned to Nagaland and captained them on their domestic cricket debut. Some players like Mark Ingty and Jason Lamare of Meghalaya and Hokaito Zhimomi of Nagaland came out of their retirements to play for their teams in domestic cricket. All 3 of Mark Ingty, Jason Lamare and Hokaito Zhimomi had previously played for Assam as local players in Ranji Trophy. Mark Ingty had even played for East Zone in Duleep Trophy in 2001/02.

3 guest players were allowed for each team in domestic cricket and for the newly added teams from the Northeast, the guest players, also recognized as professional players, have played a key role for them. Some teams even had other states’ players qualify for them as local players to improve their cricket and the rest of the squads were filled with local ethnic players out of which many struggled in the tough environment of professional cricket, but some of them did put up impressive performances.

Let’s look at how the teams from the Northeast have fared till now in domestic cricket, including the traditional teams of Assam and Tripura along with the newly added teams.

1) Assam

Assam has been playing in domestic cricket since 1948. Earlier, during the Zonal system days in Ranji trophy, Assam failed to progress beyond the pre-quarterfinals. With a change in format in 2002/03 where the zonal system got abandoned and all teams were divided into Elite & Plate divisions, Assam started to show improvement in their performances. They topped the Plate group in 2006/07 but lost in the Plate semi-final, missing out on promotion. Assam finally got promoted to the Elite Division after the season of 2009/10 but was relegated as they finished on the bottom of their group in Superleague. They again managed to qualify for the Elite group in 2014/15 and even qualified for the semi-finals of Ranji Trophy in 2015/16. Currently, Assam is in Group D in the Ranji Trophy. In Vijay Hazare trophy, Assam gave their best performance in 2012/13 when they finished as runners-ups.

Northeast
Riyan Parag

In the coming years, we can expect Assam to develop into a better side as they are producing some exciting young talents in recent years. Rajasthan Royals, who have an Assamese co-owner, have also invested in Assam cricket by setting up academies that will help cricketers from Assam and other Northeastern states to develop and talent to thus be nurtured.

2) Tripura

Tripura was added to Ranji Trophy in 1985 along with Goa and Himachal Pradesh. Tripura struggled in the Ranji Trophy in the Zonal system and used to lose most of their matches with very few draws in between. But after the Elite/Plate format was introduced, Tripura’s performance started to improve as they started playing out more draws. After playing 87 matches for 65 losses and 22 draws, Tripura finally got their 1st win in Ranji Trophy in 2005 when they beat Himachal Pradesh. Since then Tripura has won 9 matches in Ranji Trophy and have been a part of Plate Group/Group C in the Ranji Trophy.

Some key players from Tripura include their captain and all-rounder Manishankar Murasingh who has scored 3079 runs and taken 208 wickets in 69 FC matches and Rana Dutta, a medium-pacer who has taken 203 wickets in 77 FC matches. However, none of the Tripura cricketers has played for India U19 or India ‘A’ team till now but with Tripura locals producing better performances in recent years, things could change.

3) Nagaland

Now moving on to the 6 newly added teams in 2018, we have Nagaland at first. Unlike other newly added teams, Nagaland benefitted from the presence of a local player, Jonathan Rongsen, who was active in domestic cricket with Railways and a regular in KPL. He joined the Nagaland team in 2018 and since then, he has captained them. Hokaito Zhimomi, who had retired and was running a cricket academy in Nagaland, came out of retirement to play for his home state. Nagaland has also had other local players step up, especially their left-arm spin bowling all-rounder Imliwati Lemtur who has picked up 55 wickets in 17 FC matches at an average of 26 and 24 wickets in 19 List A matches at an average of 24, besides playing decent cameos lower down the order. In the match against Bihar in Ranji Trophy 2019/20, Jonathan Rongsen became the 1st ethnic player from the Northeast, excluding Assam, to hit a double century in FC cricket. In the 2018/19 Ranji season, Jonathan Rongsen finished with 809 runs in 8 matches with 3 back to back 100s, becoming the leading run-getter among ethnic Northeast cricketers in Ranji Trophy that season. Recently Morecambe CC, one of the oldest clubs in Northern Premier League in England, signed up Jonathan Rongsen as their overseas professional for 2021 season.

Out of the 6 Northeastern teams, Nagaland was the best performing side in the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2018/19 & 2019/20 and also in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2020/21. Nagaland also holds the record of the biggest win by a team making their First Class debut when they beat Mizoram by an innings and 333 runs in their debut match in Ranji Trophy in 2018/19. Their most memorable win came in Vijay Hazare Trophy 2019/20 when they beat Chandigarh where even their local players played crucial roles.

Northeast
Kense Khrievitso

Nagaland also has a prodigy in Khrievitso Kense, a 16-year-old leg spinner, who was recently signed by Mumbai Indians as a reserve player for IPL 2021.

One could expect Nagaland to become a decent Group C level team in a few years from now.

4) Meghalaya

Meghalaya was indirectly involved in domestic cricket earlier as they were a part of Assam and two of their cricketers, Mark Ingty and Jason Lamare had played First-Class cricket for Assam. With Meghalaya being added as one of the new teams in domestic cricket, medium-pacer Mark Ingty, came out of retirement at the age of 42 to help his home state. Another player batsman, Jason Lamare, also came out of retirement and captained Meghalaya in their domestic cricket debut, but retired after a poor season in 2018/19. Mark Ingty, however, played for 2 seasons for the team.

Out of the 6 Northeastern teams, Meghalaya was the highest-ranked team in the Ranji Trophy in both 2018/19 and 2019/20 and also in the 2020/21 Vijay Hazare Trophy. However, they were largely dependent on their guest players, especially Punit Bisht who did exceptionally well. Still, some local players like opener Raj Biswa and left-arm spinner Aditya Singhania also produced some breakthrough performances for Meghalaya. Raj Biswa scored 546 runs in 8 matches in Ranji Trophy 2018/19 at an average of 45.5 and Aditya Singhania took 46 wickets in 13 FC matches at an average of 20. Abhay Negi, medium-pacer from Uttarakhand, qualified for Meghalaya as a local player and took 45 wickets in 17 FC matches at an average of 23.

Meghalaya’s best moments came in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2019/20. With BCCI allowing the newly added teams to play the big teams in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2018/19 and 2019/20 editions, Meghalaya took the opportunity with both hands as they beat Assam and then followed it up with an upset win over one of the powerhouses, Mumbai, before beating Mizoram to end with 3 wins and 4 losses and they could consider themselves unlucky not to be included in one of the Elite groups in this years’ Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

Meghalaya played their home matches at Shillong in the 2018/19 season but they had to use Mangaldoi in Assam as their home ground in 2019/20. If Meghalaya can start producing more local players of the quality of Raju Biswa and Aditya Singhania, then they can also get promoted to Group C in the coming years.

5) Manipur

Manipur, a Northeastern state which has become a sporting powerhouse in recent years. The state has produced many athletes who have excelled in different sports. The biggest of them all is boxer MC Mary Kom, six-time World Championship gold medalist and 2012 Olympics Bronze medalist. Besides Mary Kom, some other sportspersons like Dingko Singh, Mirabai Chanu, Kunjurani Devi, Sarita Devi have succeeded on the international stage. Manipur also has 3 players- Kothajit Singh, Nilakanta Sharma and Chinglensana Kangujam, who have been the mainstays on the Indian Hockey team. The state also has the highest representation in Indian Super League, the premier football tournament.

With a population of 2.7 million and punching well above their weight in sports, it could be possible in the coming years that Manipur also starts doing well in cricket.

Manipur did show glimpses that their sporting success can be transformed to cricket as well when Rex Rajkumar Singh was picked for the India U19 team after taking 26 wickets in 7 matches in the Vinoo Mankad U19 trophy 2018/19 at a staggering average of just 6.34 and at an economy rate of just 3.17, including a best of 8/3 against Puducherry U19. This performance indicated that his 10-fer, 10/11 against Arunachal Pradesh U19 in Cooch Behar u-19 trophy, was not just a one-off. Rex Rajkumar Singh was then picked for the Youth Test matches against South Africa U19, where he impressed in the 2nd test by taking 4/18 in the 2nd innings. With too much competition for spots even at the U19 level, Rex Rajkumar Singh could not get another chance for India U19. Rex Rajkumar Singh continued his U19 form in First-Class cricket as well and took the next step forward by taking 38 wickets in 11 FC matches at an average of 21.23 with a best of 8/22 against Mizoram, which is the best bowling figures in FC cricket by an ethnic Northeast player from the newly added teams.

Northeast
Rex Rajkumaar

Another player who has impressed is pacer Bishworjit Konthoujam. Bishworjit took 7/54 against Nagaland in the Vijay Hazare trophy and has the best bowling figures in List A cricket by an ethnic Northeast player from the newly added teams. Overall Bishworjit Konthoujam has taken 47 wickets in 17 FC matches at an average of 29 and 24 wickets in 17 List A matches at an average of 20.

Overall as a team, Manipur has finished 3rd out of the 6 Northeastern teams in 2018/19 and 2019/20 Ranji trophies, 2018/19 Vijay Hazare trophy and 2020/21 Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy. Hence, it can be concluded that Manipur is the 3rd best of the 6 newly added Northeast teams with only Nagaland and Meghalaya being ahead of them. Mostly they have been dependent on guest players and most of their locals except Rex Rajkumar Singh & Bishworjit Konthoujam have struggled. Still, if Manipur’s sporting success can transform into cricket, we can see Manipur make it big in cricket.

6) Sikkim

Sikkim, one of the 6 newly added teams from Northeast in 2018/19, in their first-ever tournament in Vijay Hazare Trophy decided to play only local players and did not try to get any guest players as they wanted to encourage local players to play. However, this move backfired as Sikkim finished at the bottom of the Plate group in Vijay Hazare Trophy. Sikkim then signed up 3 guest players for the rest of the domestic season. Milind Kumar proved to be a great signing as he smashed 1331 runs in 8 matches, which were the highest in Ranji Trophy that season, besides taking 22 wickets as well and this helped Sikkim to finish 2nd among the 6 newly added Northeastern teams in 2018/19 Ranji Trophy. However, they could not keep up this form in 2019/20 as they struggled.

Sikkim’s local players have mostly struggled to meet the demands of professional cricket but Nilesh Lamichaney, their captain made a name for himself in the 2018/19 Vijay Hazare Trophy by becoming the first Sikkimese to hit a century when he struck 123 against Arunachal Pradesh.

Sikkim, however, have to put in a lot of efforts if they have to improve and it could be tough for them.

7) Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh, one of the 6 newly added Northeastern teams has struggled and has usually been near the bottom among the 6 newly added Northeastern teams. While Arunachal has struggled, they have also been very passionate about cricket. Arunachal Pradesh, just like other Northeastern teams has been dependent on their guest players and their local players have struggled to meet the demands of professional cricket.

Among their main local players, they have Tech Doria who also runs a cricket academy in Arunachal Pradesh and became the first ethnic Northeastern cricketer to score a List A century when he struck 122 against Sikkim in the 2018/19 Vijay Hazare Trophy.

Arunachal Pradesh will need to put in a lot of efforts if they have to improve.

8) Mizoram

Just like Manipur, Mizoram is another state from the Northeast that has been doing well in sports recently with Jeremy Lalrinnunga winning Gold in the 2018 Youth Olympics and it can be possible that Mizoram’s sporting success can transform to cricket as well. Hokaito Zhimomi, Nagaland’s vice-captain, in an interview had picked Mizoram besides Manipur and his home state Nagaland as newly added Northeastern states which could improve in cricket in the coming years and produce more talented cricketers as the Northeastern people are “naturally very athletic”.

Mizoram have struggled in domestic cricket and usually finished at the bottom or near the bottom among the 6 newly added Northeastern teams and they have been too dependent on their guest player Taruwar Kohli and their local players have not given much support.

Mizoram has become a powerhouse in Indian football. 20 years ago, Shylo “Mama” Tlunga became the 1st professional footballer of Mizoram. Today, there are 30 of them playing in the Hero ISL and many more across various levels of Indian Football. Lalengmawia, fondly known as “Apuia” won the ISL Emerging player award and made his international debut. Mizoram have also started producing some great results in sports like Boxing and Basketball at the junior level.

While Mizoram has a long way to go before they make a mark in cricket. Still, if Mizoram can work at the grassroots level as they have done in various other sports, we might see them producing exciting talents in the sport of cricket as well.

To conclude, while Lodha recommendations were good and it has brought out many talented cricketers from the newly added Northeastern teams with local players of Nagaland and to some extent Meghalaya impressing, some states like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have struggled and none of their local players have made a good impression in the domestic circuit and that makes their team over reliant on their guest players. It could take some years for some of the teams to start performing in domestic cricket while some like Nagaland and Meghalaya would be aiming to top the plate group and qualify to Group C as early as possible. For any team to get promoted, their local players have to step up as cricket is a team sport.

To improve the standard of Plate group teams and Group C teams, BCCI can have 2 teams being promoted and relegated between Group C and Plate group every year. This will develop a healthy competition between lower-ranked Group C teams and top teams of Plate group like Assam, Tripura, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Puducherry, Bihar, Chandigarh along with Nagaland and Meghalaya from the newly added teams from Northeast for promotion and relegation between the groups.

In coming years we could see more players from Northeastern states get opportunities in IPL with IPL being expanded to 10 teams in 2022, more players from Assam and even the newly added Northeast teams can be expected to get picked in the IPL.

BCCI should also fund for the development of new stadiums and also existing stadiums like Sovima Stadium in Nagaland and Luwangpokpa Stadium in Manipur so that they can be brought to standards needed to host international cricket, which will benefit the players from Northeast and some international/IPL matches can be occassionally held in future in those states.

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