Jammu & Kashmir cricket waits for normalcy in uncertain times

File pic: Children play cricket in Srinagar as Indian paramilitary soldiers patrol the streets Getty Images

For over three weeks now, Milap Mewada has been trying to contact Parvez Rasool, the Jammu & Kashmir captain, over the phone. He has had no success.

On August 5, the Indian government announced a slew of administrative changes for the state of Jammu & Kashmir. It sent large parts of the state - now bifurcated into two union territories - into instant lockdown and led to, among other things, restricted access to residents of Kashmir, both within and from outside.

It also impacted the cricket team's pre-season camp at the scenic Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium, located in the middle of Srinagar.

Mewada, the J&K coach, packed his bags and returned to his home in Vadodara immediately. On the same flight back was Irfan Pathan, the former Indian allrounder who took over as mentor of the side last June. The pair had been working to get the players ready for the new season before circumstances brought sport, and life in general, to a grinding halt.

The first sign of things to come was on August 3 when the J&K Cricket Association (JKCA) abruptly stopped the camp and asked the players to return home immediately. Mewada and Irfan had sensed uneasiness in the lead-up to that announcement.

"Three youngsters came to my room on August 2 and said something serious was happening in the state and their parents were calling in a state of concern," Mewada told ESPNcricinfo. "The outstation players were under pressure, especially from their parents. These boys are barely 17-18 years old, so naturally their parents were worried."

Irfan's phone didn't stop ringing until after midnight. "Parents were calling the JKCA for clarity on the situation. I remember some of the boys were calling me at midnight too," he said. "The next day we had to stop matches halfway and arranged buses for boys who were living in Jammu and outside of Srinagar."

SAH Bukhari, the JKCA chief executive officer, remembers the stress as he sought to put in place contingency plans to help the players reach home safely. "I remember speaking to the divisional administration (local governing authority), who told me that matches cannot be held in these circumstances," Bukhari told us from Srinagar over the phone.

"So we closed the JKCA office and arranged transport for the players, coaches and selectors who were from outside to be sent back. We sent about 110 people safely back."

Mewada says it was Bukhari's diligence in overseeing everything that helped them leave in time. "When I left on August 5, it was a curfew-like situation. The phones had stopped working."

'This is a forced break'

Despite the circumstances, the players will be going into the season with some cricket behind them. In June-July, the JKCA had organised a four-week high-intensity programme for fitness and skills. The camp comprised the players from the senior squad and those chosen from the Under-19s and Under-23s.

Following a ten-day break after that camp, eight teams comprising about 130 players reassembled to play matches, which took place in Srinagar again. However, after five matches, Bukhari alerted the selectors and the coaching staff of the government advisory.

Mewada says this played a big part in J&K withdrawing from the Vizzy Trophy, an invitational tournament organised by the Andhra Cricket Association, which various states utilise as part of their pre-season preparation. Had they played it, the 50-over format could have helped players prepare for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, starting on September 24.

Last week, Irfan met the JKCA top brass comprising Justice (retired) CK Prasad, JKCA's caretaker administrator, and Bukhari in Delhi to reassess the situation. According to Irfan, Bukhari had placed advertisements on local television channels on August 28, asking players to assemble in Jammu - the message was for players selected for the various tournaments organised by JKCA to report on August 31.

"Players are coming and we are getting them to Jammu," Bukhari said on Friday. "They all are coming - Under-16s, Under-19s, Under-23s and members of the senior squad. We have contacted all the players through TV ads."

Both Mewada and Irfan are confident of implementing their Plan B after the squad gets together: first, the eight-ten probables from Kashmir will assemble in Jammu, and once 20-25 of the core group is together in Jammu, they can start training.

Irfan is positive that the prevailing situation will not have a negative impact on the players. "They might be a bit weary because they have not trained for a while. That will be a challenge for them. But once we start we will have some sort of team-building activity."

On its part, the BCCI is ready to step in should the JKCA need assistance. "Till now they have been trying to do it on their own. As and when they request us for any help, we are there to facilitate because what is more important is cricket should not be affected," said Saba Karim, the BCCI general manager of cricket.

Karim has been in discussions with Irfan and things seem to be on schedule. The men's domestic cricket season has already started in India with the Duleep Trophy. That will be followed by the twin limited-overs tournaments: the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20, before the Ranji Trophy begins in December.

Irfan thinks the break will test the character of the players impacted by the political situation. "We are eventually sports people, and have amazing strength, mentally," he said. "In our whole career, we actually face failure more than success. So we know how to come back from a break. This is a forced break for them. But once they are on the field, they would be able to get back in a good mental space."

'Normalcy is coming, we are getting the players back'

Bukhari is hopeful and confident that cricket will resume in the coming days. "We are getting back the players. We are hopeful the situation will improve within days."

Incredibly, his mobile phone was working on Friday evening even as most of Kashmir has virtually been cut off from all modes of communication since August 5. However, Bukhari, who is a former high-ranking police officer, is likely to have received some special leeway.

Mewada confirmed that Bukhari's office had got in touch with Rasool on Friday about players reaching Jammu starting Saturday. A decision will soon be taken if they have to move the camp outside J&K.

"If I talk to him [Rasool] I will ask about his and his family's welfare" Mewada said. "Not as a coach, but as a big brother, I have to take care of him. I want him and other players to be safe. So even if I get a message from him that he is safe that will be good."