Tennis ball cricket and cricket are not the same, though they share the name of cricket. Tennis ball cricket has planted the name of Goa at the national level with aplomb since the past many years, discovers SUSHANT CHIMULKAR of THE NAVHIND TIMES
Think about tennis ball cricket and what comes to mind is bang, bang – see the ball and hit the ball kind of cricket where there is hardly any scope for paying attention to proper technique or any other aspects of the game. And, that is the reason why it doesn’t find favours with purists of the game.
However, irrespective of what the purists or the pundits think or opine about it, tennis ball cricket has become one of the most popular sports across India and that includes Goa, where it is common to see people of all ages play the game, for enjoyment and pure entertainment.
It is true that almost all international players played tennis ball cricket when they were kids and then moved on to play leather ball cricket. MS Dhoni is one such player who enthralled many with his exploits in tennis ball cricket before making it big in cricket.
The specialty of tennis ball cricket is that it is the cheapest version of the so called gentleman’s game. It can even be called as the poor man’s game, unlike its richer version, as it doesn’t require extensive spending on items like leather balls, quality bats and protective gear such as pads, gloves, helmet, etc, which are very costly. Those who can afford continue to play leather ball cricket; but for the majority, a bat in hand, a tennis ball and stumps are enough to get going.
“What you see being played in Goa is completely different than what the actual tennis ball cricket format is,” explains secretary of Goa Tennis Ball Cricket Association (GTBCA), Rupesh Naik, as he does not believe that calling tennis ball cricket as ‘bang bang’ cricket is right.
“In actual format, the rules are different. There are nine players per side and the boundary is comparatively shorter. But the most important aspect of this format is that hitting of sixes is absolutely not allowed. The batter is given out if he/she plays an aerial shot that lands out of the boundary line. So to survive or carry the innings forward, one needs to play ground shots and to do that on a consistent basis, one needs to have sound technique, which comes only after rigorous practice and hours of dedication. So it’s not that easy as it may sound,” explains Rupesh.
Rupesh played tennis ball and leather ball cricket during his school and college days, and has been associated with GTBCA since the time it got affiliation from the parent body – Tennis Ball Cricket Federation of India, way back in 2000.
“Goa always had enormous talent in tennis ball cricket and I along with few other likeminded, basically cricket lovers, wanted to do something for these talented players. So we came together and formed the Goa Tennis Ball Cricket Association, and then approached the parent body to grant us the affiliation. They promised to do so only if our performance was up to their expectations. And to everybody’s surprise our men’s team won gold in their first ever appearance in the national championship in 2000. After that there was no looking back as we kept performing well and winning medals one after the other.
“Many of us wouldn’t know that Goa Tennis Ball Cricket Association is one of the most successful associations in the state having won more than hundred medals in various national level tennis ball cricket championships held across the country in the last 18-19 years.
“It was due to our consistent performance at national level that Sports Authority of Goa (SAG) finally recognised our association in 2003 and since then the rapport between the two has been excellent. Everyone – right from Sports Minister to ED to other officials in the SAG have been cordial to us all through. There might have been few hiccups in terms of delay in providing the grants for tours, for which they may not be entirely responsible,” said Rupesh.
“In such cases we the members of the association contribute and make sure that the players are provided with good accommodation and good food. When our teams travel to other states, the food that we get is mostly not of our liking. So we make sure that the players are provided with better accommodation and good food. When you keep the players happy, they perform well. And that is what we expect from them ultimately. SAG then reimburses the money that we spent during the tour,” added Rupesh.
“At least 200 to 300 players – male and female — come for selection trials that are conducted every year prior to junior, sub junior and senior level national tournaments. During the trials conducted under the supervision of SAG coaches 36 probables are selected first, which then gets reduced to 21 before the squad is finally pruned down to 11. The procedure is the same for all the categories,” says Rupesh when commenting on the popularity of the game and talent of the Goan players.
“Every year four camps are conducted for both male and female in each category – junior, sub junior, senior and for the Federation Cup. Once the selection is done, camps of at least 20 days are conducted prior to every national championship at SAG Campal ground and Kunkolim ground in Mardol.
“During the camp all the nitty-gritties are taken care of. But most importantly focus remains on players’ fitness,” he adds.
“The interesting part is that no existing players retain their place as new talent keeps coming and replaces the older ones. There could be few exceptionally talented players who hold on to their places in the squad but a majority of them make way for fresh talent,” confesses Rupesh.
“Well, they can make use of their expertise and become coaches and train boys and girls. Besides, having got exposure and adequate experience they can very well switch to season ball cricket. Most of the present and past woman players who have represented Goa in season ball cricket have actually started their cricketing careers playing tennis ball cricket. The best example is Shikha Pandey, a tennis ball cricket player in her formative years, who went on to represent India and even played in the ICC 2017 Women’s World Cup, where India lost to England in the final,” says Rupesh when asked to comment on the future of the sport in Goa.
Rupesh fondly remembers Goa’s first ever triumph in women’s senior nationals when the girls from Goa created a huge upset by beating dominant Bihar in their home turf.
“It was in 2001 when we played our first senior nationals. Having been tagged as underdogs, our women performed exceedingly well in the league stages and then in the semis to finally set up final clash with crowd favourites and undisputed champions Bihar. It was a one-of-a-kind experience watching the all-important final alongside about ten thousand home supporters who were vociferous and intimidating. Our girls after initial wobbles finally got the better of them to become national champions on their maiden appearance. It was one of the most exciting matches that I have witnessed as an official of GTBCA,” recollects Rupesh.
“It is even said that after the defeat, Bihar’s dominance in tennis ball cricket suffered a serious blow, as from there on they struggled to recover and gradually lost the hold,” he adds. “There are no team rankings in tennis ball cricket at the national level. But if there was any, Goa teams would have definitely found themselves in the top two positions.”
The 36th National Games will be held in Goa in October-November next year. And given the stellar performances of Goa teams at various national level tournaments, one would have hoped that tennis ball cricket could have been a part of it, as it would have definitely fetched Goa a medal or two.