All photographs by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.
It is a bright sunny October morning, the crowd at Dragnad stadium in Shopian district is building up to witness a spectacle between Shadimarg-11 and Diaroo-11. The two teams are from the two districts of south Kashmir, Pulwama and Shopian.
As the players take their positions, a roar from the crowd of around 4,000 people rooting for their respective districts lightens up the atmosphere. The picturesque tall pine trees and the carved out stands on the boundaries of the ground add to the beauty of the game. The surroundings around are as mesmerizing as those of stadiums in New Zealand and England.
The crowd is diverse, with all age groups witnessing the match. Among them is 65-year-old Mohammad Sultan, a farmer by profession and an ardent cricket fan. Mr. Sultan has watched the likes of Vivian Richards tearing apart the bowlers, and the fearsome foursome Windies bowlers creating fear in the eyes of best batsmen that have graced the game in the 1970s and 80s. The Pulwama resident has also witnessed the wily Pakistani legend Javed Miandad frustrate the opposition by his sheer wisdom, and the ever so elegant Imran Khan lift the world cup in 1992. He has also been mesmerized by the speed guns Pakistan has produced and by the mavericks of one freak Shahid Afridi who single handedly both won and lost games for his country numerous times.
His favourite cricketer though remains former Indian Skipper, Sunil Gavaskar. Mr. Sultan says the Mumbai maestro who has over ten thousand runs in his name and is known for his grit, is his favourite because he faced the best bowlers ever to grace the game and yet ended with such a record. “Gavaskar played the Holdings and Lilees with such ease on green pitches that it would seem he was playing on a different ground altogether,” he said. “He scored thirty hundreds in test cricket facing those greats, can you believe it.”
Mr. Sultan continues to speak on the greatness of Mr. Gavaskar and the mighty West Indian cricketers of the yore. A roar in the crowd breaks his flow, Adil Kachru a familiar name in south Kashmir known for his batting, hits a cover drive, the ball kissing lush outfield of the stadium that resembles a carpet. “This is how Gavaskar played, never hit any ball in air, I am a big fan of Kachru as he reminds me of my favourite cricketer,” Mr. Sultan said as he jumped in joy along with the crowd.
For Mr. Sultan though there is a conundrum: he is supporting a team that Mr. Kachru is playing against. “I love to watch him bat, but then I don’t want my team to lose. This is exactly what happened to me when India played Pakistan. I supported Pakistan, but I loved Gavaskar. Many times I wanted Gavaskar to score runs but Pakistan to win,” he said, with a smile.
Kashmiris mostly support the Pakistan cricket team or any team that plays against India when it comes to the game of Cricket, which is evident by the celebrations that happen whenever the team wins, or when India loses. However, being true sportsperson, they also acknowledge the skills and greatness of players no matter what team they belong to.
While Pakistan usually won against India in the times when Mr. Gavaskar opened the batting for his team, today Mr. Sultan has to be content with only his favourite cricketer scoring a half century as the team he supported loses by a thin margin of ten runs. The crowd is jubilant as they burst crackers after the team from Shopian lifts the trophy. Mr. Sultan is happy too as his favourite player lifts the man of the match trophy.
Cricket has returned and brought joy to Kashmiris after a long time, last year when the central government read down article-370 of the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir and scrapped the special status of the region, everything fell silent. From busy market places to streets with traffic, everything turned ghostly, so did the bustling playgrounds of the region.
While the silent streets and other places were due to the stringent curbs put in place to thwart any reaction to the move, the deserted playgrounds were a testimony of the shock that the decision had on the psyche of the populace.
As days passed by, the streets gradually returned to normal so did the markets, however, sports suffered given the harsh winter Kashmir witnessed last year. For a sportsperson or lover of the game, things were made worse by the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic as another lockdown was imposed.
However, as soon as the lockdown was eased, cricket returned to the valley as it has never before. “I must have played 8 tournaments this year. I have lost the count of games I played, but I must tell you that I have never seen so many people play or watch cricket in south Kashmir,” said 27-year-old university student Abid Hussain, hailing from district Shopian.
He says that cricket is a panacea for the melancholic minds of the valley populace. “It is my passion, it brings me joy and makes me forget everything that is going around me,” he said, adding that it acts the same for the people in south Kashmir. “We don’t play football here much, but we love cricket and volleyball. That is why you find so many people watch cricket here, it makes them forget that they are under lockdown.”
Similar views are expressed by Waqas Ahmad a resident of south Kashmir’s Pulwama, for Mr. Ahmad the game is something that helps him cure his mental health issues. “Cricket is a cure for my depression and a freedom from the everyday occupation,” he said, adding that a thud created by the ball beating the bat is something that he would always prefer over the sound of bullets.
As the crowd disperses from the ground, Mr. Sultan called on the men from the losing team who huddle around him. “We lacked someone who could stitch a partnership and maneuver the strike, all of you batted like Afridi, but what we needed was a Gavaskar,” he explained to the players. With heads hung in embarrassment, they replied: “Yes”.
With the end of pep talk, the sun sets on the Dragnad stadium, the gold adds to the colours of surroundings, however, the setting sun also gives a hope of rising stars from the region. It remains to be seen whether any cricketer from south Kashmir will end up playing international cricket in future. However for locals the likes of Kachru and others are no less.
“If Kashmir were a separate country you would have seen that it would have produced so many Gavaskars and Holdings, and Kachru would have definitely been one among them,” Mr. Sultan concludes.
The cover story originally appeared in our 12-18 October 2020 print edition.