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Amandeep Khare could be Chhattisgarh’s Dhoni – or a footnote

Wisden India logo Wisden India 08-02-2016

Having not played a single game yet, Amandeep Khare may end up being a footnote in India’s campaign at the ICC Under-19 World Cup 2016 in Bangladesh. But, that he is Chhattisgarh’s first cricketer to represent the country at any level makes him a pioneer.

“It’s a nice feeling for me. Yahan pe aana ek badi baat hoti hai (It’s a big thing to come here),” Khare, who first dreamt of wearing India colours at the age of 14, tells us with conviction. “India ke liye khelna sab ka tammanna hota hai (It’s everyone’s dream to play for India).”

The problem is when your “tammanna” doesn’t have a set pathway; you exhaust yourself trying to stay away from the pessimistic environment pulling you away from your purpose.

Before getting any further in the story, a disclaimer about my personal interest in Khare: As a part of the annual Wisden India Almanack, I compile brief scores for all domestic matches played under the aegis of the Board of Control for Cricket in India; right from the first edition in 2012 the name Amandeep Khare has made a regular appearance.

Not that Khare is the only cricketer to feature frequently in the four volumes so far thanks to notable innings in age-group cricket, in venues such as Chhindwara, Raipur, Bhilai and Bilaspur. But it’s the accompanying questions the name triggers: How good is he to be scoring so consistently for Chhattisgarh? Will he ever get a chance to play first-class cricket, as Chhattisgarh State Cricket Sangh (CSCS) are one of BCCI’s associate member and don’t field a team in the Ranji Trophy? Does his run-making spree in BCCI’s junior tournaments get noticed? Even if he is spotted, what is his progress chart once he is no more eligible to play age-group tournaments?

As Khare went about doing his job, I followed his knocks through online scorecards, always wondering if I would ever see the face behind the name or if he would end up in obscurity for no fault of his. Then, when he was named in the World Cup squad and I was assigned to report on the tournament, Khare was on my agenda.


I first saw him in person in one of India’s practice sessions, but there was little scope to talk to players outside the playing XI. A group of journalists tried our luck at the hotel where the team was, but we were in for a three-hour wait. Anil Patel, India’s media manager, was away.

Personally, those three hours were like the home stretch of a four-year long wait.

While we were at lunch, Khare too arrived for his meal, and observing him, I only had more questions.

Khare used his hands to eat. Khare giggled at the slightest excuse. Was he a funny guy or just an excited teenager? Had the sophistications of touring life touched him yet? Sarfaraz Khan asked the team physio if he could be as slim as Khare. Was Sarfaraz pulling Khare’s leg? Was Khare thinking he could barter his physique with Sarfaraz for a share of the limelight the ‘IPL star’ has hogged?

Thankfully, it did not take much longer to find the answers, as a meeting was soon arranged.

But to understand Khare’s appeal, it is important to know about Chhattisgarh.

***

The upper-class peasants, the Brahmins and Kurmis had always resented the disproportionate distribution in revenues generated from rice production and abundant mineral resources from the seven eastern districts of Madhya Pradesh. The demand for a separate state, first made in 1920s, finally led to Chhattisgarh being formed on November 1, 2000.

But, unlike Jharkhand, which was formed on November 15 that year, cricket hit a cul-de-sac in Chhattisgarh for the larger part of the first decade.

The state’s first match at any level was against Sikkim on December 1, 2009, in BCCI’s Under-16 50-over Associate Members tournament in Silchar, which they lost by 22 runs after fighting hard.

In the same season, Chhattisgarh beat Manipur by five wickets in the final of the Under-19 50-over Associate Members tournament. CSCS had shown they were serious about cricket in the state by building the Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh International Cricket Stadium in Naya Raipur in 2008, a venue that has subsequently been the home to Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League.

CSCS completed all BCCI regulations to earn promotion from an associate member to a full member in 2013, but the elevation continues to elude them. Full membership will not only increase their annual income from BCCI by Rs 20 crore, but give them entry into senior tournaments and provide a ray of hope to the mushrooming talents.

“At 26, when others are representing the country, I don’t know where my future lies,” Vishal Kushwaha, possibly Chhattisgarh’s most famous cricketer before Khare’s emergence, was quoted as saying by The Times of India in May 2015. “Two years ago, I didn’t realise this as I was playing at least Under-25 tournaments, but now I am only playing local cricket, some invitational tournaments and my official tournaments.”

Four months after Kushwaha vented his frustration, CSCS and Manipur Cricket Association made a presentation to the BCCI’s affiliation committee to seek full membership. With the Lodha committee report recommending ‘one team per state’, things might get better for CSCS, but Khare, having learnt his lessons from Kushwaha’s career, is on standby mode.

“Ranji Trophy ke baare mein ab soch raha hoon (I am thinking about Ranji Trophy now),” he says. “After India Under-19, Ranji Trophy is the next hope for me to become eligible for India senior team.

“Next year, if Chhattisgarh get a Ranji team then it is good for me and I will stay or else I will look to change my team,” he goes on. “After World Cup, I will take Rahul sir’s suggestion on what to do.”

***

Son of NP Khare, who works as a charge-man in the rod-wire department of the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) in Bhilai, from where Rajesh Chauhan belongs, the younger Khare is coached by Raja Banerjee, Paramjit Singh, K Rajagopalan and Uttam Dey. The four of them, he says, “work more on my mental aspect than batting technique”.

Banerjee channelised Khare’s energy first at the Indira Place Ground, which has 12 turf pitches. He made him play a match against Madhya Pradesh Under-19 team in the annual SAIL Trophy in 2011. Just 14 years old then, Khare proved the coach’s instincts right with a knock of 124 and that “changed it all for me”.

Knowing that Chhattisgarh offered little scope for his ward’s talent to be expressed, Banerjee suggested Khare move out. The young boy was all set to switch over when BCCI allowed Chhattisgarh to participate in the main age-group tournaments in 2012-13, and that kept Khare at home.

Apart from the SAIL Trophy game, Khare, who marked his debut for Chhattisgarh against Manipur in the Under-16 Associates Member Tournament in 2011-12 with 73 in a 98-run win, remembers another encounter that made him believe in his abilities.

Soon after topping the tournament’s batting charts in his maiden state assignment, Khare made 221 in 422 minutes in a friendly match against Kerala Under-16 in Palakkad. “That was my first and only double-century so far,” he says. “It was my first cricket tour outside Chhattisgarh, so to make a 200 in my first match felt different. I thought that I belonged, that I could do this.

“Initially, I take time to get set, play 30-40 balls and look to survive,” he explains his batting approach. “Uske baad jab gear mein aa jaata hun (After that once I am in gear), I play thinking about scoring runs.”

Having built his game in the Rahul Dravid school of batting, it is surprising that Khare draws inspiration from Virender Sehwag, whom he met once while playing in an Under-19 game against Haryana at the Virender Sehwag Cricket Academy Ground in Jhajjar.

“My batting is different from Sehwag, but his hand and eye coordination is what I like. It helps me play square cut, which is my favourite shot. I try to play square cut off the front foot on Indian pitches where bounce is low,” he explains, “When he retired last year, bahut dhakka laga (it hurt me a lot).

“Among the present cricketers, I like the attitude and style of Virat Kohli.”

While he would like to pick up as many lessons from the Delhi pair and implement them in his game, Khare’s background unwittingly makes him a representative of sorts for Chhattisgarh’s cricketing fraternity.

Having attended BCCI’s zonal and specialist camps, Khare voices out the concerns of his state-mates, who have not been as fortunate as him to break into national consciousness at the right age.

“There are players of equal calibre in Chhattisgarh, but they don’t get a chance to play many matches, and therefore don’t get a platform to execute their game,” he shares. “They are also waiting for Ranji Trophy. They also have the eagerness [to prove themselves].”

Khare understands that having been an “underdog” so far, it was easy to perform, but now his game will be scrutinised more.

“Logon ki nazar nahi rehti hai aap pe (you are not in the limelight), so there’s no pressure, unlike players from bigger teams,” he adds. “You’ve got nothing to lose, so it’s easy to perform. But I have come here with an aim: Kuch karna hi hai(I have to do something).”

***

Khare has already impressed Dravid, the Under-19 coach, with his purpose.

Having made 24, 41 and 0 in three games in the triangular series in Kolkata against Bangladesh and Afghanistan as a part of the build up to the World Cup, Khare went to Colombo – his first overseas cricket trip – for the second tri-series against Sri Lanka and England and made an unbeaten 22 in a warm-up game.

Not considered for the first game of the series proper against England, he replaced Himanshu Rana in the second match against Sri Lanka. When he took strike in the 19th over, India were strongly placed at 77 for 1. He built on the foundation through partnerships of 107 and 82 for the second and third wicket with Washington Sundar and Virat Singh respectively, before being run out for 102 in the 48th over.

His innings strike-rate of 104.08 proved decisive in the end as India prevailed by four runs through the Duckworth/Lewis method in a rain-curtailed affair.

Before that, Dravid had liked Khare’s 136 runs at an average of 68 in the inaugural Under-19 Challenger Trophy, conceptualised to facilitate the national team’s selection. That knock was vital in India Blue winning the title. These efforts put him on the plane to Bangladesh.

That Khare was playing in the Challenger Trophy was because he had notched up scores of 139 not out, 142, 61 not out and 62 in Central Zone’s Vinoo Mankad Inter-Zonal Under-19 Trophy triumph.

Khare’s route is no different than any other cricketer coming through the ranks in India, but because his talent has hit the sealing in the limited set-up of associate cricket and is looking for a fresher avenue, you ask questions: What if he had failed in the Vinoo Mankad Trophy? What if the new regime of BCCI had not launched the Challenger Trophy? What if he had not delivered in the Challenger Trophy? What if he had failed in the rain-affected game in Sri Lanka? What if he had got injured before or after scoring that century? As you dig deeper, you conclude that destiny played its part in makingKhare the first face of Chhattisgarh cricket.

“I saw it as an opportunity to make it to India Under-19. That was the only thought in my mind,” he says of performing in the Challenger Trophy. “The century in Sri Lanka was a turning point.

“Mein sirf wohi soch raha tha ki mere ko mauka mile aaur mein run karoon (I was just thinking that let me get a chance and then let me score runs,” he goes into details of that century against Sri Lanka. “When I went out initially, the wicket was shaky, but once I was set I thought I can make runs. Generally when I am set, I score good runs. It’s happened like that in past matches.”

***

Khare is facing three scribes, but he hardly shows any signs of nervousness. Instead, he engages us with good humour and thoughtful answers. He reminds you of your school topper, who struck a balance between friendship and studies.

Khare, a science student in Class 12, specialising in mathematics at the BSP Senior Secondary School in Bhilai’s Sector 10, juggles integration, calculus and run-making.

“Batting!” he chuckles, when we ask him about his preference. “But, yes, maths helps me count my runs while batting.

“Initially my parents wanted me to focus on cricket and studies, and me playing was fine because it was a physical activity,” he adds. “But, now they want me to progress, play Ranji Trophy and represent India.”

At a time when the debate is about whether upcoming young Indian cricketers are serious about long-form cricket, Khare, who plays badminton and table tennis in his SAIL housing colony to have fun and remain fit, desperately wants a taste of facing the red ball against some of the country’s best bowlers.

While some of his India Under-19 teammates were bought in the IPL 2016 auction, the rest will go back to present their case through the senior state team.

Khare, on the other hand, will prepare for his final examinations, and yet again be stuck in a limbo till the BCCI decide the fate of CSCS. That Khare has not played a game in the World Cup, where all of India’s matches are televised, makes his case more complex.

“Yes, my situation is different,” he says. “I feel a little sad [at not having got a game so far], but if get a chance in a big game, then it will be good to make runs and prove myself. But, you have to put team ahead of you as our aim is to win the tournament.”

This raises an important question. Should Under-19 World Cup be all about winning or should it be a place where cricketers like Khare are given the freedom to go out and express themselves?

For someone who has grown up weighing his odds, the wait for a World Cup game, having come so close, could be the most anxious one.

As Khare leaves us, I wonder about his journey from here. Is this tour just a small peak in an otherwise fallow career? Will he switch states, and if he does, will he be able to adapt to the higher standards at an advanced age? Will he succumb to the pressures of being a pioneer when CSCS eventually field a team in the Ranji Trophy or will he score so prolifically that he will graduate from being just a name in the Wisden India Almanack to being named one of the Cricketers of the Year? Will he lose interest and give up the game? Will he, like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, become the first big star from his state?

Only time will bring answers.

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