For Hokaito Zhimomi and the Nagaland players, the pre-quarterfinal of the 2021/22 Ranji Trophy in March quickly turned from a promising opportunity to an unmitigated disaster. Up against Jharkhand at Eden Gardens in Kolkata in their first-ever Ranji knockout fixture, the Nagaland players spent the first two-and-a-half days of the match chasing leather as the Jharkhand batters surpassed one landmark after the other. Kumar Kushagra registered a double ton while Shahbaz Nadeem and Virat Singh hit centuries, Jharkhand finishing up with a mammoth total of 880 – the fourth highest in Ranji history.
The ordeal didn’t end there. After securing a first-innings lead of 591, Jharkhand compounded Nagaland’s agony by scoring 417/6 in their second essay. They ended with a lead of 1008, the highest in the history of first-class cricket.
Cut to the second week of September, it was almost déjà vu for Zhimomi as West Zone racked up 590/2 in the first innings of the Duleep Trophy quarter-final against NorthEast Zone in Chennai. Zhimomi was leading NorthEast Zone on their debut in the tournament, but he couldn’t do much to prevent Jaiswal and Rahane making double centuries and Shaw hitting 113. NorthEast Zone responded with 235 after batting for 81.5 overs as West Zone had an easy passage to the semis. Zhimomi has learned a few harsh lessons along the way.
“The experience was good. Playing at the highest level in domestic cricket against elite teams, you get to learn a lot of things,” Zhimomi, 36, said. “What I felt personally was we need to be more accurate with the bowling. We will have to be there all the time. At this level, batters always capitalise on the bad deliveries. With our batting, we need to be more patient and spend more time at the crease. That’s where we are lacking. There’s a lack of experience.”
Some of these one-sided encounters are likely to prompt you to think that the teams from the NorthEast are weakening the first-class circuit. While Assam and Tripura have been part of the domestic fold for many years, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim became new entrants in 2018/19 along with Uttarakhand, Bihar and Puducherry as part of the Lodha panel recommendations.
Since their addition, matches between these teams or against them have lent themselves to records being broken. In February, Bihar’s Sakibul Gani became the first cricketer to hit a triple ton on first-class debut, against Mizoram. The second and third highest run-getters in a Ranji season are Rahul Dalal (1,340) for Arunachal Pradesh in 2019/20 and Milind Kumar (1,331) for Sikkim in 2018/19. Both were outstation players and made merry against below-par bowling attacks.
Nagaland may be in for chastening experiences in the upcoming Ranji season too, considering they have been placed in Elite Group A along with Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Himachal, Baroda and Odisha. Zhimomi calls for patience though.
“Everyone started the way we started. People need to show patience. All the NorthEast teams are scaling up now. How we started and where we are now, there is a big difference. It’s not that northeast teams don’t have talent. The exposure wasn’t there. But cricket in the northeast is catching up. We batted for almost 90 overs against West Zone and scored around 250. That’s a big achievement for us. We are hardworking and quick learners,” said Zhimomi, a right-handed batter who learned his cricket in Kolkata.
Sikkim’s Ashish Thapa – a 28-year-old wicketkeeper-batter – feels it’s just the lack of match experience at this level that is holding them back.
“Since getting full membership, our cricket is improving year by year. The infrastructure in the northeast is also improving. We have got well-maintained grounds and practice pitches,” Thapa, who was also part of the NorthEast Zone team in the Duleep Trophy, said. “But we hardly play 14-15 matches in a year. We are making an effort to go outside our state and play some cricket in the off-season. Aside from the domestic calendar, tournaments are needed (on a regular basis) so that we can produce quality players.”
That was also the gist of Rahane’s advice when he spoke to the northeast players during the Duleep Trophy game in Chennai. “Rahane encouraged us by saying that we have got a lot of talent and that we just have less match experience,” Thapa revealed. “Rahane told us that they also went through the same phase as players. He said that with more and more matches, we can become like them and get to know more about the game.”
More optimistically, Zhimomi is seeing change taking place at the grassroots.
“In Nagaland, we have a beautiful stadium in Dimapur. We will be hosting three Ranji games this season. We have all the facilities though there is always room for improvement. At the grassroots level, we have started school cricket and inter-club competitions in every district. Earlier, almost all the players were from Dimapur. Now things have changed. We are getting players from many districts. The game is spreading,” he said.