Manipur's homegrown heroes prepare for life in the Elite lane
The state of Manipur, in the northeastern corner of India, has a rich history and tradition in sport; even the state's current chief minister, N Biren Singh, is a former Border Security Force footballer. But amid all the success in boxing, weightlifting and football, cricket has barely had any presence.
It is still, as Rajkumar Imo Singh, the president of the Manipur Cricket Association (MNCA) puts it, "in its infancy stage". But infants grow quickly. Manipur have made the final of the Plate Division of the Ranji Trophy, where they will meet Bihar starting January 25, and have earned a promotion to the Elite Division next season. Manipur have done this with barely any infrastructure - their "home" games were played in Gujarat - and with a team full of homegrown players.
"We have a team born and bred in Manipur - a totally indigenous team," Imo tells Cricday. "With the talent we have, we pushed forward only those who are actually from Manipur."
It was only before the 2018-19 season that nine new teams - including Manipur and five others from the Northeast - gained full-time BCCI membership. Until then, these associations received vastly less funding from the BCCI than the older full members. Though this has changed, Manipur continues to lag behind in infrastructure, grounds and support staff. That the wet weather in the state lasts five or six months a year doesn't help either.
But there is talent, and that talent is learning on the job.
"The key is to keep it simple," says Rakesh Sharma, Manipur's coach - he formerly played for and coached Oman. "If we feed them with too much information or even stats, they might get confused."
Rakesh takes the example of the successful chase of 337 against Sikkim in the Plate semi-finals.
"I broke it down into blocks of 50 runs each because 337 is a huge target. The boys kept believing, and kept growing in confidence as the chase moved on.
"We played friendly matches in the build-up [to the Ranji Trophy]. Special thanks to our trainer [Raajoo Bhatkal], who keeps pushing them, since our players barely play ten matches a year. But they have played so much in the last five months that their bodies have taken a lot of load. Our physio has also worked very hard to make them match-ready."
Before the start of the Ranji season, camps in Noida helped players develop their fitness for four-day matches. Simultaneously, the focus was on developing the right environment for players to prosper no matter the problems they faced.
Ronel Singh, the MNCA secretary, says the players gelled well because most of them had played together over he last few seasons.
"My priority was strong team bonding," Ronel says. "We emphasised on players below 30 years of age. We told them, 'You will be given ample opportunities to showcase your skill'."
While he's proud of what the players have achieved, Ronel sees room for improvement. "We seem to be low on patience with the bat," he says. "We are almost always in T20 mode!"
New stars in the making
Rex Rajkumar was one of Manipur's early bloomers, making the headlines when he picked up all ten wickets in an innings in an Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy match against Arunachal Pradesh in December 2018. Cut to the 2022-23 season, and Manipur's list of impressive performers is growing.
Pace bowler Pheiroijam Jotin, all of 16, made his first-class debut against Sikkim last month, and immediately grabbed attention with 9 for 69 in the first innings. He then took a nine-wicket match haul against Sikkim in the Plate semi-finals. So far, Jotin has 33 wickets at an average of 13.81 in six games this season.
Left-arm spinner Kishan Singha has also taken 33 wickets this season, at 15.42, while seamer Bishworjit Konthoujam has 20, at 21.00.
Konthoujam is currently Manipur's leading wicket-taker in first-class, List A and T20 cricket.
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) December 12, 2021
Manipur pacer Bishworjit Konthoujam set the stage on fire against Arunachal Pradesh and scalped five wickets. #ARPvMAN #VijayHazareTrophy
Watch his superb bowling displayhttps://t.co/5Vy9UtxGYJ pic.twitter.com/4Q1px1XiD8
Cricket wasn't Konthoujam's first love - he was once a national-level boxer. And he's not alone among Manipur's players in having played other sports at a high level.
"He is very tall, and has a fighting instinct," Ronel says of Konthoujam. "We had just asked him to bowl for a few months, and he has now completely turned to cricket. Also, Johnson Singh played football at the representative level; he is still a very good footballer."
Incidentally, such is the quality of football in Manipur that 38 of their players - the most from any state - featured in the Indian Super League's 2022-23 season.
The road ahead
Performances on the field have been encouraging, and there is now ample funding from the BCCI, but concerns linger.
"The playing season is pretty short [due to the rainy weather], so we have to take that into consideration," Imo says. "We need the expertise which BCCI has." He suggests that indoor training facilities will help.
But there are positive signs for the future. The Luwangpokpa Cricket Stadium in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, will soon inaugurate its floodlights. And Imo, who has been with the association for six years now, sees an appreciable increase in youngsters taking to cricket, and he has approached the state's education directorate to request school and college students to be actively involved in the sport.
Imo recalls his father, the former Manipur chief minister RK Jaichandra Singh, taking him to the Khuman Lampak Stadium - a multi-use stadium that's mainly used for football and athletics, to play cricket. Imo hopes that budding cricketers in Manipur will have enough cricket grounds to play in. More and better infrastructure can only speed up the growth of cricket in the state.
And there will be accelerated learning for Manipur's players next year, when they face India's domestic heavyweights in the Elite Division next year.
"We follow Mumbai and Tamil Nadu a lot," their captain Langlonyamba Meitan Keishangbam says. "And we admire Sai Kishore, Cheteshwar Pujara and Jaydev Unadkat the most."
The ambition, hunger and willingness to grow is already visible. If that desire is matched by performances on the field and the growth of the game in Manipur's grassroots, there will soon be space for a bat and a ball alongside the football that sits in a corner of every household in the state.