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From Rinku Singh to Dhruv Jurel, players from the heartland are on the UP

Cricketers from Uttar Pradesh are showing the skill and hunger to succeed at the highest level.

When India won a Test series in England for the first time in 1971, six of the playing eleven were from Bombay. Their hegemony in Indian cricket went unchallenged till the late 1970s and 1980s when a cluster of players from north India began making their presence felt. The changing dynamics were apparent at the 1983 World Cup, when as many as five players in the team, including skipper Kapil Dev, were from the northern belt.

India’s Dhruv Jurel plays a shot(AP)

It was followed by a period in the 1990s when India’s bowling attack featured three engineers from Bangalore — Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble. At around the same time, Rahul Dravid, another Bangalore boy, was beginning to establish himself as a vital cog in the batting unit.

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As we moved into the mid-2000s, MS Dhoni exploded into national consciousness from Ranchi and emboldened the small-town cricketer, democratising the game like perhaps never before. And with it seemed to dwindle the dominance of any one region in the make-up of the Indian team as players made their way from varied milieus and backgrounds.

At the moment, there’s a sudden influx of talent from Uttar Pradesh meriting our attention.

Just consider the ongoing series against England and the Ranchi Test where the two chief architects of India’s victory were Kuldeep Yadav and Dhruv Jurel. Yadav belongs to Kanpur, his wrist spin embodying the deception and street-smartness that the bustling city is known for. Jurel has risen through the ranks from Agra, overcoming the reluctance of his father — a Kargil war veteran — who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and join the defence forces. Jurel’s hometown is renowned for the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, but has little going for it in terms of cricketing infrastructure. This is why Jurel, having learned the basics of the game in Agra under coach Parvendra Yadav, moved to Noida for better opportunities and facilities.

“Dhruv is so sincere, and I found him open to gaining knowledge and putting it into practice,” says Sunil Joshi, the coach of Uttar Pradesh in domestic cricket. “That shows his hunger. Even though he didn’t play the first two Tests, we were chatting that he should be prepared to grab the opportunity with both hands.”

Garnering plenty of eyeballs in white-ball cricket is Rinku Singh. After a breakthrough IPL season for Kolkata Knight Riders in 2023, the 26-year-old has taken to international cricket with the same swagger, exceeding expectations particularly in the white-ball leg of the tour of South Africa in December. Rinku’s tough childhood and battle with poverty are familiar struggles for many youngsters in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states.

“When I was just starting out and had yet to play proper cricket, I was asked to join my brother for a job. I got a job of sweeping and mopping in a coaching centre. I refused because I didn’t like the work,” Rinku had said in a video shared by KKR.

The search for a better life amid financial constraints also prompts many to move to other places. Yashasvi Jaiswal, a breakout performer in the Test series against England with more than 600 runs, is a case in point. Born in Bhadohi district in 2001, Jaiswal’s cricketing dreams were fuelled only when he made the bold move to Mumbai at the age of 10. Sarfaraz Khan is also originally from UP. In Mohammed Shami’s case, his skills with the ball did not get the recognition in UP that they eventually did in Bengal.

Beneath the top tier, Saurabh Kumar, Shivam Mavi, Yash Dayal, Priyam Garg, Sameer Rizvi and Mohsin Khan are among the pool of UP players vying to reach the highest level. “They are all from humble backgrounds and have a tremendous amount of hunger,” Joshi says.

If sheer numbers were a barometer, UP should always be a strong contributor to Indian cricket. The state, after all, makes up 16.5 percent of India’s population. It also helps that they now have a team, Lucknow Super Giants, that they can truly call their own in the Indian Premier League.

“Hamare ladko main bhook hai kuch karne ka bus inko mauka chaiye (Our boys have that hunger to do something, and they only need an opportunity),” said Mohammad Kaif, who played 125 ODIs and 13 Tests for India and scored most of his 10,000-plus first-class runs for UP.

Besides Kaif, RP Singh, Suresh Raina, Piyush Chawla and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are the other players from the heartland to leave a mark for India since the turn of the century. That they all come from different areas suggests that, unlike most other states, talent isn’t confined to only one or two centres.

“There are good coaches in UP now and a lot of good academies have also opened up. There was a system of sports hostels earlier,” says Kuldeep’s coach, Kapil Pandey. “Players in UP are produced from Kanpur, Allahabad, Lucknow, Meerut, Moradabad and everywhere else. And they are being recognised now more than ever.”

Raina feels more can be done though. “All our talents come from modest backgrounds, so we need to have someone from UP who can understand their feelings and hardships to guide them. That system is lacking right now,” says Raina.

Despite the vast number of players in the region, UP’s output hasn’t been very robust, evident from their lone Ranji Trophy triumph in 2005/06. Joshi wants to put that right as coach. “I am hoping that UP can win the Ranji Trophy in my tenure. We are scouting for more talent as an association. With five of our players representing India or India A now, the core of the team wasn’t there. I have to rely on the next bunch of players.”


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