A club game in Srinagar’s Hazratbal areaWho knows what they made of Danish Ahsan, as he walked to keep pace with the arrival of dawn? Surely they would have seen him, the men with guns on both sides of the Valley’s barbed wire. The teenager setting off at four every,A club game in Srinagar’s Hazratbal areaWho knows what they made of Danish Ahsan, as he walked to keep pace with the arrival of dawn? Surely they would have seen him, the men with guns on both sides of the Valley’s barbed wire. The teenager setting off at four every morning, the soft tattoo of his footsteps the only sound on the dark, cool road from Dialagam to Anantnag. The boy was neither runaway nor renegade but a dreamer, who would not let distance – or unreliable transport – gets in his way of arriving at his own promised land: a rundown sports ground in Anantnag. By 6:30 a.m. Ahsan’s long walk was complete but his journey just begun. With 200 others, he would change out of his dusty clothes into carefully preserved white shirt and trousers, and for a few hours become someone else. That most unexpected of natives, the Kashmiri cricketer.FEAR FACTOR: Sher-e-Kashmir stadium wears a deserted lookAt the ground, it is match day for boys across three age groups selected from a talent search camp and Ahsan is among them. It’s Friday, the khutba is ringing out from the mosque that overlooks the ground.The men in charge of the cricket exchange shrugs about missing the badi namaaz and keep going. Among them is district captain Ghulam Rasool, who once rushed into a mosque with fellow cricketers, all still in their whites. The puzzled congregation had looked at each other and whispered, “Yeh kaunsi jamaat ke hain?” (Which sect is this?). Rasool’s smile is saucer-size, “We said, ‘hum bat-waale hain’.”This acknowledgement of two varying faiths is both incongrous and organic, but cricket in Kashmir is itself incongrous, something so frivolous and normal in a place that has lost its frivolity, and its normalcy.advertisementCRICKET FEVER: The new ground in SeerThe game in the Valley lives in its own time zone. When the rest of the country’s season ends, Kashmir’s begins; as the others curse the heat, the Valley’s cricketers swarm onto the Polo ground, college playfields and disused golf-courses, each one proof that the game has survived.In 1996, when the Jammu & Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) decided to open up their home ground, the Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium at Srinagar after a seven-year freeze, it took 20 workers four months to unearth the playing square under four feet high grass. The city’s club league was quietly re-initiated with 15-16 clubs.”When I think about it today, how foolish we were to risk initiating formal cricket again,” says Manzoor Ahmed Wazir, JKCA vice-chairman. Sixty clubs now contest the Srinagar league.PROFILE ABID NABIFirst Down, More To ComeHis name is now uttered across J&K with hope in its echo. Visitors are asked if he will ever play for India. His coach Mansoor Ahmed, knows what will happen, “If Abid goes through, many, many more will follow.” Only two seasons into the game and 40 first-class wickets, Nabi 20, is the first player from J & K to make it to the North Zone Deodhar Trophy team and the first to play a first-class game against a touring side. He was called up to give India’s finest a workout in the nets before the Test against England.Nabi grew up in Srinagar. Spotted in school by Ahmed, Nabi was given two instructions. Just bowl. And just bowl fast. The ACC took him on and everything else was kept simple.Nabi is one of a joint family whose livelihoods depend on learning trades, not sport. Three ACC coaches assured his father, a mason, that the club would look after all expenses and this game would help the young bowler find a job. And play for India.”I didn’t have to worry about a thing,” Abid says, “I was told just perform.” From the time he played juniors, Nabi was told, “You’re the only one from Kashmir who can make it.)”The lean, 6 ft 2 inch baby-face wears weighty expectation like a medal. He is proud to represent his state, his surroundings, even if the state’s Ranji team does not get a proper set of kit and plays matches in a series of assorted white shirts.If things go well, he could wear a shirt given to only the few. Bowling to the Indians in Mohali and then unwinding in the dressing room has left its trace. “You cannot understand what it meant to be there,” he says. “I had dreamt of just seeing players of the calibre of Tendulkar, Dravid. There I was, bowling at Laxman, sitting with them, talking to them-me, a boy from Kashmir, imagine that…”In Anantnag, everyone with anything to do in the district’s cricket is pitching in, led by Abdul Qayuum, the state’s most successful fast bowler (“as fast as Srinath”, they say). Matches are umpired by Mohammed Shafi, opening batsman of the Ranji team and Sajid Nisar, who played state under-17s and under-19s.advertisementThey coach while umpiring, checking footwork and follow through. Mushtaq Ahmed, an ex-intervarsity player lost his son in an accident and has come “because I think of all these boys as my son.”The sentiment and energy found in Kashmir’s scattered grounds is tangible but to the outsider, inexplicable. J&K has only a couple of turf wickets, there is little formal coaching outside Srinagar, no settled calendar. The state team has never made it past the Ranji Trophy first round bar once (in 2002, captained by Qayuum). Role models are thin on the ground and no player from the state has played for India.ON STRONG WICKET: A girl bats in a Gulmarg schoolTo Kashmir’s cricketers, these are home truths, like soldiers and sandbags. Each time they enter the stadium, they show their special ID cards and submit to a security check. The CRPF has occupied the stadium and clubhouse for the last 15 years. The old dressing rooms are now storehouses for ammunition.Still, the players change into whites. Still, bowlers swivel around and holler, “how’s that?” at umpires. Still, batsmen uncurl cover drives and hold their pose a tad longer than modesty demands. In Kashmir, cricket’s mythology is reinvented, its fussy rituals given a new layer of meaning. Besieged by insanity and inhumanity, the game represents order, rootedness, even sanity.Srinagar held its first Ranji Trophy match after a 16-year-gap last season. When former India bowlers T.A. Sekhar and Javagal Srinath came talent scouting for the MRF Pace Foundation, 400 turned up. Fast bowler Abid Nabi has just become the first Jammu & Kashmir player to be picked for the North Zone in the Deodhar Trophy.To a generation that grew up during insurgency, all of this represents a mighty stride. When Shafi was picked for the state junior team for the national under-17 event, militants had put out notices forbidding local boys from representing Kashmir outside the state. So he stayed at home. Nisar says his father sent him to learn cricket to keep him away from the twin scourges of the time-‘the smoking drinking crowd and militancy’. After an average Ranji season, pacer Fayaz Ahmed vanished. “Paar chala gaya” (went across the border), some say, a euphemism for taking up the gun.INNING ENDS: Close of play called over Pulwama’s saffron fieldsThere is a game on in the Mirza Nooruddin Memorial Knock Out run by the Amateur Cricket Club (ACC) and they have hoardings around the boundary. The club has been given a three-year shot at hosting matches on campus and a field on which to prepare new turf wickets. Its location, one long hit from the Dal Lake, delights the ACC’s Mansoor Ahmed, also Nabi’s coach. The breeze off the Dal, he says, helps the ball swing prodigiously. He would like teams from outside Kashmir to come to the Valley in the summer to show locals where they stand.Qayuum wants the state team to be invited to events like Buchi Babu and Moin-ud-Dowla to know how the game is really played. Even as the JKCA’s share of gym equipment sent out by the cash-rich BCCI to all association is lying unusued, there is talk of building a new stadium outside the Sher-e-Kashmir’s high security surroundings.advertisementTHE BAT MAKERSAn Industry Under SiegeSHARP BLADE: Bats being testedIn a 5 sq km area of a place called Hallamulla Sangam, India’s traditional bat-making industry is grappling with the flickering moods of the times. All through the town, advertising the virtues of the famous Kashmiri willow tree, bats and their colourful bat cases are hung out on display like so many pieces of exotic fruit. The Valley’s willow, an established rival to the more expensvie English willow used to make cricket bats, still travels far. To Jalandhar and Meerut, where the seasoned wood is given the finish needed and sent to the major metros where the big brands put their stickers on it.Kashmir’s 150 bat-making units annually earn between Rs 3 lakhs-Rs 101-12 lakhs depending on the size of their businesses. But today, the bat makers find that business is dipping. Not because of fluctuating tourist numbers, but the smuggling of willow wood outside the state in trucks ostensibly carrying apples. This trend started a decade ago, and has cut into the demand for willow treated and seasoned in the area.A proposal to widen the Srinagar to Anantnag highway is also threatening to push the showrooms and bat shops that now line the road.What does cricket in Kashmir mean? To the game? The national project? The state’s young players learnt to love the game from Doordarshan’s telecasts! Formal coaching to them is not dreary discipline but epiphany. They want to know how to adjust to turf wickets, how to read quality spin. “Dravid’s cover drive? I want to hit the ball like that,” says Raees Ahmed Nedaf, from Pahalgam. In the Anantnag camp, Ahsan was told about the use of the top hand and suddenly, miraculously, could control his strokes.Kashmir’s cricket will always be a little surreal and the only way to build on it is to embrace its imperfections. To accept that the new police ground in Seer near Pahalgam might also do double duty as a helipad. To understand that if the game must go on in this beautiful, blighted landscape, those inside it must think outside its boundaries and those outside must sense the Valley’s will.Danish Ahsan was picked for the Anantnag district under-19 team. Sometime in mid-September, the boy will bat on a real turf wicket for the first time in his life.