| Anand |
Published: September 22, 2018 3:41:12 am
Saiju Titus owns and runs a sports shop next to the Palmyra cricket ground in Puducherry. And on Thursday morning, the 36-year-old was preparing to leave for work as usual when he received a phone call.
It was from the Cricket Association of Pondicherry (CAP) who wanted him to immediately pack up and travel to Baroda almost immediately. In just over 24 hours’ time, the stocky Sunday-to-Sunday cricketer with a generous midriff, was making his List A debut at the Lal Bahadur Shastri ground in Anand with selection committee chairman MSK Prasad in the audience. He was also sharing a dressing-room with India internationals Abhishek Nayar and Pankaj Singh.
Saiju wasn’t the only amateur cricketer in Puducherry to attend to a life-altering phone call on Thursday morning. Five others, Vikneshwar Sivasangar, Saju Chothan, AM Narayanan, Magendiran Chinnadurai and Ranjit Baskaran—all in their 30s—too had to suddenly make contingency plans either with their businesses or at their workplaces and rush to the Pondicherry Airport.
The BCCI’s decision to revoke the allowance they’d given Puducherry to field more than the regulated number of outstation players in their squad, on the back of a report in The Indian Express, had sent the CAP scurrying for last-minute reinforcements. And according to a team official, the six, including Saiju, were the best that they could call upon.
The unprecedented and unimaginably fast-tracked passage to playing at the highest level of domestic cricket though wasn’t without its challenges. Saiju & Co flew from Puducherry to Bangalore by noon, nearly missed their flight connection to Mumbai, where they subsequently got stuck. They then had to somehow overcome a significant language barrier, and book themselves a taxi from Mumbai to Baroda. The unlikely bunch of soon-to-be List-A cricketers left for Baroda at around 8 pm, and concluded their nearly 2000km-long journey at 2.30 am. Less than forty nervous winks later, they were on a bus to the venue in Anand, where Saiju, wicket-keeper Baskaran and left-arm spinner Narayanan were handed their maiden caps.
“Kanavu nenava agirathu (A dream has come true in Tamil),” Saiju tells The Indian Express before adding, “But I hardly got any sleep. Not even the two hours the others managed. It was a very tiring journey to reach here, though none of us felt tired. It was just too exciting that we were about to play a Vijay Hazare Trophy match.”
Saiju and the others only got to meet the rest of the team on the bus early on Friday morning, and they weren’t aware of who among them would get the nod.
“I didn’t know I was going to play. We reached the ground and the coach told me I was in. I was very, very nervous. I just did some warm-ups and got ready,” he says.
Once a fruit seller
Before he started his own shop, the eponymously named Saiju Sports, two years ago, the right-handed batsman dabbled in the fruit distribution business. He continued to play cricket on the side, forming teams and registering them for local competitions around the districts of Tamil Nadu. He also has been a regular for the Palmyra Club, playing matches for them every Sunday during the season, and even travelling with them for tournaments outside Puducherry. He also manages to slip in some cricket practice whenever business is slow and he can shut his shop early.
“I captained my school team at the under-16 level, and I was so into cricket that I never focused on my studies. That’s why I had to try different businesses before settling in on the sports shop,” he says. “I have won many man-of-the-series awards in these tournaments,” he then earnestly reveals.
Saiju is relieved to have been home on Thursday morning, considering he only returned home late the previous night from his trip to Chennai, where he’d gone to procure some goods for his shop.
It’s more or less the same story with most of the motley crew who accompanied him to Baroda. While some of them own their own businesses, others have had to apply for eleventh hour leaves at their offices, and lengthy ones too considering this leg of the Plate League only concludes on October 8. They too have been involved with cricket on the side over the years, and incidentally were part of the 25-player probables list announced by the CAP. None of them made the cut owing to the host of outstation players coming in.
Saiju batted at No.7 in Puducherry’s run-chase and hung around for 24 balls for his 10, which included a boundary and an audacious hook-scoop shot where he bent down awkwardly to a ball from an Uttarakhand pacer that climbed on him. He even shared an 18-ball stand with Nayar, which he called “the most nervous part of the day, since it was Abhishek Nayar at the other end”, before being stumped while attempting a wild hoick. A nervier moment came earlier in the field, when he let a ball slip through at mid-on.
“It was embarrassing, but I was trying to attempt a run-out. I didn’t let a single ball through after that, anywhere else in the field,” he chips in. Narayanan finished his quota of 10 overs and snared two scalps for good measure, including that of Vaibhav Bhatt for 73, with his innocuous left-arm spin. Ranjit took two catches, including a sharp one to get rid of Rajat Bhatia. But Friday was barely about numbers and stats for the trio, it was a day where their “kanavu nenava agirathu” or as Saiju sums it up,
“When I told my wife that I am leaving for Baroda to play a domestic cricket match, she looked at me in shock, and I told her ‘yes, I’m as shocked as you are’.”
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