Purists spurn them, but gully cricketers get an identity with ISPL | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Purists spurn them, but gully cricketers get an identity with ISPL

Mar 15, 2024 08:02 AM IST

While not every gully cricket player makes it big, today after countless limited overs leagues mushrooming over the years, there’s a tournament that celebrates the grassroots in front of a large audience. The Indian Street Premier League (ISPL), held at the Dadoji Kondadev Stadium in Thane, is a T10 cricket tournament played using a hard tennis ball

Mumbai: Sachin Tendulkar explored his unparalleled skill here, MS Dhoni developed his famous helicopter shot while Jasprit Bumrah honed his revered yorkers – cricket’s brightest stars began their journeys in carefree hours of play on the streets.

A total of 96 tennis ball cricketers are competing in the inaugural ISPL in Thane. (ISPL)
A total of 96 tennis ball cricketers are competing in the inaugural ISPL in Thane. (ISPL)

While not every gully cricket player makes it big, today after countless limited overs leagues mushrooming over the years, there’s a tournament that celebrates the grassroots in front of a large audience. The Indian Street Premier League (ISPL), held at the Dadoji Kondadev Stadium in Thane, is a T10 cricket tournament played using a hard tennis ball. With six teams competing, the ISPL began with an exhibition game, with the support of the likes of Tendulkar and filmstar Akshay Kumar, on March 6 and will conclude today. The league is unique, as despite no known players competing in its inaugural edition, it has managed backing from influential people.

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Amitabh Bachchan’s Majhi Mumbai franchise was acquired for 205.6 crore, Akshay Kumar’s Srinagar Ke Veer for 251 crore, Hrithik Roshan’s Bangalore Strikers for 225 crore, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor’s Tigers of Kolkata for 120 crore, Ram Charan’s Falcon Risers Hyderabad for 200 crore, and Suriya’s Chennai Singhams for 163.6 crore.

While Tendulkar, BCCI treasurer Ashish Shelar and MCA president Amol Kale are part of the core committee, Ravi Shastri is the chief mentor and former India cricketers Pravin Amre and Jatin Paranjpe head the selection panel.

“It is my vision to provide opportunities to the players,” said Tendulkar. “It was fantastic to see 14-year-olds compete in the tournament. Age is no barrier for talent – what matters is passion.”

Soon after the online link for registration went live last year, over 18 lakh applications were received. Then, following a two-month selection process spread across five cities, 96 players were shortlisted for the auction. 4.91 crore was spent by the six franchises at the auction, with Abhishek (Karan) Dalhor attracting the highest bid at 27 lakh. Sumeet Dhekale ( 19 lakh), Saroj Paramanik ( 19 lakh), Ketan Mhatre ( 16.5 lakh) and Jagat Sarkar ( 14 lakh) were next on the list of most expensive players. On an average, the top 10 players were auctioned for 15.4 lakh.

The coordinators scouted for talent in Dharavi to bring the young into the stream by making them play leather ball cricket. “But since the kids played with tennis ball, we realised it would not be easy to switch to leather ball immediately. That birthed this tennis cricket league, in a professional garb. It was also an opportunity for them to emerge from the streets and play in a stadium,” said Kale.

Mixing it up

The six teams have an interesting mix. While Chennai captain Dhekale has played in the Mumbai Premier League (MPL), his Mumbai counterpart Yogesh Penkar has only ever played with a tennis ball. R Thavith Kumar has competed in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), Bablu Patil is part of the Maharashtra Police, and Vijay Pawale represented Maharashtra in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy last year.

The 50-50 over allows batters to choose a bowler from the opposing team, aiming to score a minimum of 16 runs in an over. If they achieve that, they get 50% additional runs from that over (e.g. if they score 18 runs, 27 runs are added to their total). If they fall short, 50% of the runs scored in that over get deducted from the total (e.g. if they score 14 runs, seven runs are deducted from their total). Another unique rule awards nine runs to the batter if the ball is hit into any one of the designated stands beyond the boundary.

“In order to do well, it’s important to have six to eight all-rounders, three openers and two-three special bowlers in the squad,” said Mumbai Majhi coach Karunakar Kotian, father of Ranji player Tanush Kotian.

Suraj Samat, the league’s commissioner, said their format can’t be compared to that of the BCCI. “We are only looking at the grassroots. There are 6.5 crore tennis cricket players; we want all to have a chance every year. It becomes like an exhibition centre that other teams in the mainstream can identify with,” said Samrat.

Path forward

There are no classy cover drives or flicks off the legs here as leather ball cricket and fast bowlers don’t nip the ball around. But there are slightly different skillsets and a unique take on the game to enjoy. For instance, while the hard tennis ball is lighter and can bounce and turn more, each inning also has two tape ball overs. The light tape-covered tennis ball gets exaggerated swing, presenting a test for the batter and bowler.

“We grew up playing in different gullies, so you had to develop shots for particular areas where there were gaps. Tennis ball cricketers are street smart. Special skills can be discovered and they can flourish if given a chance with the red ball. The goal of this league is to spot stars for the IPL or a state association,” said Shastri.

With live telecast of matches on Sony Sports, former internationals have been roped in for commentary, including Maninder Singh, Venkatesh Prasad, Kedar Jadhav and Pragyan Ojha. Explaining the challenge of tennis ball cricket, Ojha said, “Leather ball is all about timing -- if a batter times the shot the ball stays hit. In tennis ball cricket you need power to clear the boundary. In bowling there is no fear of getting hit, so batters are fearless to go for any shot; the bowler needs to have a lot of variations to keep the batters in check.”

Also, while in traditional cricket, one has to climb the rungs to make it to international or IPL level, in ISPL, players have a direct platform in front of a national audience.

“I’ve never seen a tennis cricket tournament like this in Chennai, it feels like the IPL,” said Thavith. “I’ve played in the TNPL where the player of the match gets 10,000; here the prize is 1 lakh.” Dhekale added: “Leather ball cricketers tend to look down upon us but ISPL has given us an identity and secured our future.”

Dalhor, who has represented the Haryana U-25 team, started playing tennis ball cricket professionally about four years ago. The all-rounder is one of the most sought-after players on the circuit and insists there is no reason why kids can’t look at tennis ball cricket as a real career option.

“We play tournaments round the year in different parts of India and even in the UAE,” he said. “I have won a car, two motorcycles, gold, 12 television sets and more. A full-time tennis ball cricketer can earn at least 15 lakh a year. While earlier, we had to negotiate our fees in each tournament, which was irksome, ISPL has made things professional. We now have an official stamp of approval.”

Kale, who has juggled between watching the Ranji final during the day at the Wankhede Stadium and reaching Thane in the evening for the ISPL, said, “The records and statistics of the players are filed away. Selectors and coaches at different levels can use of this data in future. That will help the players advance into mainstream leather ball cricket.”

Tendulkar added, “We will sit with the core committee and discuss whether more teams can be added the next time. We have also decided to give scholarships to 101 children. Eventually, we wish to spread our wings outside of India, as the response has been good.”

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