From the dusty by-lanes to the hallowed turfs; from the rickety grounds to the well-mowed greens, a cricketer, in his journey to stardom rarely stops to breathe. Train. Practice. Repeat. Gruelling exercises. Drills. Repeat.
With eyes set firmly on the ultimate aim to play for India, smaller milestones are first set in place. Play age-group cricket. District level. Eventually turn up for the state and the path should take care of itself. It is no secret that state cricket or Ranji cricket in India remains paramount. It is that platform where youngsters unite as a cohesive unit, pledging to take their team towards history.
It is also that platform where, despite the harmony, the competition reaches the highest peak. This is where one can either perform or perish. One good season and the door that leads to further glories will remain ajar. A bad season and it can firmly shut itself on all the expectations and dreams.
It is the stage which brings players into the limelight in the first place. It is that stage to which Indian discards return, hoping to perform and make it into the lost limelight once again.
When the magical call-up finally arrives, it is a matter of immense joy and vast pride. Not only for the family and the individual but also for the state on whose soil the player roughed it out day and night to hone his skills.
The state is highlighted with every wicket he takes or every run he scores for India. There is, after all, a reason why Ranchi still dwells in MS Dhoni’s fame.
It is no surprise then that Uttar Pradesh continues to revel in this quiet boastfulness. Having given India a fine variety of talent, the largest state in the nation remains a fine breeding ground for immensely skilled cricketers.
On that note, here are five of the greatest cricketers to have emerged from the state:
#5 Mohammad Kaif: India’s very own Jhonty Rhodes
Having made his First-Class debut in 1997, Mohammad Kaif rose to fame after captaining the India Under-19 team to the World Cup title way back in 2000, a team that comprised Venugopal Rao and Yuvraj Singh. Defined by a calm demeanour and shrewd stroke-play, Kaif got his maiden call-up to the Indian Test team soon after, when he was just 20.
An unassured performance led to his ousting after which the youngster joined the Australian Cricket Academy and the National Cricket Academy. Vastly improved, he was recalled to the 50-over side for India the following year and a combination of agility and steady batting allowed him to cement a spot in the side.
The 36-year-old is still remembered for his famous 87 in the NatWest Series Final way back in 2002, where he combined with his under-19 teammate Yuvraj and overhauled England’s stiff target of 326, an innings that earned him his first Man of the Match award and one which also showcased the eccentric side of the usually rigid Sourav Ganguly.
Lack of consistency and an extended poor season with the bat ensured that Kaif was dropped from the Indian ODI team in November 2006, following which he never returned. All in all, he played 125 ODIs for India, averaging 32.01 with two centuries. In Tests, he averaged 32.84 from his 13 matches, with a solitary ton against his name.
However, this did not deter the Rajasthan Royals from bagging the maverick for USD$675,000 in 2008, making him the most expensive player for the franchise that season. A string of low scores meant that the Indian could never get going in the T20 league. He shuffled around, moving from Kings XI Punjab to Royal Challengers Bangalore but was tossed aside by the RCB in 2012, to never play in the league thereafter.
In 2014, he bid adieu to his 16-year stint with Uttar Pradesh and struck a two-year deal with Andhra Pradesh for the domestic season, captaining the team of youngsters before shifting to Chhattisgarh in 2016.
Despite having an international career that ended before it could bloom, Kaif emphatically won the nation over with his brilliant fielding in the covers, diving and shoving aside the ball in a trance. The Indian fielding standards saw a resurgence with Kaif’s quick slides and throws, allowing one to talk about him in the same breath as legendary South African Jonty Rhodes.
#4 Rudra Pratap Singh: Summoning scary thoughts in the batsman’s mind with accurate in-swingers
“I started pushing myself and even touched 149 kph in Perth.”
Combining pace with a smooth run-up, RP Singh’s ability to bowl well in the slog overs made him an enigma in the Indian pace bowling attack from 2005 onwards. Having picked up eight wickets at an impressive average of 24.75 in the Under-19 World Cup in 2004, RP caught the selectors' eyes soon after.
Having played just a year and a half of serious cricket before deciding to polish his skills in the Chennai-based MRF Pace Academy, the left-armer sent the nation into a tizzy with inspired bowling, starting right from his debut match in Faisalabad in which he picked up five wickets.
The T20 World Cup triumph in South Africa, in which he emerged as the highest wicket-taker for India, started his ascent towards greater glories. He was a part of the side's path-breaking wins, at Trent Bridge in 2007 and Perth in 2008, consistently bouncing out the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Hussey.
Bestowed with the ability to reverse the old ball and move the newer one both ways, the bowler from Rae Bareilly epitomised accuracy with sharp pace, confounding right-handed batsmen with his clever in-swingers.
Before drifting away into anonymity, the 31-year-old displayed his potential in the 2009 season of the IPL, notching up 31 wickets as he guided Deccan Chargers to the title. Even though he has been out of favour with the national team since 2011, after playing 58 ODIs and 14 Test matches for them, he continues to make his presence felt in domestic cricket, in which he placed in the top-15 wicket-takers in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2015.
Last year, he shifted base from Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat for the Ranji season, picking up 18 wickets at an average of 25.44 and was instrumental in handing Gujarat their maiden Ranji title.
#3 Suresh Raina: From being attacked by bullies to bullying bowling attacks
From being unanimously hated and violently bullied by his seniors for being a highly skilled youngster favoured by his coaches in the sports hostel in Uttar Pradesh, to smacking bowlers all around the park with élan, life has indeed turned into a fairy-tale for Suresh Raina.
A silent confidence in his abilities that prevents him from being overawed by his contemporaries remains Raina’s greatest hallmark. It separated him from the group of budding youngsters then; it separates him from the experienced cricketers today.
On the back of a string of double centuries for the Uttar Pradesh Under-16 team, Raina was drafted into the Indian junior team and very soon turned out for the senior national team, making a name for himself with his staggering strike rates and flourishing shot-making.
In the death overs especially, with a soaring run-rate, the left-hander’s ability to rotate strike and hand his team improbable victories remains his greatest claim to fame. He became the first Indian cricketer to score an international hundred in all three formats of the game and his electric fielding ushered in a new era in Indian Cricket.
He remains widely successful in the IPL as well but his iffy technique against the short ball and fast seaming deliveries has called into question his temperament. His handy off-breaks resulted in 62 international wickets and even though he has not represented India in either Test or ODI cricket since 2015, that in no way can take away what he brought to the team.
#2 Praveen Kumar: From stamping his name on the Lord’s Honours Board to fizzling away
Medium-pace. Accurate. Swing. In an era when Team India were hardly known for their bowling attack, the trio of Zaheer Khan-Ashish Nehra-Praveen Kumar wreaked havoc, between 2009 and 2010.
Complimenting Zaheer and Nehra perfectly, Praveen stood out for his miserly spells even on the most placid of wickets.
To have overshadowed Sachin Tendulkar’s knock of 91* in the second final of the CB Series in Australia in 2008 with a Man of the Match-winning performance with the ball speaks of a fine talent indeed.
His first two seasons for Uttar Pradesh fetched him 90 wickets and he became an integral part of the Indian line-up thereafter. He was the sole bright spot for India in their disastrous 0-4 campaign in England in 2011 and picked up his first and only 5–wicket haul in that particular series at Lord’s, which put his name amongst the legends on the Honours Board.
He ended up playing only six Test matches and 68 ODI matches for India before anger issues and unimpressive performances threw him off the radar.
#1 Bhuvneshwar Kumar: The one who handed Tendulkar his first duck in domestic cricket
While many gasped, Bhuvneshwar Kumar readied himself for a delivery that would instantly catch the nation’s attention. At an age when each cricketer is looking for the perfect opportunity to stake his claim, 19-year-old Bhuvneshwar all but guaranteed himself a first international cap by dismissing the legendary Sachin Tendulkar for zero, his first duck in domestic cricket.
Like Praveen Kumar, Bhuvneshwar too hails from the small town of Meerut and yearned for a place in the Indian squad, with his 130kmph swinging deliveries often causing problems for right-handers. In his T20 debut against Pakistan, he bowled Nasir Jamshed and in his very first ODI ball, cleaned up Mohammad Hafeez.
Showing promise and delivering on it are, however, two different things. On the tour to England in 2014, as the team around him collapsed, Bhuvi stood out with his swing and control accounting for 19 wickets at an average of 26.63, making him the Indian Man of the Series in that series.
He always takes part in the race for the Purple Cap in the IPL, which only reflects his potential to unnerve even the most experienced of players on pitches that offer little or no assistance. Along with Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, the Indian bowling attack offers promise and here is hoping that he can add to his 131 international wickets that have been accumulated in 104 international matches.
Whilst Mohammad Kaif, Suresh Raina, RP Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Praveen Kumar, alongside Piyush Chawla, Sudeep Tyagi and Kuldeep Yadav, belong to Uttar Pradesh and represented them in various tournaments, a few legends chose to shift base to the state.
The honourable Syed Mushtaq Ali was originally from Holkar but donned the jersey for Uttar Pradesh in 1956-57.
Lala Amarnath, the first captain of Independent India, originally from Punjab, too turned out for the state in 1954-55.
Vijay Manjrekar, father of Sanjay Manjrekar represented six sides in the Ranji Trophy - Bombay, Bengal, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra. He represented Uttar Pradesh in the 1957-58 season.
C.K. Nayudu needs no introduction in Indian cricket circles. The first captain of the Indian cricket team in Test matches had a prolific first-class career, playing for various teams till he was 68! Along with his brother C.S Nayudu, he wore the Uttar Pradesh jersey in the year 1956-57.
With a long haul of successful cricketers, Uttar Pradesh’s contribution to the rise of Indian cricket remains unmatched.