Hiten Dalal, a 27-year-old batsman who has represented Delhi at the first-class level, and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) team at the club level, has dedicated his entire life to cricket.
But at an age when he should be settling down, Dalal, who has played 12 first-class games, 12 domestic one-dayers and 22 T20 matches along with countless club games, faces uncertainty about his career.
Though included in the Delhi first-class squad, the Paschim Vihar lad could not make it to the playing 11 in the season gone by; with ONGC, which had enrolled him on a stipend, thinning out its sports department, talented players now have to fend for themselves.
The same fate has befallen wicketkeeper Lakshay Thareja (Delhi, one domestic one-dayer), pace bowler Sarang Rawat (Delhi, two first-class games and one T20), batsman Shivam Chaudhary (UP, 14 first-class games, 23 domestic one-dayers & 18 T20s) and a few others.
No more quotas
With organisations freezing employment under sports quota for the past few years, such players were dependent on the Rs 15,000-18,000 monthly stipend provided by ONGC, along with kit and livery, to handle their cricketing expenses.
“It is impossible for us to field a cricket team. We used to have 22 senior cricketers on rotational basis with permanent jobs. We also had 34 young scholarship players on a stipend. We’d play throughout the year. However, the management had taken a decision to de-categorise 10 permanent players in 2019. Since then, there has been no recruitment”, said former Punjab first-class player Amit Sharma, the Game Co-ordinator for cricket at ONGC.
“Among the remaining 11-12 permanent players, we have international stars like Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Nitish Rana, Navdeep Saini and Amit Mishra, who can’t be expected to turn up for club games. So we were completely reliant on the scholarship players post de-categorisation”, added Sharma.
Post-Covid, the players on scholarship were disbanded and the corporation struggled to cobble together 11 players to form a team.
Interestingly, in 2019, ONGC were the champions of Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) Hot Weather– the apex tournament and culmination of the DDCA league when they last played it.
It’s not just ONGC. Air India has shut down all their sports teams post-Covid and following a change in management. Not only has this left the players uncertain, but the DDCA league, which the two teams used to dominate, is poorer in competition.
“Several permanent players were inducted in sports quota and didn’t need to work in a 9-5 environment over the years, but they are now availing Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) as they don’t want to be transferred out of Delhi-NCR where they have settled with families”, said Manoj Sharma, former assistant general manager and manager of the cricket team at Air India.
Sharma was managing the Air India cricket team since 2000 and has seen the likes of Munaf Patel, Sreesanth, Pawan Negi, Lalit Yadav, Manvinder Bisla and Rajat Bhatia play higher levels of cricket while at Air India.
No new recruits
The airline had in fact stopped hiring in 2007 (ONGC last hired cricketers around four years ago) leaving ageing cricketers in permanent job positions. The lack of fresh legs in a permanent position meant Air India had to bring young scholarship players into the mix as ONGC did. The stipend paid was Rs 12,000-15,000.
“We used to have around 12-15 players on stipend in Delhi who would come and play for us. But not now, as sports has been disbanded”, said Sharma.
Off-spinner-cum-batsman Rajesh Sharma (Delhi, U-23s and U-19s), medium-pacer Gaurav Kumar (Delhi, 1 first-class game, 2 domestic one-dayers and 1 T20), batsman Ekansh Dobal (Delhi U-19s and U-23s) and Lalit Yadav among others were on a stipend with Air India in Delhi. Yadav has been lucky as he has landed a job with the Income Tax department under sports quota and also an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract.
Both ONGC and Air India haven’t played the DDCA league for the last two seasons, which means that the former cricketers and other athletes, who hold permanent jobs will have to switch to a 9-5 jobs and go wherever they are transferred. If they want to play cricket for other clubs, they will have to take a leave without pay.
Hiten Dalal’s plight
“I played for Air India on a stipend between 2013 and 2018 when I joined ONGC in the hope of a job. When I didn’t see any future with Air India, I had to move to ONGC”, said Dalal.
The right-handed top-order batsman played the 2018 and 2019 seasons with ONGC, scoring a match-winning century in the 2019 DDCA Hot Weather final.
“A stipend is no security since the maximum age a player is given the stipend for is 27. You need a permanent job. Regardless, I must say the money took care of certain things. We played the best tournaments around the country since we were a top-notch team with star players”, added Dalal.
Both ONGC and Air India didn’t just play tournaments in Delhi. They also played at DY Patil in Mumbai, Moin-ud-Dowlah in Hyderabad and JP Atrey in Chandigarh among others. These outings gave them exposure.
Dalal, who is playing DDCA league for LB Shastri club, had applied for a job in Income Tax but couldn’t make it. He will be trialling for the Customs team. Neither of these departments play in the DDCA league; only tournaments.
Thareja didn’t find time for the DDCA league for any club as he was busy with the Delhi team in CK Nayudu Trophy – the national-level multi-day format for under-25 players. But he does miss playing for ONGC.
“We were not permanently employed, there was no security. But we got a big platform to play. If you have job security or fixed income, you can prepare well”, said Thareja, who has applied for the Income Tax department team and will apply for trials for the Customs team.
Former Delhi and North Zone veteran Rajat Bhatia, who played 112 first-class games, and was a key cog in the wheel of Kolkata Knight Riders when they won the IPL titles in 2012 and 2014, said that the players most likely to suffer are those on a stipend.
“They were getting Rs 12,000-15,000 a month with big teams, and importantly getting to play in some of the best tournaments in the country. Teams like ONGC and Air India would end up going the distance in tournaments earning a semi-final or a final spot. Now, without any scholarship, they end up playing for other clubs for Rs 3,000 or Rs 4,000 a game, and even while the tournaments they play in aren’t high level, they often exit after playing one or two matches”, said Bhatia, who is with Air India but is on leave without pay voluntarily to work with DDCA as a fitness expert.
In the DDCA, there were 29 institutional teams for a while, the majority of them being government-backed. Now, there are just 27 after Dena Bank merged with Bank of Baroda and Oriental Bank of Commerce merged with Punjab National Bank. This is a bit more than one-fourth of the total teams in the league.
Besides Air India and ONGC, Central Bank of India and Canara Bank did not field their teams in the league season gone by. Central Warehousing Corporation didn’t compete in the league. Naturally, DDCA isn’t amused.
“It is becoming a problem. We may have to tell these institutions that if they don’t field teams next season or provide us with a roadmap for return, we may have to strike their names off the list and include others who are unaffiliated but are giving jobs, like Reserve Bank of India and Income Tax, and Airports Authority of India who are giving stipend to players”, said Ahmad Tameem, vice-chairman of the DDCA league committee.
“The bigger problem is that the institutions that are playing have stopped employing players. Back in 1980s and 1990s, many of these institutions would hire 4-5 sportspersons, including a couple of cricketers every year. But they froze employment a while back and are not even fielding young players on stipend like ONGC and Air India used to do. So you often see ageing players, in their mid-40s or even 50s turning up casually for league matches – which is reducing competition and hurting Delhi cricket”, added Tameem.
The institutional teams still playing the league have become more of a cosy club of players who would turn up for matches like they would for Sunday games.
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