At the age of 26, Ajay Yadav had lost all hopes of doing one thing he was best at – playing cricket. With his brother in critical condition in the ICU and increasing hospital bills, cricket was the last thing on Yadav’s mind. To make ends meet, he even had to sell off his family’s livestock.
But even amidst the hardship, there was a glimmer hope for this medium-pacer. Yadav, who last played grade cricket at the Under-22 district level way back in 2007, was noticed by the renowned domestic coach Tarak Sinha, who is the currently working wonders with Jharkhand, during a training camp in September.
Fast forward four months; with 23 wickets from just four games, Yadav, playing as a frontline bowler for the Jharkhand Ranji Trophy team, boasts of the best bowling average (10.00) this season as well as the best strike rate among frontline bowlers. The 26-year-old, from Godda district of Jharkhand, was also instrumental in two of Jharkhand’s three victories in the league stages including the all-important win over table toppers Services in the final game that propelled them to the quarterfinals.
It has been a dream debut season for the cattle herder who incidentally was grazing his buffalos in the field when he got the call to be a part of the training camp for the 15-member Jharkhand team in Chennai. “I was grazing buffaloes in the field when I got the call from JSCA”, recalls Yadav, who does not hide the embarrassment when he says that he mistook the call as a call-up to the local IPL team. “To be honest I thought it (the call) was from Chennai Super Kings and told my brother about it. Only afterwards did I realize that it was for the Ranji Jharkhand team. They were training in Chennai because of the rainy season here in Jharkhand”.
That telephone call gave Yadav a sense of relief and comfort rather than happiness or jubilation. Turning up for the Ranji camps every season for the past six years as a net bowler and the disappointment of being dropped for six years even from his district team had left him a little apprehensive about the good news.
The soft spoken Yadav hesitatingly speaks about the highs he had in cricket which was immediately followed by absolutely nothing on most occasions. Yadav’s tryst with cricket started in 2004 when he was adjudged as the best bowler at a camp organised by former India wicketkeeper Saba Karim in Ranchi. “It was at the LG Saba Karim camp held at Ranchi where I was chosen as the best bowler. It was said I would be taken to further camps for exposure but nothing came out of it”.
Yadav, who never was interested in studies, travelled four kilometers everyday to the Ranchi Railways ground to bowl in the nets. He was not paid, still he persisted. “A friend had taken me to the Ranchi railways ground as their team was short of pacers. For the first seven days, I just stood there and watched. I did not bowl a single delivery. I stood there doing nothing, but I learned a very important lesson in my life during that time – that of patience”.
Yadav made his way to the district team by 2006 and his performances earned him space in the local newspapers. His father, a night guard, brought spike shoes borrowing money from a local. The very next year, Yadav took the maximum wickets for Jharkhand’s U-22 team. Everything was looking up for Yadav, but he was dropped from his district team the following season. His mother’s passing away was a major setback. For two years, Yadav struggled with his fitness and after 2009, when his father passed away, his priorities changed. Financially, he and his older brother struggled, and Yadav was forced to move away from cricket.
“Those were tough times for us. Though my brother got my father’s job I struggled with my cricket. I lost my pace and mentally too, I was very disheartened to find myself dropped even after good performances in league and club matches,” says Yadav, who did not find a place in his district side for the next five years.
A local MLA helped Yadav get back on track encouraging him to attend camps and it was in one those camps where Sinha took notice. “Ajay’s wrist position was very good and it seemed he had the natural ability to move the ball both ways. I just told him to focus on his length as he was bowling a bit short,” recalls Sinha.
After the camp, Yadav again had to deal with disappointment as he was informed that Jharkhand would not be practicing in Ranchi due to monsoon, meaning the 15-member squad would be going to Chennai for a training camp. “I went back home and believe me I was in knee deep mud while grazing buffalos when I got the call to join the team. The reason for my inclusion was that Shivshankar Rao was not able to travel with the team. His father’s health was deteriorating,” says Yadav.
But back home, his brother was diagnosed with a stone in the gallbladder and damaged pancreas and had to be in ICU for over a month. The livestock had to be sold to muster up the money for hospital bills and with funds coming in from his brother’s office, he somehow managed.
With the Ranji season starting, Yadav had to leave his ailing brother with a hope of changing his fortunes. He did not get a chance in the first two matches as he was improving his line and length at the nets. He got the break against Goa at Jamshedpur where he had first-innings figures of 10-5-16-1. He bowled four overs in the second innings. “I was very nervous before my first match. I was worried that Swapnil Asnodkar, an IPL player, would hit me out of the park. But on the very first ball I beat him, and my confidence was up. If I get a good start with the ball, I become 100 per cent sure that I can dismiss anybody plus the feedback from my team-mates boosted me well”.
After being benched for the Himachal game on a rank turner in Ranchi, Yadav came back strongly with a match winning ten-wicket haul against Tripura by utilising the swinging conditions to reap maximum rewards. Against Andhra, Yadav bagged four wickets and in the final game against Services he ripped through the hosts’ batting line-up twice to give his team a decisive victory. His captain Shahbaz Nadeem feels Yadav will be the surprise package for them in the quarter-finals against Punjab. “He has been the find of the tournament for us this season and we hope he continues his form further as well,” he says.
Yadav feels he is not in his peak form right now and he is past his prime, but this glimmer hope is something he will not give up easily. All of us watch the game for its sheer passion, most of us play the game for its sheer passion - but for Yadav cricket is not just about passion. It is the only hope for a better life for him and his family.