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THE IMPORTANCE OF INDIANS IN COUNTY CRICKET

Cheteshwar Pujara scored 231 for Sussex and debutants Washington Sundar (Lancashire) and Navdeep Saini (Kent) took five wickets each.

Washington Sundar Lancashire
Washington Sundar capped a memorable Lancashire debut, following up a five-wicket haul with a match-winning 34*. (Image: Twitter/@@lancscricket)

When was the last time we saw five Indian cricketers signed up at the same time for various English county clubs?

This past week, Cheteshwar Pujara, Navdeep Saini, Washington Sundar and Umesh Yadav each turned out for their respective English teams in the County Championship while a fifth, Krunal Pandya, will play for Warwickshire in the upcoming Royal London Cup which starts August 2.

It is a departure from the past decade, during which only a handful of Indian cricketers have been permitted to play county cricket, and harks back to an earlier generation where it was not uncommon to see Indians ply their trade around the UK. While the BCCI still does not permit any active male Indian cricketers to participate in T20 leagues other than the IPL, the fact that Saini and Sundar will, along with the allrounder Pandya, also be part of the Royal London Cup is indicative of a slight shifting of thinking on the part of the sport’s richest board.

Of course, it is nothing like the 1960s, 70s and 80s when no less than Bishan Singh Bedi, Farokh Engineer, Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Maninder Singh played county cricket. Indian cricket may not have rich a legacy of county cricketers as West Indies, South Africa and Australia do, but there is a definite connection and thus it is refreshing to see Pujara (Sussex), Saini (Kent), Yadav (Middlesex) and Sundar (Lancashire) get the opportunity to add English county experience to their respective games.

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Since 2000, the number of Indian cricketers to play in the County Championship is just 21. Ishant Sharma, Pujara, Saini, Yadav, Sundar, Hanuma Vihari and Ajinkya Rahane have all got their chances post 2018. In the 15 years before that, those from India to play in England were Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Dinesh Mongia, Murali Kartik, Pragyan Ojha, Sreesanth and Piyush Chawla.

Cheteshwar Pujara 231 Sussex
Cheteshwar Pujara’s 231 was his third double-hundred for Sussex. (Image: Twitter/@@SussexCCC)

Dravid, famously, changed his India career post a county stint in 2000 spoke of how the English setup was a sort of finishing school. In the mid-90s, Kumble took 100 wickets in one county season and was named one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Year. Even a cursory glance at this era of cricket shows enough evidence of Indian cricketers, and thus Indian cricket, benefitting significantly from county stints.

Who can forget Zaheer storming his way back into India’s Test team following a 2006 stint with Worcestershire? Or Ishant’s dramatic transformation after playing for Sussex, when Jason Gillespie was coach? Ojha’s 24 wickets from four County Championship games with Surrey in 2011, after which he made himself a fixture in the Test team for the next two years before, inexplicably, he was dropped for good despite taking ten wickets in his last appearance for India?

Sreesanth earned a recall to India’s Test team in 2009 after a brief spell with Warwickshire, marking his comeback with five wickets against Sri Lanka, while in 2012 Harbhajan came back after a year out of the setup following a good run with Essex. And more recently, Pujara and Rahane both gained plenty from their respective county chances.

Which is why the current 2022 County Championship and its Indian participation is important. If Pujara can keep churning out runs, his chances of playing Test cricket remain a possibility. Sundar a very promising allrounder with age on his side, could reignite his Test credentials with a run of good form. Saini, who has not played for India for 12 months, could also benefit from bowling around England.

In division two, Pujara hit 231 in a draw with Middlesex at Lord’s, which took his season tally to 999 runs from seven County Championship matches at an average of 111. All five times that Pujara has reached 50, he has marched on to cross three figures and three of them have been double-hundreds. It was this rich vein of form earlier during the season that prompted the BCCI selectors to recall Pujara for the rescheduled fifth Test versus England at Edgbaston, where he scored 13 and 66.

The 22-year-old offspinning allrounder Sundar, who has not played for India since February, made an immediate impact on debut for Lancashire, taking five wickets and then hitting a match-winning 34 not out to down Northamptonshire. Fast bowler Saini also took five wickets on his county debut, thus helping Kent beat Warwickshire by 177 runs at Edgbaston. After bagging a duck during Kent’s first innings, Saini claimed 5/73 as ripped out Warwickshire’s lower middle order and tail. His two top-order wickets in the home team’s second innings were also incisive.

Umesh, the veteran of 52 Test matches, has not had as successful a run in the County Championship. In two matches for Middlesex, the 34-year-old has claimed three wickets at 60.66 apiece after bowling 70 overs.

What these Indian cricketers stand to gain from time spent playing county cricket is significant. Here’s hoping others get the chance as well.

Written by Jamie Alter

Sports writer, author, actor, anchor, digital content creator and TedX Talks speaker.

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