The dawn of cricket in Manipur

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S Lokeshwar Singh

Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh, KCSI, CBE, picked up among others, a variety of modern games while he was studying at the Mayo College, Ajmer from 1895 to 1901 and later up to 1907 at the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College (now called the Rastriya Military College), Dehradun. It may be recalled that the Mayo College was established in 1875 with a view to educate young rulers and nobles of India. In these institutions football, hockey, volley ball, lawn tennis, horse riding etc. were some of the main disciplines taken up.

After the completion of education in these institutions Maharaja Churachand Singh took over the administration in 1907. In the heydays of his sporting career he was so fond of cricket that he requested Col. Shakespeare, the then Political Agent of Manipur, to postpone the proposed date of his formal investiture by a week so as to enable him to play an important cricket match at Dehradun. Incidentally, Maharaj Ranjit Singh, the Cricket Blue of Cambridge University played the 15 test matches for England, also inherited the duties of the State by becoming the Maharaja of Nawanagar, Gujarat. The famous Ranji Trophy was instituted in his honour in 1934 to be awarded to the National Cricket Champion.

Immediately after assuming power Maharaj Churachand Singh took up a master plan for the construction of various playfields at the sprawling Guru Lampak- later came to be known as Palace Compound. It was no wonder that under the patronage of this young and vigorous ruler a healthy climate for all round development of sports and games was created in Manipur by transforming the Palace Compound into a minisports complex, with the royal residence at the centre. The construction of one of the finest cricket fields in India of those days was completed by 1912 under the personal supervision of the Maharaja. After lebelling the ground properly, he took meticulous care to plant only the ideal variety of grass for a cricket field. The beautiful lush green field spreading across the southern side up to the vicinity of the boat race cannel (Thangapat), was so dear to him that anybody who trespassed on it was given harsh punishment. He did not spare even his defaulting Ranis. Those British players who played in this field had praised about the beauty of the ground and perfect pitch.

It was in this very field that a maiden cricket match was arranged in 1912 by Maharaj Churachand Singh for the royal audience of the visiting Birendra Manikya Dev Barman Bahadur (1909-1928), the king of Tripura. This historic event took place sixteen years even before the establishment of the Board of Control for Cricket in India in 1928. In other words, cricket movement in Manipur began in early decades of the 20th century. No wonder a cricket team hand-picked and coached by the Maharaja himself won a friendly match at Kohima in 1928 against a team composed mostly of British players by 200 runs. The next day’s match was also won by Manipur by 40 runs.

In the contemporary world of cricket, Sir Donald George Bradman, the greatest batsman the world ever known, became the youngest player of 20 to hit a century (112) at the 3rd test match against England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1928.

Maharaj Churachand was not only a fine cricket player but also a good coach. He groomed many young players and gave them the finer points of the game. During the training session he used to keep a pile of 4 anna coins on a table in front of him and encouraged his bowlers by rewarding the coins to each bowler who could correctly hit the wicket. As a variation he kept one rupee coin over a single stump for a take away home bet to the successful hitters. It may be recalled that one rupee could purchase 75 kg of paddy in those days. 4 anna (one siki) could meet all requirements of the kitchen of an ordinary family for one day. The method of coaching may look odd and orthodox, but received good dividends. By around the 1930’s his cricket team made successful tours to Shillong, Kohima and other neighbouring states.

Maharaj Churachand was a good patron of sports and games not only for Manipur but also for Assam. He freely distributed various items of sports goods. Boys who were interested in cricket used to prostrate in front of the Maharaja requesting for a set of cricket materials. He liberally gave the kits with full of encouraging words. He generously gave financial assistance to the organisers of various sporting activities in Manipur and Assam.

Maharaja Churachand was a stylish player. In one of the matches in Shillong, he made a good diving catch by rolling on the ground and remained still for a moment. However, he got up and threw up the ball in the air in an ecstasy of delight. Meanwhile, an extremely worried lady from among the spectators in the gallery stood up and shouted “Oh! His Highness, is he not hurt?” He also took part in a commemorative cricket match at Ajmer being played between the past and the present students of Mayo College. Churachand Singh took part in the match representing the past students along with other Maharajas from different parts of India.

Some of the famous cricket players of the Maharaja were : Maibam Iboton (wicket keeper and batsman) from Wangkhei but settled later at Uripok, Laishram Gourahouri (bowler) from Sougaijam Leirak, Laishram Yaimabi Subedar (bowler) younger brother of L. Gourahari, Akoijam Mani (bowler and batsman) of Kwakeithel Nganapi Thong, Haobam Ibochouba (batsman) from Kwakeithel, Khaidem Kunjabi (batsman) from Khagempali Pankha, Ajona Kamei (spin bowler) from Keishamthong, Khakong Golmei (batsman) of Keishamthong, Thingom Thanil (all rounder) of Yaiskul, Elangbam Bijoy (all rounder) of Elangbam Leikai, Khongbantabam Ibetombi (all rounder) from Uripok Tourangbam Leikai etc.

Maibam Iboton had a unique style of aggressive wicket keeping with his sure pair of gloves. Best men of those days were scared of playing against him. They gave him due respect as they were certain that any fifty-fifty chance will not escape the sure gloves of Iboton. On many occasions Iboton was found stepping up very near to the batsman giving no chance for any stray balls. It is learnt that some British players requested the Maharaja to allow Iboton, Thanil and Ajona to play in England. However, all of them declined the offer by giving their own pleas.

Maharaja Churachand Singh took special care for the welfare of all the renowned sports persons of the State. They were given State jobs in accordance with their qualifications and capabilities. Some of them were also deputed for training to reputed institutions of India, for further training of their respective trades. Ajona Kamei, the famous cricket player of Maharaja’s team left Manipur for Cachar during the World War-II. He was given a good job by the British tea planters of Cachar when he volunteered to show his bowling prowess at the Jirighat Tea Garden Ground during a practice session of the club.

Unfortunately, with the passing away of Maharaj Churachand Singh in 1941 at Nabadwip the fortune of cricket in Manipur was lost in oblivion. The situation was aggravated by the turmoils of the Second World War.

The game received a new lease of life when the Imphal Cricket Club was established in 1952 under the presidentship of Aribam Lalmani Sharma of Keishamthong along with the help of a few local enthusiasts. The present writer was so surprised to see the great interest taken up by Aribam Lalmani Sharma (may his soul rest in peace) when he showed me a big bundle of old score book for cricket that he preserved with love and care. He used to record all the scoring details of important test matches played by India, after carefully listening to the running commentaries relayed by AIR, Imphal. He however, discontinued it after broadcasting of the matches in the small screen by the Doordarshan from around 1980’s.

The game received a semblance of revival at the initiative of a few students of DM College – S. Lalitkumar, Th. Brajabidhu, A. Lalmani Sharma etc. organised a few sporadic cricket matches at the DM College ground in the 1950’s. The fate of cricket received a great momentum when regular tournaments were organised by Imphal Cricket Club at Imphal Polo Ground. Yaiskul Athletic Club, Imphal Cricket Club, Manipur Brother’s Sporting Union, Royal Blue and Evergreen Club were some of the strong contenders of the tournaments of those days. The Imphal Cricket Club also made a successful tour to Silchar in 1958 and won the series by 2-1 and later they also won an off match at Karimganj.

For almost two decades, the fate of cricket in Manipur was in doldrums. The game, however, received a great boost in the late 1960’s when one Shyamlal, a cricket coach from Patna had joined Nehru Yuva Kendra, Imphal. He was followed by another coach Shri S.P. Kishan attached to the Education Department Manipur. Their commendable services for the promotion of the game in Manipur cannot be easily forgotten.

The rapid growth of cricket in Manipur began with the formation of the Manipur Cricket Association (MCA) on 16th September, 1975 with Thangjam Modhu Singh as the President and R.K. Subaljit Singh as the General Secretary. This step was necessary in the wake of Government of India’s policy of ‘One game one organisation in a State’. Since then there was no looking back and the MCA improved leaps and bounds both in its organisational matters and the standard of performance by the players. Meanwhile, the extensive telecast of important test matches by Doordarshan in the 1980’s tremendously helped in popularising the game among the youths in every nook and cranny of Manipur.

In order to observe the International Women’s Year 1975 in a befitting manner and to highlight the empowerment of women, some sportspersons of Manipur took the bold step of organising a friendly cricket match, the first ever of its kind, at the 1st Battalion Manipur Riffles Ground between two women’s teams christened as Chitrangada and Linthoingambi under the captainship of S. Padmabati Devi and CH. Nalini Devi respectively. The historic match was indeed the brain-child of Dr. Ch. Jamini Devi, who needs no introduction. Rajendra Chongtham also took a major role in organising the match. Soon after the Linthoingambi Women’s Club was established with S. Padmabati Devi and Ch. Nalini Devi as the President and the General Secretary respectively under the banner of these clubs a women’s team was sent to Guwahati in 1976 for a friendly match against Guwahati being played at the Nehru Stadium, Guwahati and easily won the match. Having felt the necessity of establishing a State level organisation for women the Manipur Wome’s Cricket Association was formed in 1976 with R.K. Mukharasana Devi and A. Puinabati Devi as the President and the General Secretary respectively and became an affiliated unit of women’s cricket association of India. Thus women’s cricket movement set off in right earnest by participating in the Junior and Sub-Junior National Championships under the aegis of MWCA.

On the other hand the Manipur Cricket Association also made a tremendous progress ever since the involvement of Shri N. Biren Singh (Hon’ble Chief Minister from 2017) as the president of MCA from 2008 and with the cooperation of his dedicated team of Executive Committee members, the association has now become richer by having a cricket field with a covered western gallery of its own at Luwangpokpa Ground, Luwangshangbam, 8 Km north of Imphal city.

As an Associate member of the BCCI, the recent showings of our boys and girls in the age group championships of Associated and Affiliated members of BCCI, has drawn the attention of the bosses of BCCI. For the first time the Honorary Secretary of BCCI, Hon’ble M.P. Shri Anurag Singh Thakur paid a visit to Manipur on 4th July, 2015 to make an assessment of MCA. This was followed by a visit of Ashisk K. Bhowmik, Member, Pitch and Ground Committee of BCCI on 7th August, 2015 to assess the availability of cricket fields of Manipur.
We are now hopefully looking forward when the Manipur Cricket Association becomes a full fledged member of the BCCI and then the days will not be very far when an odd player of Manipur would don the Indian Colour. Let us pray to the Almighty that MCA may come out with flying colours in the coming years under the charismatic leadership of Shri R.K. Imo Singh, Hon’ble MLA Sagolband A/C and also the new President of MCA upto 2018.

Shri H. Biramangol Singh, former Working President of MCA, has rightly said “The legacy left behind by our predecessors are responsible for what we have achieved today and we are proud of them and express our thankfulness to them for everything that they have given to us”. And therefore, so long as MCA lives and its great achievements speak itself, Maharaj Sir Churachand Singh, the Godfather of Cricket in Manipur will never die.

Source: The Sangai Express

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