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With his unerring accuracy Anil Kumble has trapped a few hundred batsmen leg before wicket (lbw) over the course of a long and famous career. But his you-missyou're-out brand of bowling would, perhaps, not have been as successful in the bylanes of southern Gujarat. Surat, touted as one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and its surrounding regions are the only place in the world where people play cricket with four stumps instead of three - on both sides of the wicket. And this is not the only change in the rules. Plonk your front foot in front of the two middle stumps and no umpire will give you out. The lbw rule has been discarded here to avoid controversies and fights in local games.
Yet, for all its idiosyncrasies, this format is fast growing in popularity in the region. Like elsewhere in the country, most tournaments are played with tennis balls, but some even play them with seasoned (and hence, softer) cricket ones.
Tournaments are largely organised in Surat, Navsari and Valsad districts, with as many as 500 teams participating at times. In all, some 300 tournaments are held in these three districts.
Players and tournament organisers say the four-stump format was devised around eight years ago. At the root of it all was the increasing frequency of brawls in local matches, especially when a batsman was given out lbw. Some brawls would even turn into nasty free-for-alls, leaving many players and organisers with bloody faces.
"To end all this, it was decided to dismiss the lbw rule. This, obviously, was an advantage for the batsman, so to increase the degree of difficulty, a fourth stump was added, " says Mahesh Patel alias Goli, a four stumps veteran from Surat. "I have been playing local cricket for the past 25 years. I find the four stumps version exciting. " His team from Surat has won several tournaments in the recent past.
The format is played as either 10 overs a side or 20 overs a side. Besides getting rid of the lbw rule, organisers have also been known to occasionally suspend the caughtbehind rule, again to avoid fights. With fewer fights, say organisers, more people flock to the format.
Some villages where the four stumps version is popular have even developed grounds with decent infrastructure. For instance, the playing field at Ena village outside Surat maintains a lush green outfield, allowing players to slide while fielding. "Good grounds have been developed in Bardoli and Surat. Tournaments help the organisers to generate funds to develop the grounds further, " explains Vipul Patel, a popular local player from Bardoli. Occasionally, teams from Mumbai also turn up for the more prominent tournaments.
A tournament's average budget hovers near the Rs 10-lakh mark. Leading local garment stores, automobile dealers and beverage companies sponsor most of the infrastructure required. "Another source for funds is registration fees of teams, which ranges between Rs 1, 000 and Rs 1, 500 per team, " says Ashwin Patel, an organiser. "The bigger tournaments have up to 300 teams. " The events are popular enough to encourage the organisers to even spend upto Rs 3 lakh per tournament on generator sets, lights, ground levelling equipment and lush green outfields.
Tournament champs don't take home too much in winnings though. Winners' purses range from Rs 11, 000 to only Rs 51, 000. Winning a 'man of the match' and other individual prizes, however, can get a player TVs, refrigerators, mobile phones or motorbikes.
"I play almost every day in different tournaments during the season. Playing cricket is a profession for me and it helps me earn some extra bucks, " says Anand Kahar, a former captain of Surat's district cricket team. Kahar had played under-22 state-level tournaments and inter-university games from Surat. Cricketers like Kahar typically earn around Rs 80, 000 during the season, which lasts two months beginning from March.
More seasoned cricketers, like Mahesh Patel, could earn over Rs 1 lakh. "My team won almost all the tournaments played in south Gujarat and I won prizes, from TVs to bikes, several times. "
With so much buzz players are now trying to export the format. Many have been invited to arrange games in Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Patel is thrilled: "From our contacts we have got invitations to play in neighbouring states. We have decided to introduce the new format there too".
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