Hindustan Times (East UP)
Bhutan’s cricketers: The guardians of their galaxy
What if you were told that during the Covid pandemic— with training, matches and activity erased—a cricket community pitched in as frontline workers?
Captains, batters, bowlers, all-rounders, coaches, staff became nurses, guards, street wardens and caterers. At checkposts, they kept an eye on trucks, drivers, cleaners and materials going in and out of the area. They turned cooks for volunteers; they were porters carrying food supplies; they were night patrol.
This happened next door in Bhutan, whose cricketing policy of compassion and outreach made it the Asian representative for a 2020 global ICC Development Award. The Bhutan Cricket Council Board (BCCB)’s push against the pandemic was named the Asian winner in the Cricket 4 Social Good Initiative category, with Uganda declared the global winner on Tuesday.
Bhutan’s cricket is a little over two decades old, born of the arrival of cable television to the Himalayan kingdom in 1999. The 1999 World Cup sparked its first generation of cricketers, Bhutan making its men’s international debut in 2003. Cricket is played in ten of its twenty districts but on artificial strips, set down in open spaces or football grounds.
The country’s first captain Damber Gurung, 41, former allrounder, also former national coach (level-3 certification), is currently BCCB CEO. Like the rest of Bhutan’s cricket folk, he too is waiting for the country’s first turf wicket to be put into play on its first international ground in the border town of Gelephu. Bhutan’s senior women are the first users of Gelephu’s four training strips— two turf, two artificial—preparing for their first international match: November’s Asian qualifier for the T20 World Cup in Malaysia.
Before the pandemic struck, Damber says, 2020 was to be the year of the big push. Competing with football and archery, Bhutan’s cricket had seen an exponential growth in its involvement numbers, from 13,000 to 45,000 in players, coaches, grassroots workers, officials, staff with 50 tournaments held every year across schools, clubs and men’s and women’s agelevel cricket. Bhutan Cricket had worked with UNICEF in schools for the past five years, using their common platform to introduce cricket to children alongside advocacy work in health, sanitation and empowerment of the young. The next big move would have been to spread cricket into 120 more schools in all corners of the country dotted by the Himalayas and its valleys.
Except the Covid-19 virus brought the best laid plans to a standstill. With the pandemic raging and cricket activity suspended, Damber says, “our board and our people decided to request all our office, staff, players, coaches, whoever was involved with us to do De-suung training.”
De-suung means ‘guardians of peace’ and is a three-week programme run by the Bhutanese government where the citizen is given a crash course in disaster management, with the intention of preparing volunteers for times of crisis.
Bhutan’s first lockdown in August 2020 had De-suung’s cricket trainees turn out in their bright orange uniforms and taking on unusual duties. Among other things, former women’s captain and current batter, Denchen Wangmo, 28, worked on the Bhutan-Bengal border for two months. It was 13 hours on her feet at the checkpost, ensuring that Indian truck drivers went into quarantine rooms, out of contact with Bhutanese labour who unloaded the material on and off their vehicles. “Some drivers are good, some argue. But as our King says, we never shout or argue back. We request.” She’s now at Gelephu and will have you know, “I’m an aggressive batter and can hit sixes.”
District coach Kencho Norbu, 30, a cricketer from the age of 12, wicketkeeper batsman in his playing days, had always wanted to do De-Suung training. It was a short, sharp experience of military duty including physical training and firing guns. During lockdown, Kencho would patrol at all hours, keeping vigil in street corners, vaccination centres, even cremation grounds. He walked four hours with volunteers and villagers through the Dochula Pass (at an altitude of more than 10,000ft), 20kg rations on his back for monks stranded up at the Lungchutshe Temple. Twice.
“I’d not gone trekking for 5-6 years so it was tough,” Kencho laughs, “breathing issues at altitude, but it was worth it.” The monks were waiting for them, “with biscuits, tea, juice. They were so grateful, they opened up the temple for us.” The experience left Kencho with a deep satisfaction, “that we could serve people at a difficult time.”
Senior women’s opener Yeshy Choden, 29, was part of the 92-strong community kitchen staff that produced 2000 meals daily for the De-suung volunteers for 32 days during the first lockdown. On a shift for 12 hours, she chopped vegetables (“onions and small green chillies, the worst!”) and washed dishes, “It was good to be of help.” Like Denchen, she is in the Gelephu training camp and dreaming again. “To play the World Cup, la,” she says.
Cricket had its non-De-suung frontline worker too: leg-spinner Suman Pradhan, international debutant at 18, today 25 and a trained clinical nurse at the Thimpu’s Jigme Dorje Wangchuk National Referral Hospital. During Bhutan’s second lockdown in November 2020, Suman moved on to shifts and rotations in the Covid ward. “At the start we didn’t know the disease, working and breathing in the PPE kits was tough. But now I’m used to it. It’s my responsibility, I’ve got trained for this, this is my job.”
These are all cricketers, some past and some present, united by their love of the game that gives them an unquantifiable happiness. It has taught them about teamwork, sharing and pulling together towards a common purpose. Denchen beams down the phone talking about scoring the winning runs at an U19 semi-final against Hong Kong in Singapore. Suman remembers pulling on his Bhutan shirt with his name on the back. The sport finds itself at the centre of every ‘happiest moment of my life’ story.
Bhutan’s cricket is on the move again; club competition should resume soon and in May, Damber and team will travel 11,000 feet up the mountains, to distribute 500 bats and balls to schools in Sakteng and Merak. He says, “It is our vision - to give the citizens of Bhutan the opportunity to experience this beautiful game. In the next ten, fifteen, twenty years, if we want to get into the World Cup in any category, we need to have a solid bunch of cricketers.” During the pandemic, Bhutan cricket found a unique expression of its identity, a reimagining of its place in the country’s famous Gross National Happiness Index.
Meanwhile, the IPL plays itself out nightly on our TV screens. Bubble-wrapped into tone deafness in a persistent, foghorn blast for its many sponsors every five minutes, rather than any quiet, measured acknowledgement of the suffering outside its gates.