Cricket may be a religion in most Indian states, but things are quite different in the northeast part of the country. Football is the number one sport, where young boys dream to become a Lionel Messi or may be the next Bhaichung Bhutia of India. The ongoing Under-17 FIFA World Cup, currently hosted by India has nine players from the region, reflecting the popularity and dominance.
Though football rules the roost, cricket is not dead in northeast.
There are plenty of other sports icons like Mary Kom (boxing), Reneddy Singh and Bhaichung (football), but a cricketer from the northeast has been rare. However, there are some, who move into the unchartered territory of cricket as well.
Rongsen Jonathan – a cricketer from the northeast
Rongsen Jonathan, who had to move to Bengaluru with his family in 1997, had dreams of becoming a professional cricketer. He was a 12-year-old boy then. Jonathan, born in Ungma village of Mokokchung district in Nagaland, even before moving to the then Bangalore, was interested in cricket, not football.
A kid from northeast choosing cricket over football is unusual, but Jonathan loved the former.
"During my days in Nagaland, I would watch cricket, be it Test matches or ODIs, and be in front of my TV for a full length of the day too. My family was not interested in watching cricket, but that did not deter me. Watching those games on TV helped me learn about the basics of the game at an early age," Jonathan told International Business Times, India.
Watching it on TV and playing with friends were a different story altogether.
His first 'taste of cricket' was in Nagaland itself, where bats were made of bamboo and balls of paper and rubber bands. It was nothing as compared to what he saw on TV. Everything was different, from the playing surface to the balls used. It was his passion, which won over all odds.
Jonathan explains, "We had a small ground in our village. Bats and balls were different, but I enjoyed playing cricket, and the interest grew over time. Though I played football, and was also interested in the sport, I chose cricket."
However, his real cricket journey started after having moved to Bengaluru, where he understood much more about the game than ever before. He gradually became serious about the sport and his dream of becoming a professional cricketer finally found a platform.
It was not easy for Jonathan. In major metros, kids have much better facilities and get some serious training in various academies. Jonathan gradually got used to leather balls, and learned the art, and quickly he did.
Despite his parents leaving after a five-year stay in Bengaluru, the Nagaland boy decided to stay back in the city as he was already playing cricket at various age levels. Ever since, Jonathan has featured for Karnataka, Railways and is a current member of the Karnataka Premier League (KPL) side too.
'Cricket will beat football in the northeast'
Football has taken rapid strides in the northeast, which was not too great when Jonathan had left Nagaland for Bengaluru. With the Indian Super League (ISL) 2017-18 also coming up, and a team from the northeast already an integral part of the competition, talents from the region are getting more exposure, opening doors to the Indian football team.
The standard of football may be better in northeast than cricket, but things are getting better in the region when it comes to the gentleman's game.
There was an air of confidence in Jonathan's voice as he stated, "In the coming years, cricket will beat football in the northeast", but felt that there is lot of catching up to do. He also seems to be upbeat with the Board of Control for Cricket in India's (BCCI) initiative of making cricket popular in the region.
But he understands it will take some time. The facilities need to improve drastically for the upliftment of the sport in northeast.
"I have seen the standard of cricket in the northeast. There is a great amount of catching up to do. Cricket is not only about talent, but there are lot of technicalities involved. Cricket is fast developing in the northeast. The BCCI is putting in efforts, giving some kind of importance, which is encouraging," he said.
Jonathan a mini celebrity back home
Jonathan may be a well-known cricketer in the KPL and Karnataka circles, playing for a couple of teams, which has also earned him a certain degree of fame in Nagaland. People in his hometown know him, and is a little celebrity and a father figure of cricket.
However, he still has huge ambitions, and wants to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The Nagaland player might have been a standby for few IPL teams in the past, but he is yet to become a part of any main squad.
Jonathan did not want to divulge details about IPL teams, but he hinted about some franchise having shown interest in his batting skills for IPL 2018. He concluded, "I will let you know about it soon."
If he gets picked for any IPL side in the near future, it will be a big achievement for the Naga man and the entire northeast region, which may one day produce the next Virat Kohli of Team India.
Jonathan in numbers
First Class matches played – 7: Runs scored -148: H.S - 45
List A matches – 17: Runs scored: 388: H.S - 64
T20 matches – 13: Runs scored: 167: H.S - 50