“Wahan gupti banti hain (Daggers are made there),” the senior police officer from Nagpur, a co-traveller on the Duronto Express, said, when asked what he knew of Talegoan.
“People with turbans and beards, known as Shikhalkars, are seen on the highways,” he added, straining his memory.
Talegaon, about 150 km from Nagpur, rarely rings a bell with anyone. Why would it? It’s a remote village in Wardha, a district that is itself largely only for having one of the highest farmer suicides rates in India.
The policeman was right, though. Talegaon is home to a community of traditional ironmongers called Shikhalkars. They make daggers, but also tawas and kadhais and regular kitchen knives.
It was once one of those signposts on the Nagpur-Amravati highway; now a flyover lets people whiz right over the village. But skip the flyover, open Google Maps, and you’ll see an unlikely tag — MSD.7.
What are the legendary cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s initials (and jersey number) doing in the middle of nowhere? Well, the village where daggers are made is now the place where IPL players come to sharpen their skills.
Within touching distance of the main road, flanked by dense forest, a fine cricket facility has taken root in Talegaon, set up by Rajasthan Royals’ team manager Romi Bhinder and its director of cricket, Zubin Bharucha.
Bhinder is a Talegaon man, who beat the odds to make it to the big league. Bharucha is a Parsi cricketer from Mumbai’s tony Colaba, who played as an opener for Mumbai in the 1990s. They decided that rather than pick one of the world-class cricket facilities that dot the country, they’d build their own in a place that could actually benefit from it.
“Booking a ground in a city like Mumbai has become so expensive and no ground is available over the weekends,” Bharucha says. “So we decided to make our own. We wanted something that could be used by our players at any time.”
What began as a basic cricket ground a decade ago took off last year. By then the ground was 7 acres large — roughly six football fields — with 14 wickets, a residential facility, indoor nets, a gymnasium and a swimming pool. In December 2019, the new ground was put to use for the first time, hosting the Rajasthan Royals trials.
The facility employs 150 locals, but the cricket camp isn’t the only reason the village supports RR. Before the camp, Bhinder and Bharucha built a school. At first it was just kindergarten. Now it goes all the way to Class 10, and has 850 students.
Neeta Addau, head of administration at the school, said the first three Class 10 batches have all passed, making the village very proud.
DHONI COMES CALLING
So why MSD.7? How did Dhoni’s name get attached to the Royals’ ground? Bhinder says that was unplanned. Dhoni was visiting in 2018, a quick stopover to show his support for the project, after an event in Nagpur. It turned into an overnight stay.
“We had just started work on the new facility. With his permission, we named it after him,” Bhinder says.
A large rock sculpture of the number 7 now stands at one of the entrances to the new ground.
“Here he was like one of the locals, sitting on the charpoy in a no-name eatery,” Bhinder remembers. “I remember India was playing a match that day and he kept himself updated on the scores. He played some tennis ball cricket. And the following day he visited our school to meet the children.”
The project clearly struck a chord. Dhoni is known to be fiercely protective of his privacy and is said to almost never answer his phone. But when either of the two Royals men messages him about Talegaon, they say, they always get a response.
“A few months ago he also called to check when the IPL camp was being held here,” says Bhinder. “I keep him updated and send him pictures from the grounds. I once sent him a few pictures of a stream that runs beside the ground, where we’ve installed a water-harvesting system. He messaged back — ‘Are you making a ground or a dam?’”
HOME TO ROOST
Bhinder was born and raised in Talegaon. His easy-going personality doesn’t always fit in with the cut-throat nature of the IPL, but his warmth is infectious. He is a favourite with the players. Dhoni is among those he connected with during their time together at the Rising Pune Supergiants — in that period when the Chennai Super Kings were suspended and Dhoni was the new and temporary franchise’s star and Bhinder its assistant manager.
But why a school, attached to a cricket ground? Bhinder harks back to a personal tragedy that changed him, at a young age.
I was very close to my father,” he says. “He came to Talegaon from Amritsar and started a dhaba along the highway. But when I was 17, he committed suicide. Since then, I have dedicated my life to social service.”
Bhinder and his older brother Somi both tried their hand at cricket; they would travel by bus to Nagpur to play for clubs and appear for trials. That didn’t work out, but it did put Bhinder in touch with Raj Singh Dungarpar, former president of the BCCI and Cricket Club of India, and Bharucha, a friend of Dungarpur. Dungarpur wanted more cricket academies in rural areas, Bharucha wanted to make that happen, and in Bhinder they found a willing partner.
“If Bharucha wasn’t here, I might have been running a tourist company today,” Bhinder says.
It was Bharucha who brought the first cricket superstar to their Talegaon camp, back when it was just a small cricket ground next to a school. In 2013, Rahul Dravid stayed here for a gruelling four-day camp.
“It is just the perfect setting for someone like Dravid… he could just bat, train, sleep and have no distractions at all,” Bharucha says.
Dravid is known for being a perfectionist and during those four days, Bharucha witnessed that first-hand. “I remember one of his preparations involved his backlift,” Bharucha says. “Dravid wanted to ensure that the upswing of his bat wasn’t going too far wide. So we called a carpenter and got a stick attached to the off stump at a certain angle so that if his backlift went any wider than the ideal position of first slip, his bat would knock against the stick.”
Dravid’s connection with Talegaon now runs deeper than his backlift cure. He is a full-time sponsor for a boy from the school. Former Mumbai captain Amol Muzumdar has sponsored a few children too, and many Rajasthan Royals players got together recently to gift the school some laptops.
Former India spinner Sairaj Bahutule, an assistant coach with the Royals, coaches at the institute on occasion for free.
The J&K CAMP
Former India left arm spinner Sunil Joshi, now chairman of the BCCI’s national selection committee, probably feels a closer connection to this facility than any other player that has been hosted here.
In 2014, when he was Jammu & Kashmir coach, Joshi and his players faced a problem bigger than cricket. The Kashmir Valley was ravaged by floods and, among the tragic losses, their training ground was destroyed. So Joshi brought the team to Talegaon for a two-month camp. J&K had one of their more successful Ranji Trophy seasons that year, beginning their campaign by beating heavyweights Mumbai in Mumbai.
J&K, Dhoni, Dravid, RR’s own camps — being around elite cricketers has helped the school’s cricket team flourish too. “For three years, we’ve been the district and division champions,” says Bhinder. “And the kids have done well in academics too.”
Before this school, the closest one to the village was 50 km away. Now there are smart TVs and wi-fi in every classroom.
As far as business ventures in cricket go, the Talegaon project is literally on the road less travelled. But ever since the path was carved out by Bhinder and Bharucha, there has been no looking back.