On August 9, forces shot dead three militants of the Zakir Musa-led Al Qaeda wing of Jammu and Kashmir. One of them was a left-arm fast bowler-turned militant, Ishaq Bhat.
On a sweltering August afternoon, Friends XI, Batagund – a familiar name in South Kashmir’s Tral club cricket circles – were on their way to Pulwama to play their first fixture of a local tournament. Their journey was cut short by the news of their former teammate, now a militant, having been trapped in a cordon laid by government forces in Gulabbagh, Tral.
Frozen by the thought of the inevitable, the players made a retreat towards their native village, Batagund, when, midway on their torturous drive, they heard what they feared the most. Ishaq Bhat – once the mainstay of Friends XI – was killed in a brief encounter.
It all looked so surreal. Only a while back, the players were devising plans and discussing the batting order. In a matter of minutes, their excitement to face the opposition had turned into shock and grief. All of a sudden, the news of Ishaq’s death drove them down the memory lane and the nostalgia of having taken to the field along with the rebel, not so long ago, overwhelmed them.
Ishaq, the left-arm speedster, was a gifted athlete. He was blessed with a beautiful action and his uncanny resemblance to former Sri Lankan strike bowler, in looks and bowling action, had earned him the nickname Vaas. Like his bowling idol, Ishaq was a man for the crisis.
Early that morning, Ishaq’s former teammates were busy making necessary preparations for the tournament fixture, and within a matter of hours, they were busy making preparations for his funeral.
“It was such a traumatic journey back to Batagund. We couldn’t believe it. Ishaq was such a gifted and passionate cricketer. He was always the first one to make it to the ground,” says a Friends XI cricketer, grief writ large on his face. “He loved playing the game. We are in a shock. We cried and didn’t talk with each other. We have lost a teammate who was a friend and a vital part of our cricketing memories.”
Long before signing up for militancy and becoming a confidante to Commander Burhan Wani, and then joining ranks with Zakir Musa after Burhan was killed, Ishaq had made a name for himself with the ball in his hand.
A rhythmic run-up coupled with a beautiful repeatable action, the Chaminda Vaas double had an uncanny ability to trouble the batsmen with his swing – both in and out.
Those who have watched Ishaq bowl say he had the best bowling action in the area. His obsession for bowling knew no boundaries.
“He wanted to bowl all the time and was so lethal with the new ball. His action was so natural. He knew his art well,” recalls a former teammate. “We never thought he would join militancy. So consumed was he by his love for the game, bowling in particular. Just a couple of weeks before treading the path of militancy, we played together in a tournament.”
Such was Ishaq’s love for the game that even during his militancy days he was seen playing cricket in the videos released by Hizbul Mujahedeen. In one of Burhan’s most watched videos in which militants are seen playing cricket, Ishaq is seen bowling to the legendary rebel commander.
Some even say Ishaq getting lured to militancy had something to do with his cricket. Ishaq would often take Burhan, before the latter took to arms, with him to cricket matches. This association remained even after Burhan joined Hizb, Ishaq becoming one of his most-trusted OGW’s.
In August, 2015, Ishaq joined the militant group full time, brandishing the newly allotted AK-47 with the same zeal that won Friends XI many a game with the ball in his hand. But, later, after Burhan’s death, Ishaq was among the first ones to part ways with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and join Zakir Musa’s Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, an Al Qaeda affiliate. He was the first one from Batagund to join the militant ranks post 2000.
While on the cricket field, Ishaq would lead from the front. As a militant, though, he lived under the shadow of Burhan and Zakir.
|From swinging the ball to wielding the AK, the transition was smooth but fatal.|
Ishaq was through and through a cricketer, a quintessential fast bowler in belief and skill. On dusty and underprepared pitches across hamlets of Tral, Ishaq would make the ball talk. He wouldn’t mind, his teammates say, walking on foot all the way to the venue and start practising with passion. A shy character off the field, and not so talkative on it either, unless, of course, it was the ball that he wanted to make talk, Ishaq was his team’s go-to man.
His action, cricket lovers in Tral say, was his USP. His ability to move the ball both ways had a method to it. Friends XI’s trophy cabinet is decked with many a prize with Ishaq playing the lead role in winning most of them for his team. He was his team’s protagonist, the most valuable player.
Ishaq was the byword for cricket in Batagund and the first thing people recall about him is his bowling.
“It took us lot of time to get used to walking onto the field without Ishaq after he became a militant. He was friends with all of us teammates. Now his memories will keep haunting us for God knows how long,” says another Friends XI player. “All we have now is his memories. His unforgettable bowling spells.”
As if by some divine intervention, Ishaq was shot dead in Gulabbagh barely few meters away from his happy hunting cricket ground where he would trap the batsmen plumb in front with his sharp in-swingers or have them snared in the slips with his outswingers. There will be none of that anymore – at least for some time to come.