There is a different joy when cricket is played in the smaller towns of the country. The occasion is nothing short of a festival. The city decks itself up with a bit of local jazz and readies itself for the grand fiesta. Rarely does any event become more important when a cricket match happening. When Intex Technologies successfully bid for Rajkot as a new Indian Premier League franchise, the city reacted in a similar manner. It is only surprising how Test cricket stayed away from the land on Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji for as long as 84 years. The excitement, thus, won't be a surprise when cricket in its original form enters the region.
However, in one of Rajkot's busier junctions - Trikon Baug, a dilapidated structure occupies a place that for close to a century housed the iconic Western India Sports store. It's been two months since the store owners have moved to an adjacent lane after concluding a long-fought battle with the new owners of that land.
"The one who bought the land is a politician, woh bade aadmi hai (He is a big man)," Deepak Rajyaguru, owner of the shop, told Cricbuzz with a hint of disappointment. "They paid some money to the owners of the other shops and asked them to vacate. We were the only ones who weren't willing to leave. So they destroyed the structure around our shop and paved way for youngsters to steal items from our godown at night."
Buying a new place took a bit of a hit as there was a stark shift from paying an annual rent of Rs 40 for the 500 sq ft shop to shelling out 91 Lakh for the new 1800 sq ft store. Yet, he stayed positive knowing that the family owns the land where the 89-year-old shop stands. "Having worked there for so many years, there was a sense of belonging to the place. But a rented place is after all not yours. This place belongs to me and I don't have to worry for the next two-three generations of my family to come."
The shop by itself holds an iconic position in Saurashtra as the oldest sports store in the region. During the British era, cricket, especially, was a sport that the common man couldn't afford to play. It was limited to the certain elite sections of the society. "1947 ke pehle aam aadmi ki taakat nahi thi cricket bat khareedne ki. Sirf maharaja khela karte the (Before 1947, the common man didn't have the power to buy a cricket bat. Only the kings used to play)". However, when the British or the innumerable kings from the 229 princely states of Saurashtra wanted to buy cricketing gears they had to either get it from Bombay or order from England
In order to make the process more hassle-free, they lured Durlabjibhai Rajyaguru, who was till then into small-time business of coal and importing cigarettes, into starting a sports shop. With influential people ready to support him in his endeavour, Durlabjibhai decided to get an import license worth Rs 5,000 and opened the shop in 1927.
Initially, apart from importing sports goods from Pakistan (Sialkot), England, USA and Japan, they also housed musical instruments such as drums, bugles, bagpipes, flutes - the pamphlets of which are still preserved in the shop.
The business took a bit of a hit during the 1947 partition as trade routes with Sialkot were blocked. It was an important centre since fine quality hockey sticks, cricket bats and balls were manufactured there. "The Punjabis from Sialkot moved to Jalandar and Meerut. Unke paas hunar to tha. Government ne saaman diya, jagah diya, paisa diya aur bola kaam chalu karo. (They had the skill. The government gave them the materials, place and money and asked them to continue the work.) The work is still continuing from there.
With Rajkot proving to be a slow market for sports goods, they didn't face any competition till 1968 when Agarwal Sports came up with a shop few metres away. Many other sports stores started and shut before and after that. Thus, Western India Sports became a one-stop shop for all the aspiring sportsmen from that region.
"So many cricketers come to us when they are young, but we don't know who they are when they are small. By the time they become big and popular, they have sponsors and get their gears from outside. So I don't know who were the prominent cricketers who came to our shop. But for a fact, Cheteshwar Pujara and Jaydev Unadkat used to buy their cricket gears from us. Back in the day, even Vinoo Mankad and Sunil Gavaskar had visited our shop."
It was only during the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj when their business was affected drastically. "Hum to kya pura Gujarat pareshaan pada tha. Log usse bahar aayenge ke khelenge? Uske baad do-teen mahina sab thanda pada tha. (Not just us, but all of Gujarat was stressed out. Will they come out of that shock or will they play cricket? For two-three months after the earthquake, everything remained cold.) The after-effect of it lasted for 20-25 days. We used to sleep outside fearing the worst. I took my wife and children and went to Pune, to my younger brother's house."
The store is currently being run by him, his son Madhav and two other employees. "Both the guys play cricket. It's good to have them in the shop. They have the understanding of sports as well as interest in it. All our helpers, previously as well, have been cricketers."
With sports becoming popular, more disposable income with the people of Rajkot, it was natural for more sports shops to sprout up. However, Deepak doesn't wish to get drawn into the competition of the market. He is content with how his business is running and says that he doesn't want to come up with anything to outdo his rivals. "The principles with which we started the business, we are following that even today. By the grace of God, there has not been a single day when we've had to wonder where to get the business.
However, despite the rising competition, as the decade ended he noticed a drastic rise in the business. He credits his son Madhav for bringing about that change. "Now-a-days you have mobile phones, Whatsapp and all those things to stay in touch with your customers. My son has done a good job." Over the last eight years, since Madhav has worked actively in running the business, the profits have gone up four times.
While it is natural to draw a comparison with the starting of IPL in promoting cricket during this period, Madhav also cites the increase in demand for tennis, football and badminton gears. Club football is not yet a fad in Rajkot and thus, football jerseys don't sell easily. "The market here is very slow. The trend that starts in Mumbai reaches here very late. So we are well aware of what our customers will expect," he says.
As of now, they are taking turns to show around their new shop to an endless line of relatives and friends who are coming over. There is no board outside the shop as yet. The furbishing of it is yet to be done. But they remain content in the power of 'word of mouth' to ensure that the regular clients will find this iconic shop. "Just like you did," Madhav validates his argument.