A great outing for Railways

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

CARL HOOPER and his team touring India will find it difficult to find a mention even in the footnotes, in case chronicles of West Indies' cricket visits to these shores are updated for the benefit of future generations. Such a conclusion was inescapable during the West Indies' three-day tour game in Pune against Ranji Trophy champion Railways. Sir Vivian Richards, accompanying the team as chairman of selectors, sought solace in golf while the match was in progress, after spending mornings at the Nehru Stadium. His once-intimidating, now-awe-inspiring presence in the visitors' dressing room was lost on a strangely docile West Indies side. No post-wicket celebrations from bowlers even after a four-wicket haul from Cameron Cuffy, no regret for dropped catches from close-in fielders, standing eight in an arc. Even the batsmen performed as if programmed for monotony, with the exception of Chris Gayle who showed survival instinct and a bit of flair to hit 154.

Chris Gayle struck a hundred for the West Indies.-VIVEK BENDRE

"We do not have a lot of positives to take home from this tour of India," admitted skipper Carl Hooper in a pre-match briefing, then handed over charge to wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs after opting out of this tour game, along with Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Merv Dillon, Pedro Collins and Jermaine Lawson. If the intention behind the management's decision was to give fringe names a chance to get into the groove, the hunger to perform at all costs was missing in West Indies' play. Eventually, it was left to the Railways to spark off competitive interest in the match through collective and individual effort, though India's champion side surely deserved more committed opposition.

Railways were trained on astroturf wickets at their New Delhi base so that their batsmen could stand up to the West Indies pacemen. But, except for one nasty Cameron Cuffy delivery crashing into opener Shreyas Khanolkar's helmet before bouncing towards point, the Railway batsmen faced no problems piling up runs even against the new ball. "We got to play this match at the last moment after the BCCI agreed to our request for a tour game, ahead of India 'A'. Railways playing the West Indies is a rare honour, so each one went all out to prove our worth," observed Vinod Sharma, the Railways coach. "I can't talk about the state of West Indies cricket, but from what I have heard from others, the best youngsters there who should be taking up cricket are attracted to basketball," Sharma said.

Cameron Cuffy, who picked up four wickets, traps T. P. Singh leg before wicket.-VIVEK BENDRE

Murali Kartik, the Railways left-arm spinner with first-hand experience of cricket in the Caribbean during tours with Indian teams, feels the slide may have happened due to absence of quality cricket infrastructure when interest for the game was on a high. "Infrastructure for young West Indians interested in taking up cricket is not there in many places I visited. The West Indies administrators did not think about planning for the future when their national team were world-beaters. Now they are paying the price," said this talented India player, an admirer of the Australian model. "Australian administrators are always innovating, trying to make the game more popular for coming generations. Even now as world champions, they never take anything for granted."

Railways know nothing can be taken for granted in Indian cricket, even for Ranji Trophy champions. For every Sanjay Bangar forcing his way into the national team, there are less fortunate ones compelled to perform over and over again, still finding themselves ignored by selectors. For these eternal fighters like Kulamani Parida, Yere Goud and Kartik, a match against West Indies is a divine opportunity, even if it is only a three-day tour game. Then there are daredevils like Khanolkar, grabbing every chance to make things happen.

Railways coach Sharma was quite candid in his assessment of merit in Indian cricket. "Parida is India material, but the selectors still don't think so. He took 59 wickets last season, but after Harbhajan and Sarandeep Singh, others have been forgotten." The Orissa spinner, employed with South-Eastern Railway, replied with four wickets in the West Indies first innings, dismissing Wavell Hinds, Ramnaresh Sarwan, skipper Jacobs and Darren Powell on a typical batsman-friendly Nehru Stadium wicket. "Goud has been getting runs against every attack the last two seasons but remains ignored. He is a patient, solid batsman we have come to depend on," emphasised Sharma.

Shreyas Kanolkar (left) and Yere Goud (below, right) compiled centuries for the Railways.-VIVEK BENDRE

With 10 first-class centuries against his name prior to the Pune game, Goud need not be advertising his staying powers at the crease, but did so one more time against the West Indies (107 runs, 213 balls, 278 minutes, 12 fours). The ex-Karnataka batsman who moved to Railways after joining the Wheel & Axle Plant (Bangalore) awaits his turn.

Khanolkar's century was unexpected, and was also the most audacious. "I enjoy playing fast bowling and so I asked my coach and captain (Abhay Sharma) for a chance to open the batting. Having got into the team because of an injury to Amit Pagnis, I could not let go this opportunity," he said, after streaking to a 50 off 44 balls and to a 100 off 86 deliveries before being applauded back to the pavilion after a breathtaking 102 (92 balls, 108 minutes, 20 boundaries).

VIVEK BENDRE

Western Railway's Khanolkar, a regular in Mumbai league cricket for Shivaji Park Gymkhana, became emotional when recollecting the magic moment of his career with Railways so far. "When I completed the century, my mother's face flashed in my mind. She had been asking me to get a century like other batsmen, instead of getting satisfied with 30s and 40s. I dedicate this 102 to her," said Khanolkar, whose normal batting position is lower down the order. "I could explain to her how difficult it was to score a hundred so low down. So I decided to take matters into my hands with a request to open. The Cuffy bouncer made me aware of how difficult things would be out there in the middle but I was determined to hang on and attack the bowling, come what may."

Four-wicket man Kulamani Parida is ecstatic after Jacob Martin has snapped up Wavell Hinds at first slip.-VIVEK BENDRE

Interestingly, Hooper is Khanolkar's batting idol, apart from Sachin Tendulkar as the cricketing icon. "Hooper has so much time to play his shots, plays spin well and makes batting look so easy," said the Railways' new sensation, whose presence in the visitors camp, if possible, would have been a comforting thought for the humiliated West Indies skipper, leading a side with numerous players of Indian descent, but few with pride.

The scores: West Indies 449 for eight declared off 152 overs (Chris Gayle 154, Darren Ganga 71, Gareth Breese 57 not out, K. Parida four for 107) and 35 for no loss drew with Railways 402 off 110.2 overs (Shreyas Khanolkar 102, Murali Kartik 72, Yere Goud 107, C. Cuffy four for 84).