A salute to the players' DETERMINATION

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

The victorious Railways team.-V.V. KRISHNAN

KARNAIL SINGH STADIUM is a non-descript venue on India's cricket map. The stadium is usually deserted and mostly neglected; a multipurpose complex with facilities non-existent. It is the abode of the Railways cricket team, which, strikingly akin to the venue, craves for recognition. By winning the Irani Cup for the second time at its favourite venue, Railways once again embarrassed the forces that control Indian cricket.

There is none to take up the cause of a team that draws its strength from the unshakable spirit of the cricketers to play for each other. "We value playing first class cricket," asserted the Railways captain, Sunjoy Bangar, as he proudly held aloft the Irani Cup. The hopefuls watched longingly from the Rest of India tent. They had been outclassed in a little over three days.

As Murali Kartik, the star performer of the match, remarked the Railway players draw motivation from their desire to graduate to the next level. "We play with lot of hope. The guys are out to prove. They are trying to play the next level — get into the `A' team, play the zonals, or play the Challenger Series. We play with a hope that things will improve, things will look up." Kartik showed the way in this match by plucking a catch that gave Railways a breakthrough on the first day when the Rest openers were going great guns and then his five wickets and the innings of 96 certainly swung the contest Railways' way.

Here, one would like to record the fantastic performance by off-spinner Kulamani Parida, a player with a built-in-smile. Parida's match-haul of seven wickets left none in doubt that he continues to be one of the finest off-spinners for a long time, but not in the opinion of the National selectors. Of course, they would rave about Ramesh Powar, who claimed seven Railway wickets in an innings but Parida's consistency has been unmatched for some time now.

Railways' comprehensive victory did not fetch the hard working players any instant rewards. The opportunist officers from the Rail Bhawan did not waste time in descending on the venue to bask in reflected glory as Railways chugged along the winning track, much to the dislike of the players, who have no avenues to air their grievances. They moan in silence, and, yet do not compromise with their job.

When the Railways began its preparation for the season, the scenario at the Karnail Singh Stadium was familiar. The coach, Vinod Sharma, a veteran now in dealing with hardships, took things in his stride with a smile. Tending the ground and rolling the practice pitches has been a traditional way of gearing up for the season for the Railway team for years now. So, it was no different this time too.

None of the officers from the Railway Sports Promotion Board spared time to drop in and see for themselves the appalling state of affairs. The accommodation continues to be shabby and the training facilities archaic. But the team, as sporting as ever, accepted these shortcomings as "part of the game" and plunged itself into the cauldron of intense competition. The Rest of India bore the brunt when it was comprehensively thrashed in every department of the game.

Murali Kartik was the star with a smashing 96. He was also successful with the ball.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Railways' triumph was a salute to the determination of the players, who have, for years, received a step-motherly treatment from the National selectors. Players like Yere Goud and Parida deserve accolades of the highest order for their unflinching loyalty that stems from their desire to keep proving their prowess. His action, according to some selectors, is said to be `suspect' but strangely the off-spinner has never been `called.' Does it mean the umpires are incompetent to judge a `suspect.' Does it also not reflect on the double standards of the selectors, in whose eyes Parida is a `chucker.' The dramatic transformation that Railways has undergone in the last five years, in which it has won the Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup twice apart from finishing runner-up once, has come mainly from the efforts of these players who have remained on the fringe.

The case of Bangar and Harvinder Singh highlights the inconsistent policies of the National selectors. Bangar was shut out from reckoning for non-cricketing reasons and no explanation was given to this all-rounder who was part of the World Cup team in 2003. And Harvinder has suffered the most, despite some sterling spells on unresponsive pitches season after season. Batsmen on domestic circuit rate Harvinder high for his fitness and the ability to sustain pace. He can be as sharp in his last over of the day as in his first.

A visit to the Railway dressing room by Greg Chappell on the third day of the match was a highpoint for the unsung cricketers. The Australian readily obliged Vinod Sharma's request to come and speak to the Railway team. "It meant a lot for us," said Bangar while Vinod Sharma described it a "great day for Railway cricket." Chappell praised the team for its consistency and camaraderie and singled out Sudhir Wankhede for his "excellent" wicket-keeping.

The amazing ability of the lower-order to shore up the innings is the team's strong point. The instances are many when the last five batsmen have rescued the team from the death and it was no different as Rest of India, like many teams in the past, learnt it the hard way that resilience in the Railway line-up runs deep. After skittling the much-hyped Rest batting for 223, Railways recovered from 104 for six, to finish with a lead of 88 runs. And then the bowlers took over and left the Rest of India team and the National selectors deeply embarrassed.

Yere Goud proved his prowess with an unbeaten 78.-V.V. KRISHNAN

For Vinod Sharma the performance was in keeping with the promise his team had made to him. "I was promised by my players that they will start the season with the same passion with which they ended the last (by winning the Ranji Trophy). We believe in ourselves strongly and this belief is our greatest strength. I know it's very tough for the boys who perform year after year but don't get recognised for their efforts but the pride to stay at the top is the most admirable quality of my players," said the Railway coach, who himself has been deprived of his due by Indian cricket.

Kartik rightly pointed out that the Railway team was bound by a strong force that stems from within the players. "It helps when the same set of players continue for a period of time. We know each other well and enjoy the performance of each other. I know that Parida would be happier than me when I get wickets. And we would share the joy of the fast bowlers when they take more wickets than the spinners. We pray for the others in the team to perform better and that to me is a character only Railways can proudly claim."

True, Railways, winner of Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup twice, and an acknowledged champion outfit, continues to yearn for recognition from men who matter in Indian cricket. "It hurts when our performances are ignored but, on the other hand, it also motivates us to strive and enhance our claims. I'm proud of my boys," said Vinod Sharma, with the beat of drums signalling the celebrations of Railways' triumph.

Brief scores

Rest of India 223 (Dheeraj Jadhav 53, Gautam Gambhir 47, Kulamani Parida four for 61, Harvinder Singh three for 57) and 137 (Dheeraj Jadhav 42, Murali Kartik three for 28, Kulamani Parida three for 52) lost to Railways 311 (Murali Kartik 96, Yere Goud 78 not out, Ramesh Powar seven for 116) and 50 for one (Amit Pagnis 33).