Another Ranji season unfolds

J.P. Yadav... an all-round show for Railways against MP.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Clearly, what is already demonstrated is that in today's competitive environment, experience and skills are valued. Ranji sides are looking for proven performers who will deliver and help the team progress in the national championship.

In Ranji, whether it is Elite or Plate, at the beginning of the season, teams are looking for a good start, it is crucial to secure an outright win, gain four points and establish an early lead over rivals. To do this, all kinds of strategies are used, and a lot of experimentation is done to prepare wickets to give the home side an added advantage.

The Railways, after a disastrous last season, which saw them slump from Ranji winners to the bottom of the table, gambled on a green wicket when playing MP in their first game.

This surprised everyone because, normally, the track at the Railway ground is a graveyard for bowlers, it is low and slow in nature and only gets lower and slower as the match progresses. But this time the Karnail Singh track was hard, neatly rolled out and hence had bounce and carry, and the grass on the surface made the ball dart around. The change was so radical the Railways opted to play four seamers leaving out their trusted offspin ace Kulamani Parida who has more than 300 first class wickets and even Murali Kartik, the lone spinner in the team did not get a bowl in the first innings!

For once, the ploy of trying to make a wicket worked. J. P. Yadav left his normal aggression and dashing shots in the dressing room, showed admirable restraint and presented a straight bat . He survived a probing opening spell by Anand Rajan to compile a hard fought five-hour 78 but that wasn't all — JP came back later to bowl controlled seam and put the ball in the right areas. His nine for 99 in the game put MP squarely on the backfoot.

Amay Khurasia, their most experienced batsman (debut 1989-1990) thought domestic cricket needs more tracks of this nature. The wicket tested batsmen, he said, and yet gave hope to bowlers — on such wickets only quality players will survive to make runs.

Match referee K. P. Bhaskar (former Delhi batsman, himself a quality player) agreed, said the match was competitive, everybody had an equal chance. In the end, Railways just about made it, by a mere 12 runs, that too after MP's last wicket put on 70.

For MP the silver lining, the positive as they say nowadays, from the match was a gutsy knock by young Monish Mishra, a former India under-19 player. Monish looks composed, has an organised technique and is willing to get into line. Like all good players he looks comfortable in the middle and gives the impression he knows what to do.

Balwinder Sandhu is MP's new coach, he brings with him enormous experience having coached Bombay, Maharashtra, Assam, Orissa, and maybe another half a dozen sides. Sandhu is techno savvy and alert, there are few tricks, if any, on a cricket field that escape him. Working with MP is a challenge because the side is in the process of rebuilding, Hirwani has departed and some other seniors are nearing the end of the road. And, anyway, getting out of Plate is very difficult.

In Sandhu's opinion, while players have learnt the importance of fitness (which has raised fielding standards) cricket skills have been neglected and present day youngsters don't work as much on technique. Also, there is an urgent need to address the issue of mental preparation — top grade cricket is about handling pace, and taking pressure. Only players who pass this rigorous examination, and learn to cope with stress, will come good . The Railways too is searching for such quality players, they have cast their net far and wide and resemble truly, a pan national outfit and a coalition team. Rajasthan is led by Jadeja (imported from Delhi) and has also inducted Kabir Ali and Vikram Solanki (imported from England) but Railways source their players from other Indian associations. Their playing eleven has Amit Pagnis from Mumbai, Harvinder Singh from Punjab, Raja Ali from MP but there is a reverse talent drain as well because almost 50 Railway players represent other sides.

Indeed, the Railways are like a huge talent sprinkler distributing players all over the country. Dhoni, for long a Railwayman, moved only recently to Indian (airlines), but Jacob Martin, S. S. Paul, continue to play for others and Yere Goud, a dedicated servant of the Railway side for more than a decade, has returned to captain his home state Karnataka.

Actually, with more money in Ranji, and the desire of teams to improve performance, there is greater mobility of players. The all time champion in this is Tamil Nadu's Ashish Kapooor who has hopped, skipped and jumped with great dexterity from TN to Himachal to Rajasthan to Punjab to Tripura and then back to TN.

Coaches too are going around, to meet the growing demand in the market. Mumbai is the chief exporter of skilled personnel, prominent ex-players on the Ranji circuit include Ashok Mankad, Karsan Ghavri, Paras Mhambrey, Chandrakant Pandit, Lalchand Rajput and Pravin Amre.

It is unclear how these trends will play out in the future. Perhaps we'll move towards a professional system, not unlike England, where both players and coaches are contracted, and extensions are subject to performance. Clearly, what is already demonstrated is that in today's competitive environment, experience and skills are valued. Ranji sides are looking for proven performers who will deliver and help the team progress in the national championship.