Delhi: upheaval & turbulence

THE new Ranji season started on a dull, drab November morning and at Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla, when play got under way, the setting for cricket was far from perfect. From nearby Bahadurshah Zafar Marg traffic noise drifted in with car horns competing for supremacy with the loud, screechy brakes of DTC buses. Overhead hung a cloud of haze, smog and smoke so typical of polluted Old Delhi.

The drabness of DDCA' s clubhouse contributed to the overall sombre mood of the morning. The Willingdon Pavilion, named after the Viceroy, is in a pathetic state with plaster peeling off walls, disfigured photos cluttering the lobby and scattered pieces of broken furniture strewn all around. The DDCA is an old Test centre and somebody ought to do a massive cleaning job to restore its cricket character. Immediately. At present, the place has sadness stamped all over it.

Not just the main pavilion, even the cricket arena is decidedly unattractive. As Ranji has no sponsorship, there are no advertising runners round the field, no banners on the sight screen, no hoardings in sight. There are no crowds either - on day one of this season, as Delhi played Railways in the elite group, there were not enough people present to fill a first class coach of a train.

In keeping with the pervasive run-down look, the cricket too was forgettable. Delhi fielded first because the wicket had juice and six specialist bowlers were picked in the squad. The new ball was with Amit Bhandari who played for India once and two young quicks, one of them Kuldip Rawat who is highly regarded. A few wickets fell early (one to an umpiring mistake, but so what?) and a short ball fractured captain Abhay Sharma's left hand. Shreyas Khanolkar, fresh from making a punishing century against the West Indies played (aggressive shots, despite slowness of pitch) and missed (chasing balls wide of off).

This prompted Delhi coach Bishan Bedi (busy making copious notes in a register, each word written in capital letters) to remark that cricket at the top is about discipline. "The higher you go", said Bishan, "the tougher you ought to be with yourself. The biggest enemy of talent," he said sagely, "is complacency". This perhaps is the reason he was thumbing through The Psychology Of Cricket, a book written by Graham Winter.

Delhi, one imagines, could do with a hefty dose of toughness. While Railways are current Ranji and Irani winners, Delhi has done little of note in the last 10 years. Which is surprising because Delhi lacks nothing, on the contrary it possesses just about every professional input required for success - two coaches (Bishan and Yashpal), a backup team (comprising Chetan Chauhan and Venkat Sunderam) and a dedicated physio. Most important: the team is brimming with talent - on the field were many players who hold considerable promise.

For instance:

Vijay Dahiya, the captain, who played for India but is now in cricketing wilderness.

Gautam Gambhir who made a double hundred against New Zealand but is not even on the periphery when it comes to the national side.

Akash Chopra made a big century in Irani, but is untested and unproven against pace.

Mithun Minhas, sparkling and spunky, but going nowhere.

Rahul Sanghvi, who after several tours with the Indian team, could not grab his chances.

Sarandip Singh, rated higher than Harbhajan not long back by Prasanna but, in the present context, seems a terrible misjudgement.

The Railways are not without talent either, in their ranks are a number of players who are unspectacular but effective, not outstanding but very competent. Most notable among this honest, dedicated lot is Yere Goud, a disciplined player who last month took a hundred first off the West Indies and then the Rest of India. Kartik, Harvinder and J. P. Yadav have made the Indian squad, apart from Sanjay Bangar, but Railways' strength lies in their commitment and focus - they are a well-knit , all-round , resolute team that bats deep and fields exceedingly well.

While Railways is completely cohesive, Delhi, in contrast, keeps flirting outrageously with upheaval and turbulence. First, it was rocked by an ugly squabble over the appointment of a coach; what should have been a simple decision took longer than it has taken Musharraf to install a puppet Prime Minister. Then the usual controversies over team selection with allegations of sifarish and nepotism, most of which are baseless, but Delhi has a such a negative image that people are willing to readily believe imaginary grievances.

To substantiate their claims, critics are quick to point out that Delhi under-15 lost to Kashmir, of all teams, defeated by Narinder Kumar, a medium pacer spurned by Delhi who took nine wickets. Another talented left arm spinner, Aparajit Singh (trained by Gursharan Singh at Gyan Bharti ) has shifted, in disgust, to Haryana because he got no joy from Delhi selectors. He follows the footsteps of leggie Amit Mishra who was forced to make a similar move, for similar reasons, some seasons ago. Sohail Rauf and Rajat Bhatia are highly rated by most but out of reckoning for some obscure reason. Selection controversies happen everywhere but in Delhi they acquire a sharper edge, all kinds of motives are freely flung around and as a result the whole thing takes on an unfortunate colour. Complicating matters this time round was the anguish (featured in a newspaper report ) of Kirti Azad that his views were disregarded; he was consulted but his advice rejected.

Kirti, former Delhi captain, knows DDCA better than most people, he understands the pressures at play in the boardroom here. He was at the ground first thing in the morning, watching the game intently, without saying a word. "I am here to watch not talk", he explained, striking a sober note but a wicked glint in his eyes conveyed what he left unsaid. Pressed to comment on press reports about his displeasure, Kirti offered a straight bat: "The boys who are playing are young and talented. Let us see how they perform!"