Have things changed at all?

Murali Kartik's good show has to get noticed.-V. GANESAN

BEFORE the Irani Cup game there was hardly any sign that the Karnail Singh Stadium was going to stage an important match. Irani is a big game, it is just one notch below Test. But if this match was taken seriously there wasn't much evidence available.

Both teams arrived for practice but their efforts lacked intensity, and one could be forgiven for thinking this was a `B' league encounter featuring Darling Cricket Club and Bright Stars from Daryaganj.

Ironically, several bright stars were part of Irani. Seven members of the team that toured Zimbabwe some weeks ago were there, apart from many others who played for India in the recent past. The pre-match practice was nothing but laidback. Players knocked the ball around, some held catches, others bowled, never mind if they overstepped by half a yard. In fact, the most hard working, busy lot, as the teams went through the motions, were the TV cameramen who stood next to the net to film footage, and then thrust microphones at the players to seek soundbytes!

The Board's match referee was present, in due course he will write a report which nobody will read. The umpires for the match stood at the nets, dutifully following the Board's directive to this effect. National selector Yashpal Sharma sauntered in, and after a series of calls on the mobile, was asked to assume the role of manager of the Rest of India side — which meant his immediate task was to organise breakfast consisting of oily omelettes and burnt toasts for the boys.

There is much talk of taking Indian cricket forward, about changing the culture, using modern methods, applying technology to enhance performance, all of which sounds contemporary and fashionable but the question remains: Have things actually changed on the ground? Or will they? The disturbing reality is most teams and players approach cricket the same way as Hazare, Durrani and Borde did generations ago, changes if any are cosmetic and superficial and it appears the chances of Indian cricket becoming professional and progressive are as much as political elections getting rid of caste considerations.

The Railways went into the match to defend its proud record. It has three appearances in the Ranji final in the last five years, winners twice and robbed of victory once by incompetent umpiring, which is a marvellous record. The team as such is unglamorous and unspectacular but being ordinary is its strength; there are no fancy firangi coaches, no hype and halla, no major players but when it counts the players deliver. J. P. Yadav has aggression and attitude (and long flapping hair), so does Kartik (with earstud and streaked pony tail) but the Railways remains an efficient team that does well because it does the small things well — sharp in the field, back each other and bat deep.

J. P. Yadav's long flapping hair goes with his aggression and attitude.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Captain Sanjay Bangar is a capable leader; he has the sensible presence of a dignified adult, a mature person in the company of excitable youngsters. He is a model pro, non-fussy and focussed but with the admirable work ethics of a veteran, who knows that the only way to perform is to sweat continuously. While Bangar is stoic and stubborn, T. P. Singh and Pagnis add sparkle to the batting and Yere Goud, a big game and innings player, holds the middle together with his calm presence.

Kartik, the bowling mainstay with offie Parida, is back after a splendid late season performance with Lancashire. These players enabled Railways to jump from Plate to Elite. The county is crowded with overseas stars (Murali, Stuart Law, Andrew Symonds) but Kartik is hoping his good show will not go unnoticed.

On day one Gambhir won the toss, took one look at the bald track and strapped on his pads, but only after causing a minor stir by omitting Delhi mates Shikhar Dhawan and Amit Bhandari from the eleven. Gambhir, normally aggressive, played within himself, curbing his natural instinct to thrash, just as he did on a previous occasion here when he made a double hundred in a Ranji game. He is yet to be tested fully at the top level but is organised and has a smart head that reads a game well. At the crease Gambhir is neatly balanced, like a good golfer he has nice, easy movements, good hands and excellent bat speed.

His partner Dheeraj Yadav was also impressive, always looking to get on to the front foot because his strength lies in forcing the ball with a straight bat. He did this well, eyes watchful, head down till a vicious shooter felled him, the ball so cruel it would have defeated someone twice as gifted as Lara.

Dheeraj, after four first class seasons (and 11 hundreds), has played at the under-19 and India `A' levels, and recently toured Zimbabwe as a replacement for Sachin.

He is hungry and determined, plays every summer in the Lancashire league and will captain Maharashtra this season. He loves playing in Bombay because he finds the competition stirring, the wicket at Wankhede a challenge for batsmen at least in the beginning. Dheeraj remembers his Ranji debut there with fondness — he made a fighting 60 even as the rest collapsed for 120 odd.

The slow-low Railway wicket troubled batsmen as it inhibited strokeplay, and posed plenty of problems for Parthiv Patel behind the wicket. J. P. Yadav got an unplayable ball from Sreesanth (apparently a bright prospect) who was sharp in his first spell.

Ramesh Powar got four quick wickets, Bangar got a rough lbw decision but after that Kartik put his best foot forward to play a positive innings.

His success evoked mixed feelings; it showed what was possible on a dodgy wicket if one kept out good balls but punished the gifts offered from time to time.

Kartik embarrassed frontline batsmen on either side, and surely made the national selectors wonder when — and from where — the next major cricket talent is going to arrive.

But there were some who wanted the national selectors to explain why they picked the Challenger sides at lunch time on the first day of Irani? Why the tearing hurry?