Maiden title for Southern Railway

A little more than a decade ago, this writer, virtually new to Tripunithura and its long cricket tradition, had to leap over a small gap in the compound wall to get into the Palace Oval for the Pooja all-India cricket tournament.

The Southern Railway team from Chennai, which won the 53rd Pooja all-India cricket tournament. — Pic. MAHESH HARILAL-

With virtually no galleries or stands to sit and watch the plentiful action, the strong crowd often took over the walls and gates that surrounded the quaint little ground near Kochi, which hosts what is said to be the oldest limited-over tournament in the country. The tourney, organised by the Tripunithura Cricket Club, which celebrated its 50th edition three years ago, was full of vigour then.

The scene is very different these days. The walls, which willingly shouldered the weight of the jolly humanity for a few decades, are all empty now. The crowd inside the ground has thinned out considerably too and even the enthusiasm of the club officials seems to have gone down a few notches.

It was under these changed circumstances that Southern Railway won its maiden Pooja title the other day, prevailing over last year's runner-up State Bank of Travancore (SBT, Thiruvananthapuram) by six wickets in the event's 53rd edition.

For starters, the Chennai side did not even find a place in the original fixture, it came as a late replacement (and directly into the semifinal too) when two teams which were supposed to play the quarterfinal pulled out.

The Pooja tournament's main phase was an eight-team affair this time but of the five outstation teams listed in the original fixture, three — Central Excise (Chennai), Seichem Technologies (Coimbatore) and Delhi Air Force — withdrew from the event. This left the organisers with only two outstation teams, State Bank of India (Chennai) and RKS Cricket Academy (Coimbatore). The rest were Kerala sides SBT, Kochi Refineries Limited and the host Tripunithura Cricket Club. Without a main sponsor, running the tournament itself seemed to have become a slog. And after watching the same old teams, the local crowd stopped patronising the tournament, clearly fed up with the stale fare.

"The crowd is very, very thin now. The last time we had a good crowd was for our 50th edition final and that was three years ago," said former Tripunithura Cricket Club skipper V. Achuthankutty, who was quite popular for his brilliant captaincy skills in his heyday.

The current gloomy scene, however, did not affect the two finalists, Southern Railway and State Bank of Travancore, who served a tasty run feast.

SBT, packed with Kerala Ranji stars and stronger than Southern Railway at least on paper, put up a challenging 265, with Ranji star Prasanth C. Menon making a sparkling 144 (131 balls, 13x6, 6x4).

Southern Railway's A. Bhaskar, who had picked up three SBT wickets, was in fine nick with the bat too. He belted an action-packed 140 which came off just 103 balls and included eight sixes and 11 fours. Lending solid support was Jaffarullah Sherief and the two put on a 169-run third-wicket stand. "It was one of my best knocks," said Bhaskar, who was adjudged the man of the final.

Earlier, Southern Railway defeated State Bank of India by four wickets and SBT thrashed Tripunithura Cricket Club by 10 wickets in the semifinals.

Tripunithura, which is packed with palaces and temples, is a now a bustling town embracing modernity in a big way. The Pooja tourney, which once had princes playing and young princesses watching in a crowd sprinkled with royalty, is part of the old world charm which is now fast fading in Tripunithura. As the BCCI secretary S. Karunakaran Nair, who once thrilled the crowd with the bat and ball at the Palace Oval and who was the chief guest at the closing function this year, said all efforts should be made to bring back the Pooja tourney to its former glory — like inviting a few exciting new teams which will bring back the crowds. If not for anything, at least for history's sake.

The scores (final)

State Bank of Travancore, Thiruvananthapuram 265 for nine in 45 overs (M. P. Sorab 38, Prasanth C. Menon 144, A. Bhaskar three for 48) lost to Southern Railway, Chennai 266 for four in 40.1 overs (A. Bhaskar 140, Jaffarullah Sherief 66 not out).

Best player awards: Prasanth C. Menon (SBT, batsman), K. A. Raveendran (Tripunithura CC, bowler), Anilkumar (SBT, fast bowler), Anees (Tripunithura CC, fielder), A. Bhaskar (S. Railway, man of the final).

Stan Rayan