Railways adds another title to its kitty

KIRTI PATIL

RAILWAYS added another title to its collection and deservedly so. The Ranji Trophy champion defeated the Rest of India, supposedly the best team after the National side, and claimed the Irani Cup on its maiden attempt.

The victorious Railways team with the Irani Trophy.-RAJEEV BHATT

The consistency Railways has shown over the past two domestic seasons is now bearing fruits. Already Sanjay Bangar has found a place in the National team. And now it is time for another Railways all-rounder, Jai Prakash Yadav, to prove his credentials. In the five-day Irani Cup match, which Railways convincingly won by five wickets, JP, as he is popularly known, played a major role.

The timing couldn't have been much better. Opener Yadav played a gusty knock in the face of adversity - Railways was three wickets down for just 39 in reply to the Rest of India's first innings total of 266. Yadav, who remained unbeaten on 71 at the end of the second day, duly completed his century (104) the next morning. That was the day when the National selectors named the squad for the seven-match ODI series against the touring West Indies.

Yadav was desperately in need of a big score to stake a claim in the Indian squad since he hardly got any chance to prove himself. Though he was part of the Indian team for the ICC Champions Trophy tournament in Colombo, he never got into the playing XI.

Yadav celebrated his retention in the National team with a burst of six wickets in Rest's second innings. He took six for 39 off 22 overs and is now just two wickets away from reaching the 100-wicket mark in first-class cricket.

''It was a team effort. We have proved to be a good unit once again," Railways captain, Abhay Sharma, said. Sounding happy about Yadav being called for National duty, the skipper said that his team had a few more who deserved a chance. ''Even though we will miss both Bangar and Yadav, I am confident that we will be able to do well in the new-format Ranji Trophy tournament," he added.

If not for Kulamani Parida's five for 90, Railways would have found it hard to restrict the Rest of India to 266 in the first innings. Parida broke the opening wicket partnership between Akash Chopra and Wasim Jaffer, which was threatening to go a long way. Parida bowled Jaffer for 41 with the team's total on 90, and that was enough for Railways to check the opposition.

Though Rest of India added 105 for the second wicket through Chopra (92) and Yuveraj Singh (50), Railways ended the first day on a happy note, having sent four batsmen to the pavilion.

In reply, Railways started disastrously. It lost opener Amit Pagnis, who had returned after an injury lay-off, Abhay Sharma and Yere Goud cheaply. J. P. Yadav and Jacob Martin, the former Baroda captain, steadied the innings and Railways finished the second day at 135 for three.

There was yet another collapse the next morning as five wickets fell in the pre-lunch session. Yadav completed his century but was out soon for 104 with the team's total on 209, still 57 runs behind. But tail-ender Harvinder Singh played a cameo knock, hitting five sixes and a four in his 83-ball 59. Zakir Hussein, who scored a patient 35 off 110 balls with four boundaries, gave him good company. Harvinder's effort not only helped Railways cross Rest's total but also gave it a handy 50-run lead.

''It will be hard to pinpoint a match-winner as every player contributed in some way or the other," said the Railways coach, Vinod Sharma. ''This win was something we had been dreaming of. Being first-timers, it was more heartening," he added. Railways became the first team after Karnataka (1998-99) to claim both the Ranji and the Irani titles.

On a turning, dusty wicket, Rest of India was helped by yet another good first wicket partnership in the second innings. Chopra completed his second successive half-century, while Jaffer, who fell cheaply in the first innings, made amends to compile a century. Chopra departed after scoring 59 when Pagnis snapped him at square leg off Parida, who was the top wicket-taker with eight scalps in the match.

While Jaffer was solid at one end, it was for Yadav to show his bowling prowess. He started the slide as he clean bowled an indifferent Yuveraj Singh, captain of the Rest of India. One by one he dismissed the entire middle-order, but one must appreciate Jaffer's resilience, as it was only his effort that helped Rest get past the 200-run mark. He was the eighth man out at 235, and going by his performance in the Irani Cup, he certainly deserves a call for the away tour of New Zealand.

Rest of India was bowled out for 292 runs in the penultimate over of the fourth day, which meant that Railways had 90 overs to make 243 for a victory.

Pagnis failed yet again and Yadav was also back in the pavilion with just 45 runs on the board. Some tight fielding and a turning track were the stumbling block for Railways' progress. Batting fourth on such a pitch could be tricky and difficult. Middle-order batsman Yere Goud took the responsibility upon himself and remained undefeated, while the others contributed their bit, underlining the meaning of 'team' spirit.

Railways achieved the target for the loss of five wickets, with about 20 overs to spare. ''The expectations will be much higher," Abhay Sharma said. "We don't have much time to relax before the Ranji season and we will be expected to do well, being the defending champion."

Rest of India skipper, Yuveraj Singh, attributed the loss to the composition of the team. "It is a weak side. Also we did not have an experienced left-arm spinner," Yuveraj complained. To some extent, one has to agree with Yuveraj. Mohammed Kaif and stumper Ajay Ratra should have definitely been in the squad.

If Kaif doesn't need to prove himself to be in the National one-day side, were there any doubts about Yuveraj's form? Both have done equally well in the Champions Trophy. Ratra, who is out of the National squad for no fault of his, should have been an automatic choice for the wicketkeeper's slot in the Rest of India side, but it was Vijay Dahiya, who kept wickets instead.

The scores: Rest of India 266 (Akash Chopra 92, Wasim Jaffer 41, Yuveraj Singh 50, Kulamani Parida five for 90) and 292 (Akash Chopra 59, Wasim Jaffer 116, Yuveraj Singh 26, Irfan Pathan 29, J. P. Yadav six for 39, Kulamani Parida three for 97) lost to Railways 316 (J. P. Yadav 104, Jacob Martin 26, Shreyas Khanolkar 36, Zakir Hussein 35 not out, Harvinder Singh 59, Sarandeep Singh three for 79, S. Lahiri three for 55) and 244 for five (J. P. Yadav 25, Abhay Sharma 30, Yere Goud 87 not out, Jacob Martin 27, Raja Ali 29).