The fervour is missing

S. PATRONOBISH

Yashpal Singh of Services, a Delhi youngster who never made any team in the capital, averages close to 60 in first-class cricket. This year he scored three hundreds in Ranji, following up on a very decent run in Duleep. He is an accomplished player,correct and composed, and had he been with a stronger team he would be next in line for playing for India.

The contrast between cricket on TV and a live Ranji game is as much as experiencing Dhoom in a multiplex and watching a slow black and white film in a run-down single screen hall. The TV networks package and present cricket stylishly but first-class cricket has a lazy, old world quality because the pace is slow, not much intensity is visible and energy seems absent from the proceedings.

This becomes more pronounced in a Plate game between two ordinary sides. At the Palam ground in Delhi, with aircrafts taking off every five minutes from the nearby runway, Himachal took on Services — the two sides that are strikingly different from the other 25 in Ranji.

Himachal recently suffered enormous internal turmoil when it got sucked into a messy BCCI tug of war. As a result control of the association changed hands, which meant the team also changed. The dust has now settled, the disputes resolved and regardless of board-room wars the game carries on. Himachal relies on imported talent — its captain Sandeep Sharma is from Punjab, Sarandeep, of Punjab and Delhi, is the main bowler and 'keeper Bisla has migrated from Haryana. Sandeep does not bowl anymore, he is now a specialist batsman and Sarandeep, after a failed stint with Delhi, is striving to rediscover off-spin.

With them are some talented locals, prominent among them left-arm spinner Vishal Bhatia and Sangram Singh, an explosive player whose chief achievement was he once smashed an astonishing hundred to destroy Delhi, hitting more than half a dozen sixes in the process.

Unlike Himachal, which is striving to qualify for the Elite group, Services has no such ambitions. The team consists of non-professional players drawn from its ranks who have a non-competitive mindset. Cricket for them is another duty assigned, not the main activity but something to be done on the side. Of course results matter because pride is involved but given its approach — and constraints — participation is more important to Services than winning.

They do, however, have a genuine star in batsman Yashpal Singh, unknown despite terrific performances last few seasons. Yashpal, a Delhi youngster who never made any team in the capital, averages close to 60 in first-class cricket. This year he scored three hundreds in Ranji, following up on a very decent run in Duleep. He is an accomplished player, correct and composed, and had he been with a stronger team he would be next in line for playing for India.

The other Plate game in Delhi — Kerala vs Railways — was more competitive, and the latter just about squeezed into the semi-final stage of the tournament. The Railways is under-performing, for some inexplicable reason its main batsman Bangar can't make runs and it is left to J. P. Yadav to shoulder the extra responsibility of bailing his team out of trouble.

Kerala, with most seniors gone, is rebuilding under new coach Parthasarathy Sharma, former Test cricketer from Rajasthan and S. Ramesh, originally from Tamil Nadu. Parth is sharp, tuned in to contemporary cricket developments, the right man to inject new ideas and energy into a young side. He is open to modern thought (having spent years at the NCA) but is grounded to understand that Indian cricket must find its own answers, progress cannot be achieved by blindly copying what worked for others.

Given a free hand Parth would make youngsters practise on matting to get used to extra bounce and play shots square of the wicket. According to him, playing on matting eliminates the predetermined front foot stride and significantly improves technique against pace. Parth wants fast bowlers to bowl long spells in the net specially with the old ball. Like Vengsarkar, he isn't overly impressed by talent in Ranji, thinks overall standards have dipped and is far from impressed by smart sounding theories about man management and mind games. Why this `shosha' about mental toughness? he asks. Mental toughness should not be confused with excessive aggression. To me it is self belief, a quality displayed by the Australians, and being disciplined. Which means if a track has uneven bounce the batsman should reduce risk, not play the square cut.

Meanwhile, in Ranji games across the country, players have produced notable performances. Delhi's Ishant Sharma is making rapid strides, Ashish Nehra is back to peak fitness as demonstrated by the long — and productive — spells bowled by him. But Delhi's spin attack is extremely friendly, a failing which was cruelly exposed when Saurashtra's 10th wicket plundered 99 against them. Promising spinners are as scarce as tigers in Ranthambore but veterans Nilesh Kulkarni and Sairaj Bahutule carry on, as does Sunil Joshi. Haryana's leggie Amit Mishra found wickets against Baroda but Piyush Chawla has had an up and down season.

Youngsters Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara pushed their claims with impressive knocks, Suresh Raina made a strokeful century against Tamil Nadu, Robin Uthappa scored an imperious hundred against Delhi. Hrishikesh Kanitkar is in cracking form in Maharashtra, Pankaj Dharmani has had an excellent season for Punjab and forgotten opener S. S. Das overcame a longish run drought, and escaped being dropped, by stroking a triple hundred for Orissa. In Rajasthan, Ajay Jadeja was out of action after two games and Vikram Solanki, imported from England, did little to justify his inclusion. Amay Khurasia has had a disappointing run for MP, Dhiraj Jadhav, part of the Indian squad about a year ago, seems to have lost his way and Venugopala Rao will need to lift his game several notches to threaten the established Indian middle order.

R. P. Singh is UP's spearhead but team-mate A. W. Zaidi faded after years of distinguished duty. There are encouraging reports about Bengal's new new-ball attack of Dinda and Sarkar but Kabir Ali flopped and Balaji is still out of the game.