March 11, 2002

Railways' long struggle for success

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The scenes of unbridled joy the bhangra dance, the drumbeats, the players hugging each other and then paying obeisance to the pitch, the grabbing of the stumps as souvenirs that followed the fall of the last wicket in the Ranji Trophy final at the Karnail Singh Stadium in New Delhi on Saturday were quite understandable. A maiden triumph is always special, particularly when it comes about on the 43rd attempt.

The imposing Ranji Trophy will adorn the Railways Sports Control Board showcase in New Delhi for the first time, and naturally it is a moment of pride, a moment to savour for ever for the players, coach and officials who all made this dream come true.

For long, Railways have been among the `unglamorous' outfits taking part in the country's premier national competition. Lacking the stars and the aura associated with teams like Bombay, Delhi or Karnataka, Railways for 30 years were not even the bridesmaids, let alone the bride.

In the North Zone, they had to take third billing to Delhi and Services. When they were transferred to the Central Zone in the midseventies, they found qualification for the knock out stage a bit easier but did not progress beyond the quarterfinal. However, a certain dedication and perseverance did show through, despite the reverses and disappointments and now these twin qualities have been rewarded. Even as the players are jubilant, it is difficult not to think back to the 1959-60 season when Railways first played in the Ranji Trophy.

After they were granted affiliation, Lala Amarnath took upon himself the task of recruiting players who would form the nucleus of a side that would perform commendably. The former Indian captain was then already 48 but he still led by example, scoring runs, picking up wickets and captaining as shrewdly as only he could. Around players like Budhi Kunderan, Vijay Mehra, Harold Ghosh, William Ghosh, DS Mukherjee and Dattu Phadkar the last named at the fag end of his first-class career - Amarnath formed a side capable enough of taking on even the top two teams in the North Zone - Delhi and Services - on level terms.

In just the second season of their participation, Railways accomplished a feat that is all too rare in cricket winning without losing a wicket. Playing against Jammu & Kashmir at Srinagar, Railways dismissed the home side for 92 and 159 and replied with 236 for no wicket declared and 16 for no loss to register a ten-wicket victory. Kunderan (116) and Mehra (107), both India players at the time, figured in the two unbroken first wicket partnerships to star in Railways' unusual victory.

For the next decade and a half, Railways were in the shadow of either Delhi or Services. Making it to the knock out stage became a bit easier when the top two teams from a zone gained entry from the 1970-71 season, but at the second stage, Railways again lost out in an early round.

From 1975-76, Railways were transferred to the Central Zone though the RSCB headquarters remained in New Delhi. Qualifying for the knock out now almost became a formality, but Railways generally came a cropper at the first hurdle. Throughout the early and mid-eighties, this trend continued and they were never serious contenders for the title.

This did not mean that Railways did not have outstanding players. Yusuf Ali Khan was a tower of strength in their batting as evidenced by his tally of 3782 runs in the national competition with an average of 54.02 and a highest score of 233. Md Tarif, YM Choudhury, Mushtaq Ali, MI Ansari, Rajeshwar Vats, P Vedraj, Alfred Burrows, S Balaji, Naresh Churi, Aslam Ali, Rajesh Bora and KB Kala were the prominent players who shaped many a Railways victory during the 70s and 80s.

But the outstanding player was Hyder Ali. The indefatigable allrounder had one of the finest records in the history of the competition. His pugnacious left-handed batting saw him score 2525 runs while his left-arm spinners brought him 317 wickets from 87 matches. In addition to these illustrious cricketer, India players like Dhiraj Parsana and Sunil Valson played for Railways for a few seasons at various periods.

Syed Kirmani
© CricInfo
Railways' big breakthrough came in 1987-88. Against all expectations, a mixture of pluck and luck saw them make the title round where however they were outplayed by Tamil Nadu. Theirs was a commendable feat for it was still a side bereft of big names. Suddenly Railways were the `hot' team around the national circuit and stars jumped on the bandwagon. In the next few years, Syed Kirmani, Yashpal Sharma and Pravin Amre represented the side while the trio from Madras comprising UR Radhakrishnan, R Venkatesh and S Bharathan added both substance and style.

The last decade has been pretty eventful for the Railways side, culminating in their notable triumph on Saturday. Yusuf Ali Khan continued to be among the runs; Abhay Sharma, meanwhile, has been their batting mainstay and it seemed somehow fitting that he should be the victorious captain.

Sanjay Bangar
© CricInfo
Bharathan remained the leading all-rounder, good enough to achieve the rare double of a hundred and 11 wickets against Rajasthan in 1992-93. Yere Goud added solidity to the middle-order while the discovery of Sanjay Bangar and Murali Kartik brought a touch of class to the side. Suddenly, Railways were not any more an opposition who could be taken lightly; they were a side to be feared. In 1996-97 they were strong enough to defeat Tamil Nadu by an innings and 65 runs in the super league.

Still, the element of inconsistency continued to dog the Railways and this was attributed to the fact that with the exception of players like Kartik and Bangar, who were from Chennai and Mumbai, the others did not get either the opportunity to play many matches or the chance to prove their mettle against strong opposition. Hailing from different parts of the country, they did not get to play in a higher grade of cricket.

Also, coming together for a short camp once the probables were selected after the inter-railway championship did not give the team a feeling of oneness. That was one reason why the team seemed to thrive on individual brilliance, a factor that prevented Railways from achieving their full potential. The side needed a more matches together and the players also lacked a sense of self belief.

By the late 90s however, it was on the cards that Bangar and Kartik were future India players and sure enough, the left arm spinner was included in the Indian team for the Test series against South Africa. Former India medium-pacer Harvinder Singh also shifted to Railways from Punjab around this time and last season, as is well known, Railways were the surprise packet, making it to the final.

In the knock out stage they had a marvelous run, successively defeating Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab. And just when it seemed that they had sewn up the title, after gaining a first innings lead of 151, Baroda turned the tables to win the all important match by 21 runs. Yere Goud had a great season scoring 901 runs with a highest score of 221 not out while opener Amit Pagnis' tally was 634. By tallying 504 runs, Abhay Sharma proved that like wine he was getting better with age. Raja Ali got two hundreds in three matches while Bangar confirmed his early promise with 551 runs and 15 wickets. Tejinder Pal Singh was the leading all-rounder with 421 runs and 28 wickets while off-spinner Kulamani Parida and Harvinder Singh were among the leading wicket-takers with 25 and 23 wickets respectively.

By this time, however, it was obvious that this was no flash in the pan performance. Coach Vinod Sharma summed up the 2000-2001 showing succinctly. "The biggest factor for Railways' success was that everyone was keen to do well. There were a few new faces who were eager to prove themselves. That in turn saw some of the regulars raising their level. We could bat all the way down and the presence of a few all-rounders gave the team the right balance." And then he added: "It was a very satisfying season for us. The team spirit was amazing and gave me hope of a wonderful time ahead."

The optimism of the coach was not misplaced as events at the Karnail Singh stadium on Saturday proved. And surely it is only a matter of time before other players from Railways follow Kartik and Bangar into the national side.