December 8, 2011

Armed, dangerous and ready to play

Unlike Indian first-class cricket's other teams, the Services side are a breed apart, with an old-fashioned ethos all their own

As far as sledging goes, Yashpal Singh couldn't be sure it qualified. His second Ranji match and the Punjab players were going on for a bit. "Arre yeh toh fauji hai, isko toh sirf goli chalaana aata hai, khelna nahin aata." (This one's a soldier, he can only fire bullets, he can't play cricket.")

It may seem somewhat demented to rain contempt down upon men who can use guns. Yet this is the somewhat upside-down world of Services cricket. In it, pre-conceived notions of Indian military might and all it entails are most dutifully stood on their head.

Yashpal, captain of the Services team, has just finished centre-wicket "nets" at one of their two home grounds, the Harbaksh Stadium. Most of the off side is taken over by workers preparing cloth backdrops for the Delhi Area Primary Schools II Annual Sports Day, complete with pink and yellow buntings. Cricket obviously is not the centerpiece here. The 1982 Asian Games held its equestrian event on the premises, the stadium then being named after the General Officer Commanding of the Delhi area at the time.

That explains the main entrance to the stadium, which is set into the crenellated wall that runs along one side of the ground. "Will to Win" is inscribed over the gate, which opens directly onto the field. It must have made quite the scenic entry point for the horses and riders at the equestrian event, for dressage, tent-pegging and the lot, with much brass on display, both musical and uniformed.

Yet the stands from where an adoring public watched in 1982 are now run-down, weary almost, in the pale haze of a Delhi winter afternoon. Even though it is in the heart of Delhi Cantonment, Harbaksh is slightly removed from the spit and polish of India's military. Much like the Services team is from the neon lights of Indian cricket.

Services and Railways are the only teams run by India's official establishment. Railways are controlled by the Ministry of Railways, Services are under the joint command of the army, navy and air force, through the Services Sports Control Board (SSCB). But unlike with other sports, where Services fields strong national teams and athletes, in first-class cricket their team has largely been tailenders.

Services did make two Ranji finals, in 1956-57 and 1957-58, losing to Bombay. For decades now, they have been mostly thought of as North Zone easybeats, but over the last few years, since the introduction of the Elite and Plate divisions, Services men have a very real target in their sights: there are two places available in the Ranji quarter-finals for the top Plate teams.

Often players complain: "I'd come here to play - I didn't know I'd have to study." The training course schedules are released at the start of the year. If it means matches must be skipped to attend a course, so be it. You're in the army now

Last season their Plate mates Rajasthan burst from the lower orders all the way to the title. Yashpal says, "It was amazing, it gave everyone in the Plate division great hope."

Services' last three seasons in the 12-team Plate division have been tumultuous. In 2008-09, when Plate teams were given a shot at the Ranji knockouts, Services finished bottom of the pile. In 2009-10, they were banned for the season after they forfeited a game against Jammu & Kashmir in Srinagar. When they returned last season, they narrowly missed making the Plate division semi, finishing fifth, behind eventual champions Rajasthan, Andhra, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It was their best performance in the Ranji Trophy; in their opening match, versus Kerala, they fielded five debutants. This season they're currently playing their last game, versus Tripura, are on equal points with Assam, and lie ahead of J&K, Jharkhand and Tripura.

The change in the format, progress last season, and influx of younger players has revved up the Services squad. Today, whenever anyone from Plate teams pushes his way ahead, the light just gets brighter. For a Services batsman to face up to Umesh Yadav of Vidarbha or Varun Aaron of Jharkhand means something when Yadav and Aaron run in to bowl for India.

Clobbering a full-strength Punjab, not once but two years in a row in the North Zone Twenty 20, sent up a flare. "Earlier it was mere participation," says Services coach Raju Singh, "now we are playing good cricket. We just need to be consistent." Sumit Singh, a havildar in the army and one of the debutants from that Kerala match, says, "No one treats us lightly now."

Soumik Chatterjee, a sergeant in the air force, has seen the Services team grow since his 2006 debut. "Things have completely changed in the last two years. The outlook of individuals… as players we may have been physically tough, but mental toughness comes from quality cricket for a good amount of time."

What marks Services out from other first-class teams is that, like Railways, they must operate within the rules not merely of government. The Services team must come from the ranks of the army, navy and air force, and through their Inter-Services competition. Which means no hiring three "professionals" to beef up runs and wickets and become on-field guides to the rookies. Air Commodore M Baladitya, the secretary of the SSCB, says there has been targeted sports recruitment through cricket over the last eight to ten years. The candidates who apply to the three services are mostly junior cricketers across states who have found it difficult to push through to the senior level - from Under-15s like Chatterjee to Under-22s like Khalid Ahmad.

Once signed up, in the non-"officer" (junior-commissioned officer/non-commissioned officer) ranks, players must go through an induction to be broken into military life. While rigorous, the training has these days been slightly tempered to accommodate softie civilians, whose main job in the services will be to play cricket. The mandatory, non-negotiable requirement is that they go through training courses and examinations to progress up ranks, pay scales and perks.

Yashpal pulls a face at his medical courses - "chemistry and whatnot" - in the navy. Services team manager, Wing Commander Deepak Bhaskar, says players often complain: "I'd come here to play - I didn't know I'd have to study." The training course schedules are released at the start of the year. If it means matches must be skipped to attend a course, so be it. You're in the army now.

The Services team has only one professional soldier, left-hand batsman Soumyaranjan Swain (the name pronounced not like the romantic "swain" is, but a nasal "swa-ee") from Orissa. After he did poorly in Class XII, Swain applied to the air force when they listed vacancies for "airmen". When he got the job, he gave away his cricketing whites. "I thought I'm in the military, where I am going to need my whites? I might as well give them to my friends who play cricket."

His new world was filled with training drills, health runs, 25km treks, physical training, parade, classes. A 4.6kg INSAS assault rifle was attached to him morning, noon and night, like an extra limb. There were push-ups before sunrise because fatigue had drowned out the noise of the 3:30am guard duty siren. For a whole year, cricket was merely an insect.

Until he played in an Air Force Inter-Area cricket match in Delhi, and batting for Western Air Command, peeled off 50 and 178. "I had no idea there was cricket in the military," he says, laughing. Much like Bhaskar, an Under-15 player for Delhi and Kerala himself, who ran training sorties over the Palam Cricket Ground - "We used to take off and land next to the ground" - for two years before realising that the air force had a cricket team.

Swain now remembers every innings, every opponent on the route to the prickly, competitive Inter-Services competition, and from then into the team that represents all the armed forces. "I never imagined I'd play first-class cricket - that if I played good, I could get to have this life."

Yashpal too played Under-17 and Under-19 cricket for Delhi before he signed on with Services a decade ago. In 2008 he became the first Services player to win an IPL contract, for the Kolkata Knight Riders, in the second season, in South Africa. He faced Shoaib Akhtar in the nets, shared a dressing room with six captains, learnt from Ricky Ponting, and saw how international players handled pressure. Bhaskar says, "It was a proud moment for us to see a player go to the IPL." No one is telling, though, how many yards of red tape had to be unknotted so that one of the Services "men" could draw an IPL salary that would make all the officers splutter into their chhota pegs.

The ethos of Services stays intact. And not just because players stand up in the presence of women, spontaneously offer them chairs and the team's training snack - a platter of pineapples

Despite the growing numbers of "sports recruits", the ethos of Services stays intact. And not just because players stand up in the presence of women and spontaneously offer them chairs and the team's training snack - a platter of pineapples. Every new player knows the list of his illustrious predecessors: India's first Test captain, after all, was a Services man, Colonel CK Nayudu. Baladitya says Services were once feared by Delhi teams in the Ranji Trophy.

It may be Twenty20 success that has driven Services' self-belief but the ethos of their dressing room is an old-fashioned, pre-IPL, pre-Twenty20 one. When Yashpal is asked what the Ranji Trophy means, he says, "Everything. To all of us here the four-day game is the one that needs more skill. Twenty20 anyone can play."

Swain says, "For me, Ranji Trophy is the biggest thing. 'Days cricket' is important to me. All formats don't suit everyone." Chatterjee dimisses the IPL as "hype" and says the four-day form is "the basic platform for players. The Ranji Trophy is honoured; it is a classical, traditional tournament. If anyone performs in Ranji Trophy he is looked upon differently."

These are young cricketers speaking a language that may well sound archaic in Indian cricket today. It will no doubt amuse their contemporaries that Services think of cricket like gentlemen did a few decades ago.

Services have been left in another time warp too: of scant resources. Unlike the other state associations, neither Services nor Railways receive subsidies from the BCCI. In 2010-11 the Indian board handed out Rs 130.97 crore (Rs 1.3 billion) as "an infrastructure subsidy". None of it went towards the Railways' Karnail Singh Stadium or Services' Harbaksh Stadium and Palam Air Force Ground.

In order to upgrade Palam, where there are actually two cricket grounds, Services have recently made a proposal to the BCCI to invest in a turnkey project, Baladitya says. The BCCI will be in complete control of the project for the one-time investment required to change the soil, install an underground sprinkler system, collapsible all-weather nets, sightscreens, and improve dressing rooms and spectator facilities.

A reply to the proposal may not come anytime soon but Services will take their own steps. The SSCB hopes to field a women's cricket team at the national level. A lady officer, Shikha Pandey, from the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad, has been called up to two camps by the Indian women's team.

The Services men are still to make their mark in domestic cricket but little daunts the Indian soldier. There is a printed message stuck to both doors of the home dressing room at Harbaksh. When players walk in or out they read the words: You Are Not Beaten Until You Think You Are.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo