Tough Services not daunted by Mumbai
A swarm of human beings forced its way into the peripheral vision of everyone involved in an air force inter-department match. The swarm first ebbed away from the game towards the low-roofed pavilion, then parted respectfully and then surged towards the practice nets outside the Palam-B boundary line.
Air Force Hindon v Air Force Nal would, on any other day, have no more than a dozen people in its vicinity. This time it was fifty and growing. There were military men in uniform, cricketers in training gear, straggling children, odd gaggles of family groups. The human swarm had not gathered to mark the day before Services played their first Ranji semi-final in 44 years. It had not assembled to welcome their opponents, mighty Mumbai who have beaten Services in their only two Ranji finals and three of their other six Ranji semi-finals.
The swarm was buzzing because an hour before India were to take on England in Kochi, Sachin Tendulkar was stepping out for practice in their midst. On this ground that is quickly rendered invisible in the shadow of Delhi's old domestic airport and the zipping traffic of the ribbons of roads that loop around it, there was to be a glimpse of cricketing royalty. When he did step into the thin winter sunlight, everything else around Tendulkar vapourised into silence - the recent furore around his Test form, the anguished debates about the R-word or the mocking reference to his many nicknames from the massed ranks of media.
This wasn't the first time Tendulkar was coming to Palam, because India have practiced here in the past; but the last time Services and Mumbai met in a Ranji match (1964-65), Tendulkar had not been born. Wednesday's semi-final will be his first match in Palam, where, like a Services bowler grinned and said, "Batting is not as easy as it looks."
Tendulkar walked over to the brown strip of the practice nets and, off his fourth ball, was hit by a grubber on the toe of his boot by left-arm spinner Vishal Dabholkar. The net was then ended, the stumps pulled out and Tendulkar walked over Dabholkar's end and decided that he would make do with knocking. Towards the end of the training - perhaps like a true space-conscious Mumbaikar - Tendulkar gently told curator Ashok Verma, that given Palam's vast acreage, they could maybe do with a few more practice strips.
On the far side of the ground, removed from the melee around Mumbai and Tendulkar, was the Services team. They deserved a cricketing guard of honour for ensuring that Mumbai had to play in their patch of land. Services will be led by Soumyaranja Swain for the first time this season due to the injury suffered by their captain Soumik Chatterjee in the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh.
In an emotionally charged performance, Chatterjee batted on one leg, scoring an unbeaten 34 in the second innings. The clotting of blood in his knee tissue had needed surgery and stitches the day after the match, and the damage forced him out of the semi-final. Services manager Wing Commander Deepak Bhaskar said Chatterjee's performance had, "showed the entire cricketing fraternity that if you are determined, you can play the game even on one leg."
It is the kind of teeth-gritting handicap Services must play in their semi-final against Mumbai. Bhaskar said his team was happy to be the underdogs but they would not be overawed. "We don't want to treat him as Sachin. We want to take him as an opposition player." After the match maybe, he said, Tendulkar would agree to have a gee-up chat with his "boys."
The boys have not been able to stop grinning. Rajat Paliwal, the top scorer for Services this season with four centuries, two fifties and an average of 85.88, reached for a common bilingual colloquialism, when talking of playing against a cricketing behemoth. "Proud feel hua" (I feel proud.) In only his second first-class season, playing UP he said, had suddenly revealed to him what he was capable of. Not only because, he said, "I hit my first sixes in first-class - three."
Medium-pacer Suraj Yadav, who has taken 41 wickets at 21.78 this season, burst into laughter when asked about possible 'plans for Tendulkar.' His approach to the enormity of the occasion was simple - "Grab the ball and run in hard."
Mumbai trained as close as they could to the match pitch, with Ajit Agarkar bowling two strips away. He said later that he disliked reading pitches until actually playing on them. Services, Agarkar said, deserved respect because he remembered being part of the Mumbai team that was outdone by plate qualifiers Rajasthan on their way to the 2010-2011 title.
Despite the dodgy practice strip that the Mumbai batsmen abandoned quickly, and a few murmurs about the sight screen, Air Force Station Palam's first-class ground was otherwise quite first class. The dressing rooms have long since been moved. Once shared, the dressing rooms are now two separate long corridors on either side of the dining area. So long, a Mumbai man said, that "you can do a good bit of knocking inside." There are green awnings over the viewing area and a refurbished outfield and pitch, which is promised to be "sporting."
The combination of the Palam pitch, on which only one of four matches this season has not been an outright win, the Delhi winter and an uneven semi-final match-up indicate a result in fewer than the five scheduled days. Palam may not be as easy as it looks. No matter what they look like, as an opposition Mumbai always end up being extremely tough.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo