Assam's inspirational rise from the abyss
In 2006, a 16-year old Krishna Das lay in a district hospital in Barpeta after a car accident left him with broken legs, a severely damaged left shoulder, fractured left hand and stitches on his tongue. All he saw for those three weeks in hospital, where he was on nasal feeding, were a number of tubes and plaster all over his body. Walking normally, doctors said, was far-fetched. When Sanath Kumar, then Assam head coach, found out about the accident, he rushed to the hospital from Guwahati, only to find scores of patients in the general ward. His eyes were then fixed on a bag with the NCA stamp on it. He immediately identified a motionless Krishna. A promising cricket career looked set to come to a grinding halt.
On the field, Assam was experiencing a churn with a number of cricketers signing with the unsanctioned Indian Cricket League. Injuries to a few players added to the state of flux. When he regained consciousness, Krishna told Sanath he will return to play soon. To everyone's surprise, he did three months later, although with a slightly disoriented action. Even though he was apprehensive, Sanath knew Krishna's talent was too good to go unnoticed. He was somewhat proved right when the teenager scalped four Kerala wickets on his first-class debut, but Sanath's exit as Assam coach soon after coincided with a pall of gloom on Krishna's nascent career, during the course of which he had already escaped death.
Nearly a decade on, Krishna has emerged fitter, stronger and tougher. He is spearheading Assam's resurgence, having picked up 35 wickets in six matches this season. Not too long ago, Assam were languishing in Group C, generally considered to be a mix of 'low-rung' teams. Today, they are consistently challenging the 'elite' teams both at home and away with Delhi, the Group A toppers, being their latest big-ticket takedown. With three outright wins in six matches, they are currently placed second in their pool, with a berth in the quarter-finals for a second year running within touching distance.
All this, incredibly, with sub-standard infrastructure, limited talent pool, weather constraints and lack of proper club culture to streamline talent. "The biggest difference now is, we have learnt to maximise our resources in the best possible way," Sanath tells ESPNcricinfo. "There is a limited pool of 16-17 players from which we pick our best eleven. While in a way that is a good thing, lack of options could also sometimes bring in complacency into a player's mind because he knows even if he sits out for two games, he is likely to always remain in the mix. So that is quite a challenge for me as coach, to have the best side play every game. I think on that count, so far we have done well."
Sanath is a journeyman, having travelled across the country as coach, talent scout, mentor, advisor and every possible role that comes with managing a state team. The former pacer, who played 11 first-class matches for Karnataka between 1986 and 1989, first coached Assam for three seasons from 2003-04. He then returned to coach Karnataka in 2009-10, when they made the final, and the 2010-11 season, when they made the semi-finals. Two seasons with Baroda later, he returned to Assam after receiving a last-minute SOS from the association. The second stint so far has been a resounding success, even though the challenges have been plenty.
As part of his coaching stints in Karnataka, Baroda and briefly with Royal Challengers Bangalore, where he served as an assistant to Ray Jennings, Sanath often sought the opinion of junior coaches to handpick players and groom them with the senior side. But at Assam, the lack of a structure, he says, has been a hindrance. "Lack of a club structure means there are no competitive matches during the off season," Sanath explains. "So there is no concept of talent scouting here. That needs to change. More often than not, most of the players who are picked locally come through hastily arranged district trials and inter-district games, which often take place on grounds with poor wickets. Even there, most of the games are affected by weather. So, chances of having a look at a set of players are very difficult."
Although Assam have shown sparks of brilliance from time to time, they have also shown tendencies of tailing off as the season progresses. This year, after walking away with the first-innings honours against defending champions Karnataka and beating Rajasthan, the team was jolted by two successive losses to Odisha and Vidarbha as a result of sub-par totals: 206, 160, 92 and 137. But they bounced back to beat Haryana and Delhi. Sanath attributes the string of low scores to self-belief and temperament, even though it sometimes isn't of their own making.
"Playing on tough, inconsistent wickets affected us," he says. "Sometimes, as a side we have been so used to playing on damp or green wickets that there has been a tendency to hit out. We haven't been fully able to develop survival instincts, so the moment a wicket starts turning or bouncing or behaving up and down, we try to hit out and fall into a trap. And because it kept happening over and over again, the confidence also took a hit."
Sanath also highlights the need to have consistency in selection, something which was lacking. Plenty of discussions and debates with the selectors later, though things are better. "What I observed was, generally we would lose one game and there would be four changes, and this kept going round and round," Sanath says. "People would go out and come back in only because someone else didn't perform. Not because the ones that came back in were scoring heaps of runs elsewhere. With that kind of knee-jerk reaction, you can never progress.
"So I sat the players down. I wanted a player to feel as confident walking in to bat in his third innings after a failure, like he would while walking out to bat after scoring a century. The message was simple: I told them 'I want to see that you are all enjoying the game. I should get that feeling sitting and watching from the outside. If you do that, I'm ready to back you and face the consequences'. We are a bits-and-pieces team, honestly. We don't have a player who will score double or triple tons. There is no flamboyance, just steel."
While players like Krishna exemplify that determination, there are many others who have often flown under the radar despite coming up with doughty contributions from time to time. While his case is not as dramatic offspinner Swarupam Purkayastha, who was reported for a suspect action during the league game against Delhi last week, is another who has benefited immensely from Sanath's mentorship.
Purkayastha was the highest wicket-taker among the spinners in the Ranji Trophy last year, and was used as one of the trump cards this season too. Like Krishna, Purkayastha's second coming coincided with Sanath's return. "In 2007-08, I saw him as a teenager. He was performing well and was a prodigy here. But we didn't give him too many opportunities here because he was away with the India Under-19 probables, along with the likes of Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja," Sanath says. "It was unfortunate he didn't make the final cut, but I also think he stayed a bit and was out of the radar after the Under-19 selection didn't go his way. I hope his action is cleared and we can have him back soon."
While local players like Krishna, Purkayastha and Arup Das have come up the hard way, Assam has often benefitted from the presence of professionals over the years. The long list of accomplished cricketers who have represented the side include Lalchand Rajput, J Arunkumar, Amol Muzumdar, S Sriram, Dheeraj Jadhav and Sairaj Bahutule. While Jadhav is now with Goa, the team has been strengthened by the presence of KB Arun Karthik, J Syed Mohammed and Amit Verma. Sanath can't be happier with the value the professionals in the current team have imparted. "The thing about our professionals is that they are quality players, but not stars. So they are equally driven to perform and prove themselves as much as the others. They have gelled well; the experience they bring is valuable."
For the moment, Sanath doesn't want to get too carried away with the immediate success. His mantra, like most coaches these days, is to control the controllables. "Even the boys make fun of me when I say that," he laughs. But deep down, he knows it is this very process that has so far turned around the fortunes of the team over the last two seasons. It's this spirit that augers well for a team and coach whose stocks are on the rise. How they manage to sustain the surge would direct their future path.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo