Railways get back on track
Railways are the New Zealand of the Ranji Trophy. Hamstrung by a lack of resources, working with a wafer-thin player base, they continue to give the bigger teams a scare or two, year after year, before their lack of depth prevents them from closing out games. And as is so often the case with sides sitting on the margins, luck seems to desert them at crucial junctures.
Midway through this year's tournament, it appeared that they would have to once again remain satisfied with punching above their weight. Three points from the first four games did not reveal how close Railways had come to winning two of those matches. They were 21 without loss chasing 176 against Assam when bad light intervened midway through the first session on the final day, and the match had to be called off. It was also the day when veteran Railways offspinner Kulamani Parida retired after being called for a suspect action again. The sadness was compounded in the Railways' camp.
They then had defending champions Mumbai tottering at 237 for 8 chasing 252, but let Rohit Sharma get away with it, dropping numerous chances. "The Mumbai loss hurt the most, we were so close," Abhay Sharma, the Railways coach, told ESPNcricinfo. Languishing at the bottom of a tough group with three matches to go, thoughts of the Plate League must have certainly cropped up. "We were not thinking about relegation at all, we had worked so hard that we knew we would bounce back," Abhay said, revealing the confidence in a side that was forced to, and took, some tough decisions.
Yere Goud and TP Singh, bulwarks of the Railways batting for so long, made way for younger players. "We wanted to avoid a situation where people took their positions for granted," said Sanjay Bangar, who took over the captaincy after Murali Kartik opted to concentrate on his bowling. Anureet Singh, the 22-year old Kolkata Knight Riders seamer, was forming a productive new-ball partnership with JP Yadav, the former India allrounder back after his ICL stint. It reduced Bangar's workload, who usually opens the bowling. The evolving core of the side had balance, with the experience of Kartik, Bangar and Yadav, along with the youth of Anureet, wicketkeeper Mahesh Rawat and opener Faiz Fazal. "It was a calculated move to bring in young blood, I really appreciate what the selectors have done," Abhay said. "We had too much experience before, somewhere we had to think about the future. The youngsters are motivated with the chances they are getting; it is a very happy dressing room."
The happiness showed in the performances. Rawat and debutant left-arm spinner Nileshkumar Chauhan added a priceless 90 for the last wicket against Saurashtra to boost the total to 415. Yadav's six wickets restricted Saurashtra to 338. Railways had doubled their tally to six points. Only the base camp had been reached, though, and the climb was yet to begin.
Next up were Delhi, who had shifted base from the Feroz Shah Kotla to the more responsive surface at the Roshanara Club, a move that gave both teams a chance. However, when Sumit Narwal's seven wickets in the second innings gave Delhi a target of 136, Railways' season almost seemed over. "We knew Delhi would give us a sporting track. We had the ammunition that could put them under pressure," Abhay said. And they did, Yadav and Anureet picking up seven wickets between them as Delhi slid to an ignominious 22-run defeat. That an injured Kartik bowled only over in the game shows how this Railways side is now no longer dependent on one or two players.
Teetering on the brink of relegation barely two games ago, Railways had given themselves an outside chance of qualifying for the knockouts. An outright win was needed against Bengal though. The charge was led by the younger brigade. Prashant Awasthi and Dhiran Salvi, both of whom had made their debuts this season, made half-centuries as Railways surged to a 144-run lead. Yadav finished off Bengal to go top of the wicket-taking list with 30 victims. "He is one player who always does something if the ball is in his hands. He moves it really well, and never lets you down. Frankly, he performed even better than we expected," Abhay said. "They talk about horses for courses, we've got two horses, Yadav and Bangar, who are for all courses."
Bangar credits the turnaround to the hard way a Railways player comes up. "As a side, we never give up. Many of our players are those who could not make it to state teams. They value what they have and look to give back to the organisation. In fact, many of our senior players have offers from state teams to play as professionals, especially from the lesser teams like Andhra and Assam, but for us, Railways comes first."
After the rollercoaster ride the season has been, Railways are not looking ahead of the quarter-final against Baroda. "We are full of confidence now, but the most important part will be implementation," Abhay said.
Bangar has both feet firmly on the ground. "Baroda are a very strong team. They have Munaf Patel, Yusuf Pathan, experienced players in Connor Williams and Rakesh Solanki, Ambati Rayudu is also there. They'll be playing at home, but the conditions will suit our type of bowling as well, especially mine and JP's. We don't want to be showered with applause just for making the knockouts. We want to go further."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo