'Raman shines at Chepauk' is a headline Tamil Nadu faithfuls have been accustomed to over the years. So when a tall and elegant left-handed Raman stroked the ball with ease through the covers, it didn't take long for old-timers gathered at the Madras Cricket Club to watch him with special attention. The only difference was, this Raman, unlike the Raman of the 80s and 90s, plotted a coup against Tamil Nadu.
Bengal recorded their first win of the season; the margin - by one-wicket in the second session of a nervy final day when the ball was "shooting up and scooting low". Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal captain, had called this dry turner a "result wicket" even before a ball had been bowled in the match.
Under these circumstances, Abhishek Raman's 98 in the first innings when no other Bengal batsman scored more than 19 was absolute gold, even though it was not enough for his team to snatch a first-innings lead. Perhaps equally important, if not more, was a free-stroking 58-ball 53 that set the tone for Bengal's chase of 216. It may have yet not been enough as the middle order imploded. Fortunately, Bengal found two other saviours in Sudip Chatterjee and Pradipta Pramanik, who made 40 and 25 not out respectively in the tense chase.
Raman described it as the "best knock" of his 15-match first-class career, which began two seasons ago against Mumbai. In 2017-18, he was Bengal's highest run-scorer (623 in 14 innings at 44.50) in a season that ended in the semi-finals after one poor session in Pune against Delhi. This year, he has put up scores of 48, 87, 14, 40, 13, 98 and 53, and is hopeful that the elusive century is around the corner. This consistency is a marked change for Raman, who, by his own admission, kept wasting starts during his Under-19 days.
Raman moved to West Bengal from Delhi as a 13-year old and lived in Bangaon, 5 km from the Bangladesh border, and enrolled in a Bengali medium school. He lived with his coach Nirmalya Sengupta, who convinced Raman's father, a civil engineer, that his son had a future in cricket if he started early. Sengupta had spotted both Raman and Abhimanyu Easwaran, the Bengal opener now playing for India A, while playing a school's tournament in New Delhi.
"Somewhere down the line I realised I'd moved to Kolkata from Delhi to play cricket, and if I wasn't scoring runs to make even a club side, I ought to do better," Raman says. "When I finally started getting runs, I didn't get an opening in Bengal's Cooch Behar Trophy side, so all my Under-19 years were wasted. But I kept training hard. For someone at that age, there are a lot of frustrations if you don't make it. I wasn't even studying, going to give just exams in school, so it wasn't like that aspect was covered. So I needed to rediscover myself."
Raman went back home to Delhi in 2012 and considered enrolling for a degree in the Delhi University under its sports quota when a phone call changed his mind. It was RP Easwaran, the father of Bengal opener Abhimanyu, who ran the YMCA Club in Kolkata, of which Abhimanyu was also a part. For the better part of the next six years, both players have grown hand in hand. Now with Abhimanyu away in New Zealand with the India A side, Raman has used his opportunities to create a pathway for himself at the top of the order.
"My batting turnaround is thanks to the confidence posed in me by Manoj Tiwary and [Bengal coach] Sairaj Bahutule," he says. "When you're confident of your place in the side, you don't think if you belong or not even after one or two failures. Abhimanyu's father too has played a key role in my early days. He got me a club side when no one considered me good enough to play, gave me opportunities and allowed me to train with Abhimanyu in Dehradun during the off-season."
Scoring runs for YMCA finally got him noticed as Raman made Bengal's Under-23 squad, with a Ranji Trophy debut finally coming in 2016 in Nagpur. Along the way, Raman has now completed a graduation in English honours from Calcutta University. He began an MA in English in the year of his Ranji debut, but cricket and employment with the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) office has meant putting the degree on hold. While he isn't working, he now plays for the prestigious Kalighat Club, which also has in its ranks the likes of Tiwary and Wriddhiman Saha.
For now, Raman is happy to be back on track after his early frustrations at the Under-19 level, but he knows that, at 25, he's far from the finished product. He also knows that his best years are ahead of him and he has the confidence that a safe government job and a degree will bring, should he miss out on more cricket for whatever reason. "Whenever I walk in to Eden Gardens, I remember why I'm playing and why I didn't give up even when I wasn't good enough to be picked in my club side."
For now, Raman derives most joy from being in close proximity to his batting hero Sourav Ganguly, who is now the Cricket Association of Bengal president. "Even now, I tell my family. 'See, Sourav Ganguly knows me by name.' When I came to Kolkata as a 13-year old, he was on a comeback trail to the Indian team. I could only dream of talking to him. Today, I am. Bengal has given me a second chance and I'm glad to be part of this set-up."