For a 17-year-old boy from Orissa, 1994 was a very tough year. His daily routine involved waking before sunrise and travelling 15 kilometres by bus from Cuttack to work on the railway at the small town of Kandarpur. Hardly any trains stop in this forgotten corner of eastern India, but someone still had to walk six kilometres along the line, oil the tracks, check for faults and climb dangerous heights to check the wiring.
The boy would return home limp and sapped. But nothing could stop him from spending the rest of the day trying to master the routine he loved best - picking up a cricket ball, hopping in from an angular run-up and ripping off-breaks. These were Kulamani Parida's struggles as a Class IV employee in his first two years of working for the Indian Railways.
Across the vast reaches of the world's most complex railway system, other young men were doing much the same. For them, there was no elite support system, no pre-season tour, no sponsors' car. The reward was a place in the Railways team that competes with India's state sides in the Ranji Trophy. Not many successful first-class cricketers face as severe an initiation as Parida. And surely no successful first-class team has as frail a support system as Railways.
From a purely cricketing angle, Railways' journey from the brink of relegation to the national championship makes a fantastic tale. Bearing in mind the background, it is the stuff of legend.
In December 2004, they took on Andhra at Anantapur, with just four points from five league games, and their key players, including captain Sanjay Bangar, out of form. Everyone had given up hope of a semi-final spot, and many were resigned to being downgraded to the Plate Group. When relegation threatens other teams, players worry that they won't get as much exposure to the national spotlight. When Railways faced relegation, they had worries of another sort - no promotions in their jobs, no salary increments, and no improvement in their quality of life. At times like these, other teams are rocked by internal strife. But this bunch weren't just any side; they were bonded by glue most cricketers can barely imagine.
Most had been together for nearly a decade, spending much of their time all sleeping in a dormitory at the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi. They slept on creaky beds, with open electrical sockets staring down at them, wires and cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, water seeping through the walls. They had suffered through power cuts at the height of summer, and couldn't even dream of air conditioning. They had stayed away from home for long stretches, eating together in a small café every evening and holding chirpy get-togethers at the Sareen tea stall every morning.
Whenever he was picked for India, Bangar had a room booked at one of Delhi's smartest hotels. "But instead of staying there, he would come and stay with the rest of the boys at Karnail," said Vinod Sharma, their coach. It had always been all for one and one for all. Now, at Anantapur, they just couldn't afford to slip.
They did better than that. With 20 overs left, Andhra still had six wickets standing and a draw looked certain, but the all-rounder Jai Prakash Yadav conjured up a spell of four for 21 on a dead pitch, helping Railways escape to victory. The team had rediscovered their zest and they would now travel to Bangalore - second-class as usual - with hope. There, their collective efficiency reached its peak against a Karnataka side bolstered by Rahul Dravid. The other results fell their way too. The players huddled round a mobile phone for ball-by-ball updates from Gujarat's match. A draw in that put them into the semi-finals.
This would not have been considered a surprise at the start of the season: they had been in three semi-finals out of four after 40 largely barren years. They won their first-ever title, at the 44th attempt, in 2001-02. Now they could prove that was no fluke.
The Railways Sports Control Board had acquired a first-class team in 1958. Like Services, representing the armed forces, the sheer size of the organisation meant they had a pool of sportsmen big enough to make them competitive. With a staff of about one and a half million, Indian Railways are said to rank behind the Chinese Army and ahead of the British National Health Service in the list of the world's largest employers.
Lala Amarnath, the former Indian captain, worked for the Railways (though no one asked him to oil the tracks), and he played a major role in building the side, recruiting well-known names like Dattu Phadkar, Budhi Kunderan and Mushtaq Ali. But at first, Railways were regularly thwarted by Delhi and Services in the North Zone league. Things improved when they transferred to the weaker Central Zone in 1975, but still they struggled to be contenders.
Part of the problem was always money. In contrast to the airlines and banks who have run well-funded teams in Pakistani domestic cricket for many years, Indian Railways could not easily divert funds from oiling the tracks at Kandarpur to running a prestige cricket team. But in the 1990s the side threw up a nucleus of talented young players like Bangar and Murali Kartik. And once Railways began doing well, players who were struggling to find a place in rival first teams - and were also looking for jobs - began to make themselves available. They gained men like Amit Pagnis, who moved from Mumbai in 2000. "I wasn't making it to the Mumbai XI too often," he explained. "It's better to play every game for a slightly weaker side than carry the drinks for a strong team." Pagnis's 98 sealed Railways' victory over Hyderabad in the 2005 semi-final.
The next day Punjab stunned Mumbai in the other semi-final. The Punjab Cricket Association showered their team with 1.5 million rupees (about £19,000), and Intikhab Alam, their coach, was awarded the same amount. In Delhi, the Railways coach, Sharma, waited for his salary, 11 months overdue, before the team travelled to Mohali for the final.
Comparing the facilities at Mohali to those at Karnail Singh Stadium is like comparing a Mercedes to a cycle rickshaw. Mohali is all affluence - a swank gym, world-class practice pitches, a bowling machine, and a stateof- the-art health club with sauna, steam room and jacuzzi. You can add to that a groundsman who is up to date with scientific methods of pitch preparation, and an administration that has built perhaps the best junior cricket system in India.
The multi-sport Karnail Singh Stadium is a throwback to the 1960s. It has an eerie gym containing a stepper on the brink of collapse, two dumbbells, five rusty wrought-iron plates for weights, and a dilapidated exer-cycle. The groundsmen, employed by the government, have no clue about pitch preparation, and the Railways players and coach take it upon themselves to tug rollers, water the pitch, and tend the grass. Practice balls and kit? You must be joking. Speaking of jokes, consider that the Railways board sent two non-cricket officials as representatives to the meeting where the Central Zone team for the Duleep Trophy was being picked. Players like Jai P. Yadav have been around long enough to know that it is futile to complain. "No point saying they have this and we have that," he said. "We made the choice to play for Railways and we have to ultimately win."
Yadav and his namesake, the left-arm spinner Madan Yadav, did the damage in Mohali that gained Railways first-innings lead; in a drawn game, that was enough to secure the title. Parida, the poor boy from Orissa, was also an established member of the side. But Madan had to spend 2004 undergoing the experience Parida had ten years earlier. For most of the year he was in Bhopal repairing train wheels with massive pliers and monitoring electrical connections - and, between whiles, working on his flight, spin and angle of delivery. When asked about the importance of the title, Jai P. Yadav said, "Class IV employees like Madan will get a promotion and his quality of life will improve. If we win, it will be like our gift for those players and their families."
And they did win. Madan Yadav's days with the pliers should now be behind him. He was said to be earning just 5,000 rupees a month (about £60), nowhere near enough to support a family properly. That should be tripled now, which will at least be enough to supply the necessities, if not luxuries like a car or a computer.
These are the champions of India. Yet for them, the lifestyle of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly is just a rumour. The rumour now is a little less distant than it once was.