Frustrating week ends in delight for Odisha

Govinda Podder celebrates his second first-class century PTI

When Delhi were battling for a win against Saurashtra in Baroda to stay alive in the knockout race, some 1500 km away an anxious Odisha side was keeping close tabs on the match. With Odisha only one point ahead of Delhi's 21, the latter's victory would leave Odisha needing to win outright against Jharkhand in their last league game beginning on December 15.

However, unlike his team-mates, Odisha captain Govinda Poddar wasn't sweating over the outcome. He was attending a family function in his hometown Rourkela, and had decided to take his mind off the game. His team-mates, though, wouldn't let him be.

"I wasn't following the scores because I didn't want to be nervous about something I couldn't control. But, every once in a while, someone or the other would ring me up to tell me the score," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I would tell them: 'Yaar, please put the phone down. Tell me at the end if they have lost or not.'"

Not long after, Saurashtra snuffed out Delhi's chances by four runs after last man Navdeep Saini was adjudged lbw. As a result, Odisha were into the quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy for the first time since 2001-02. This time, Poddar didn't mind the phone calls.

"I have two phones and both started ringing at the same time. Our wicketkeeper Saurabh Rawat, and Ranjit Singh, the opening batsman, were the first guys to call," he said. "When I picked up the phones, I heard their excited voices: 'Dada, we have qualified, congrats.' Then, I called our coach Debasis Mohanty and we congratulated each other."

Allrounder Biplab Samantray was one of the players who bombarded Poddar with score updates. He was at his home in Cuttack, discussing the match online with his team-mates. "We were all sharing updates on our team's Whatsapp group, and whenever my internet slowed down, I would anxiously ask the others what the score was," he said.

"It's been 15 years since we have qualified for the knockouts, so obviously there is bound to be excitement. It was a dream of mine, personally, to play in the quarter-finals. We have been doing well this season and God has given us another chance to prove ourselves. We had our team's practice session this afternoon and everyone was excited about performing in a big match. Such things don't come easily."

Odisha leave for Thiruvananthapuram on Monday for what would now effectively be a practice match against Jharkhand ahead of the quarter-finals scheduled to begin on December 24. Had Delhi won, the trip would have been a lot more tense, especially with what Odisha have gone through in the last week or so. They were grounded in Dindigul for a week after their last league fixture against Jharkhand was a non-starter following the death of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. Poddar called the "hotel arrest" a new experience that transcended cricket.

"From December 2 to 8, we were in Dindigul," he said. "We went for practice only on the first two days, and a few hours before she passed away on December 5, there were rumours about her passing away. Our local manager feared there could be acts of violence and said we had to return to the hotel, which was about 35 km away from the ground [in Natham]. After we reached the hotel, we couldn't step out until December 8.

"It was frustrating, but it was a new experience in the sense we got to know a lot of new things. The passing away of a leader of such stature is sad news, and we could see what it meant to the people there."

There was some anxiety over Odisha's travel plans, and for a brief period, they didn't know the fate of their match against Jharkhand. "There was a bit of apprehension over whether we could get out of town or not, and what would happen to the match," he said.

"So there was a lot of chaos, but all the boys got together and reassured one another that we couldn't afford to worry about the game. Whenever it took place, we had to be ready - there was nothing more we could do. For those five-six days, all we did was wake up, gather in somebody's room and order room-service. That we have bonded well all season has helped."

After the team eventually got back to Odisha, they have had well-deserved downtime. Poddar hoped Odisha, rejuvenated by the break, would go further in the tournament. "I was very desperate because some of our players have been performing well over the last few years, but still they are not getting to play at a certain level," he said. "To come into the limelight, you need to play quarter-finals and semi-finals. Your matches are broadcast live and people know there is a team that is trying hard to come up the ladder."

For now, though, Odisha have earned the right to celebrate their biggest achievement in a while. "We haven't planned a party yet, Samantray said, "but we will have something for sure before we start for Trivandrum."