What does a coach tell a team that is defending 93 in a first-class match with a day and a half remaining? For Railways, the message from Pallav Vora was succinct: forget the 93 runs and think of the 10 wickets. A little over two hours later, Railways had produced the ten deliveries Vora sought to seal an improbable win and script the second-lowest fourth-innings defence in Ranji Trophy history.
It was far from the end Uttar Pradesh had envisioned, after securing a 68-run first-innings lead, courtesy Akshdeep Nath's 75. How, then, did it come to this? Avinash Yadav, the 31-year old Railways left-arm spinner, saw the answer quite clearly. "(Suresh) Raina was the main man for them, so his wicket was the turning point, no doubt," he told ESPNcricinfo.
Raina came into the match on the back of a middling performance in the Duleep Trophy where he had scored 138 runs in three matches. Prior to that tournament, he had gone a good four months without competitive cricket. Even so, being UP's most experienced batsman, the onus was on him to steer the side home. He walked in at the fall of the first wicket, before any runs had been put on the board, and until he was around, UP had hope. He spent 88 minutes at the crease for his 29, but couldn't get the job done, becoming the seventh man dismissed, with the score on 49.
UP could have unravelled a lot quicker had Anureet Singh not shelled an offering from Raina, immediately after his arrival, at midwicket off Avinash. The left-arm spinner, however, ended with four second-innings wickets, and seven in the game, to be named Player of the Match.
"I was a little surprised when the captain threw me the ball for the first over," Avinash said." It was still a bit of a fast bowlers' surface, with a bit of swing, so it was unexpected."
Avinash struck in his second over, trapping Praveen Kumar in front. That after Anureet had already sent back Shivam Chaudhary for a duck. The two early wickets were enough to make Avinash realise that he and Anureet had to be the ones to finish this off, and together, they ripped through UP. "I knew Praveen Kumar likes to hit, so there was a chance of him trying to finish off the small chase with a few big shots,"Avinash said. "But my first over to him was a maiden and that meant double pressure on him.
"For (Himanshu) Asnora, I pitched one outside off with a slip in place. Things were going as per plan. Then Raina arrived, and by then, Anureet and I had formed a good partnership. Eklavya Dwivedi, the wicketkeeper, is also someone I know who likes to play his shots. I drew him forward with a couple of driving-length balls which he couldn't put away, and then I fired an arm ball that he tried to cut and was bowled."
Avinash played down the role of the pitch in the collapse, citing their own batting effort, with Arindam Ghosh and Vidhyadhar Kamath putting on 86 for the fourth wicket - the bulk of which came on the final day - as an example. "It didn't feel like there were demons on the pitch. It was more the pressure that got to them. They were overly-dependent on Raina, and he wasn't scoring runs, which pushed them further into a shell. The pitch was the same for both teams, and to chase 94 runs, such a big side can do it any time."
Vora, though, admitted that the bounce was inconsistent and identified that a middle-stump line would work best. "Scoring runs in front was very difficult, so offering room meant giving the batsman an easy boundary," he said. "Even if it was short, no issues, but it had to be around that middle-stump line and invite them to hit from there."
One-and-a-half months of pre-season training in Visakhapatnam and Delhi gave Vora the opportunity to enforce changes. He impressed upon his team the importance of smaller targets by breaking down sessions and the need for lower-order partnerships. He also tried to force a change in attitude where batsmen believed in themselves rather than allowing situations to dictate them. Intense training sessions were interspersed with more fun-filled ones and an effort was made to instill transparency within the team.
Some of the results came through in this match, like the ninth-wicket partnership of 33 between Ashish Yadav and Anureet in the first innings that rescued them from 134 for 8. "The only word we have been using throughout is belief," Vora said. "Our focus throughout the pre-season was match simulation.
"We need to retain discipline and set specific targets, like, say, our batsmen in a season should get three double-centuries and five centuries. Another focus has been fielding and getting our fielders to anticipate where the ball is coming.
"Going to Lucknow and beating UP is definitely special. Even the Delhi match has ended on first-innings points (which has put Railways on top of the table), so this win definitely motivates us."
As for Avinash, he can only hope that this performance marks the start of an extended run. With Murali Karthik taking up the left-arm spinner's spot until his retirement in 2014, Avinash has had to bide his time. He made the most of his limited opportunities last season, taking 12 wickets in three matches, including eight in one game against Baroda.
"Both our coaches had a lot of belief in me, as well as the manager," Avinash said. "That helped my confidence. And when the captain showed he had faith when he threw me the ball, I wanted to seize the opportunity, especially against UP as we have very tight matches whenever we have played them.
"Our next match is against Delhi; Shikhar (Dhawan) and the others will play, so I need to go with a plan. I practice for half an hour to 45 minutes daily, so I'm completely focused on giving my best to the team."