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DURING TEA interval on Day 3, Railways coach JP Yadav walked out of the dressing room, glanced towards the scoreboard at the far end of the ground and told his captain Karn Sharma, “Aur sau run chahiye (We need 100 runs more).”
Railways score read 110 for zero. An emphatic unbeaten century stand in the second innings between openers Saurabh Wakaskar and Shivkant Shukla enabled them gain a lead of 226 over Punjab. The first innings lead also meant Sharma’s team was assured of bagging three points from their opening Ranji game.
Bulk of the credit for Railways’ ascendancy goes to medium pacer Manjeet Singh’s superlative performance in the morning session on Saturday. Manjeet is by no means an outright quick bowler. Neither does he get prodigious movement. What he brings to the team is discipline and his indefatigable spirit.
Not surprisingly, Railways prospered from his stellar show. On a track that was still receptive to seamers, especially in the morning session, Manjeet kept honing in and around the off-stump line. He was resolute, bowled at a decent pace, and got the ball to seam around — just enough to trouble Punjab’s middle order. In the morning session, he removed Punjab’s overnight batsmen — Gurkeerat Mann and Uday Kaul — in the space of four overs to peg Yuvraj’s side back. Two overs later, when he cleaned up Vinay Choudhury, Railways were certain of garnering a first innings lead of over 100 runs. His three-wicket burst in the morning session to go with the prized scalp of Punjab captain Yuvraj Singh on Day 2 helped Manjeet finish with figures of 4/56, and complete a dream debut for the Railways.
Manjeet was a surprise inclusion in this revamped Railways unit. He is one of the seven new faces in the line-up. Ironically, the 24-year-old had made his first-class debut against Railways in the 2012 season while playing for Rajasthan. Little would he have realised back then that after just four first-class games in as many years, he would get a chance to play for the same side against whom he had made his Ranji debut. Not surprisingly, captain Sharma lavished praise on his new recruit after his exploits on Saturday. “Manjeet has been a vital inclusion in our squad this season. He was bowling well even in the practice games. We needed someone like him to complement our swing bowlers upfront,” Sharma said at the end of the third day’s play.
Manjeet is not the only one in this new-look squad who has done well for the Railways. Opener Shivkant Shukla, a discard, who had last featured for the Railways two seasons ago, was another surprise inclusion this year. Shukla scored a well-compiled 128 on the opening day to power JP’s side to a commanding 331 in their first essay. He then followed it up with an unbeaten 83 (at the end of third day’s play), which took Railways’ lead to just four runs short of the 300-run mark.
Jai Prakash Yadav or JP, Railways’ newly-appointed coach, who is also doubling up as their chief selector, has been instrumental in ringing in these changes. After a dismal season last year, which saw them finish second from the bottom of their group, JP looked like he was taking a big risk by including nondescript players such as Manjeet and Shivkant. On the penultimate day of the Ranji opener, however, JP stands vindicated.
His unconventional choices have paid off. His quirky selections have shown that the former India all-rounder has a mind of his own when it came to assembling a Ranji team. Going by JP’s logic, a player’s past record, form or reputation is no yardstick in his selection.
The duo (Shivkant and Manjeet) took centre-stage at vital moments of the game in the first three days to put Railways in a commanding position. It’s still early days this Ranji season, but JP’s surprise picks along with their regulars can turn into a potent mix, and can be a handful against some of the best teams in this competition.
Brief Scores: Railways: 331 and 180/2 (SS Shukla 128 and 83 no) lead by 296 runs against Punjab 215 (Manjeet Singh 4/56).