A new Ranji season ushers in, but JP Yadav is nursing an old wound. It goes back to the time when he took charge as the Railways coach three years ago. “During my tenure, we didn’t have a settled squad and some of the changes I made did not work,” he laments. Taking blame for his inability to help the team progress beyond the group stage — they have now failed to enter the knock-outs since 2012-13 — prompted Yadav to resign the following year.
Looking back, he reckons it was the lack of unity within the team that had left him disillusioned. It’s ironic considering this was the tenet that had driven Railways to the heady and intoxicating highs as a domestic superpower in the mid-aughts, when they won a brace of Ranji and Irani Trophy titles (2002 and 2005), and finished as worthy runners-up to Baroda in 2001. Central to the team’s rise was Yadav, along with Murali Karthik, Sanjay Bangar and Yere Goud. “My stint as a first-class player coincided with the Railways’ rise. During those days, we had a pool of talented players, who knew what their roles were and they played for each other. There were hardly any changes in the team during that decade — from 2000-2010 — when we used to qualify on a regular basis,” he notes.
A more worrying aspect for Yadav was that there weren’t enough talented players coming through the ranks. “I can understand that after 2011, when your core group of players (like Bangar, Karthik, Gowd and Yadav) retires, there’s bound to be a phase when a team will struggle to find immediate replacements. But even after six years, if you are struggling will team combinations, it shows there’s a deep-rooted issue,” he says.
Railways Section Officer and games-in-charge, Sanjay Kumar, believes the reason for this phenomenon is because youngsters didn’t find the Indian Railways a lucrative employment option, as it was the case in the past. Not surprisingly, the number of job applications for vacancies have also fallen drastically over the years. “Twenty years ago, there would be atleast 3,000 applicants for 600 vacancies. That number has now come down to around 300,” Kumar says.
The Railways Sports Promotion Board (RSPB) also resorted to trials and talent scouting to unearth talent. Even this has not resulted into anything substantial.
“We used to conduct trials and the players who got selected would be drafted into our pool. Even here, most of them who got selected opted out saying they preferred to play with their state association,” Kumar elaborates. The RSPB even sent scouts to select stand-out performers from the junior circuit. “When we selected a certain player, he told us: ‘Sir, mujhe cricketer banna hain, Railways ki naukri nahi chahiye.’ So, we have lost out on some potential players who could not have represented us,” Kumar elaborates.
It’s not such a cut-and-dry scenario though. Harsh Tyagi, left-arm spinner based in Noida and T. Pradeep, fast bowler from Bangalore, are two players from the current Ranji Trophy squad to have risen through the ranks after securing jobs through sports quota.
Influx from Bengal
They are not alone. As many as five players from Bengal, who have been performing admirably for their state team at the U-19 and U-23 levels, have also switched their allegiances last season. They are Abhijit Singh — captain of the Railways U-23 squad, Kanishk Seth, Saurabh Singh, Akash Pandey and Ananta Saha — who topped the list of wicket-takers during last season’s CK Nayudu Trophy. They had harboured hopes of representing Bengal in Ranji Trophy at some point. But repeated snubs prompted them to take up this offer. “Bengal is a big Railways hub. We have three units: Eastern Railways, South-Eastern Railways and the Metro. All these players joined our U-23 squad last year since they were employed in one of these units,” Kumar opines.
While the emergence of these players offers hope, this team is still far away from being the cohesive and mean winning machine that Yadav had played in. Ahead of their season-opener against Uttar Pradesh in Meerut, two senior players — wicket-keeper and former captain Mahesh Rawat was dropped on grounds of ‘gross indiscipline, while medium-pacer Anureet Singh got the axe owing to poor form. Kumar admits the decision to ignore Rawat was taken in the best interests of the team. “He has been a bad example to youngsters. It’s time to look beyond him now.” To Rawat’s credit, the 34-year-old veteran of 113 first-class matches was the team’s top-scorer last season, with 478 runs and two centuries to his credit. People close to him admit his wealth of experience would have been invaluable for the team in the season ahead. But Kumar and the selectors disagree. They term him a ‘divisive figure’ in the dressing room. Seasoned leg-spinner Karn Sharma takes over the reins in such tumultuous times.
With regard to Anureet, selector Kulamani Parida asserts the pacer was in the scheme of things, despite his ouster from the shorter formats earlier in the season. “We have no issues with him. He is a senior bowler and has played with us for more than eight years. We dropped him from Syed Mushtaq Trophy and Vijay Hazare owing to his poor form. He would still have been considered, but he applied for NOC and moved out, “he says. The 31-year-old pacer, however, counters these claims. “It’s this feeling of insecurity that was my motivation to move out.”
“It’s unfortunate that the season had to begin in this manner. But the good news is that we have a good team with a blend of experience and youth. It’s not like we have made wholesale changes from last year. We have seniors like Arindam Ghosh, Avinash Yadav, Pratham Singh, Nitin Bhille and captain Karn Sharma, who form the core group,” Kumar concludes. A passage to the knockouts could just be the antidote to quell the all-pervading negativity lingering in the Railways dressing room.