From the publishers of THE HINDU
Vol. 24 :: No. 44 :: Nov. 03 - 09, 2001
HERE & THERE -- Amrit Mathur Column
Intense competition in Central Zone
PEOPLE who consider Ranji a picnic must take a second look at teams in the Central Zone. Competition here is intense, little separates the teams and final positions in the league are decided by the thinnest of margins. The same pattern should unfold this time too, perhaps in a more heightened form. From next year only two teams will qualify for Ranji's premier division, hence the extra preparation to ensure top results.
To gear up to the challenge teams are using innovative methods, most interesting being the unprecedented mobility of players and coaches. More than any other zone in India, Central sees a lot of players - both past and present - coming in from outside and quickly hopping from one team to the other.
Vidharbha, perhaps the weakest combination in the zone, has engaged Sadanand Vishwanath from Karnataka who will be its new coach. Earlier, Vidharbha had Lalchand Rajput as coach cum player, now Sadanand is expected to pick up the pieces to improve performance. Sadanand is not the only senior player playing a second innings. Yashpal is coach of U.P. whose previous coach was Venkat Sunderam, who before that coached and managed the Railways. Yashpal captained Railways for a couple of seasons in the early 90's, after he severed links with Punjab. Both Yashpal and Sadanand are first class umpires and are expected to continue their careers even as they take charge of Ranji sides.
Also, in what is an extremely interesting merry go round, Rajasthan's main player is former international Sanjeev Sharma who earlier did duty for Delhi and Railways. Sanjeev is efficient and effective, a focussed pro who delivers on the strength of skill, loads of hard work and an enormous amount of experience. With Rajasthan, Sanjeev is coach cum player, his job is to bowl steady medium pace, hold the middle order together and, importantly, guide the pack of young emerging players. Years of playing professionally in England enable Sanjeev to play out these different roles satisfactorily, he is a fitness fanatic known to approach cricket with a seriousness normally missing in others. In India it is fashionable to talk about professionalism (usually without having a clue about what it means) but if it stands for honest effort, steady commitment, self motivation and consistent performance then Sanjeev fits the bill.
Crossing swords with him in the zone is new entrant, Nikhil Chopra who has crossed over to U.P. from Delhi. Nikhil struggled last season for various reasons and with Sarandeep shifting to Delhi his was an easy decision to make. Nikhil's presence will surely bolster U.P.'s sagging bowling because Zaidi, their most experienced strike bowler, is getting along in years while the young colt, Salabh Srivastava, though full of promise is not the type to run through a side, certainly not on batting tracks.
As part of this crazy Central Zone merry go round, an ex-Railway player returns - but this time as captain of rival Madhya Pradesh. Sulakshan Kulkarni started off in Bombay several moons back, then opted for the Railways, then went somewhere else before returning to Mumbai and then fading out. But now, in what is an impressive rebirth, he takes over from Chandrakant Pandit, another stalwart who was pulled out from part retirement to land the captaincy of M.P. Sulakshan's appointment means that M.P.'s tradition of making ex-Bombay players captain, which started with Sandip Patil, continues for a longer period.
It is not just past players and coaches who are skipping from one team to the other, current players too are afflicted by the bug. Saket Bhatia played for the Railways, shifted to Rajasthan for a couple of seasons but is fighting for a place in Delhi. M.P.'s prolific opener J. P. Yadav is now taking stance in the Railway's net, where he is expected to open the innings with Amit Pagnis, a dashing left hander who started his career as a junior India player from Mumbai. At number three on the Railway card is Sanjay Bangar, a consistent all rounder who came through junior cricket in Bombay but did not play first class cricket for them. Sanjay Khanolkar, rated more as a one day player by Mumbai, is also integral to the Railway batting, he is an impressive and aggressive player.
A little down the order is Railway's trump card Yere Goud (who scored almost 1,000 runs last year) who originally arrived from Karnataka. The cultured player has been a huge influence, scoring runs and fielding brilliantly but his achievements are largely ignored by the selectors. Keeping him company in the middle order is Raja Ali, formerly of M.P., another talented player who has the ability to make the higher grade. His former teammate Santosh Sahu is also part of the Railway team, he too moved a year back. With all this migration, Prahlad Rawat, a former Vidharbha player, has temporarily lost his place in the eleven though he captained Railways not long ago. The Railway's medium pace is in the hands of Harvinder Singh who played for Punjab and his likely new ball partner is Santosh Saxena who till last season turned out for Mumbai. Spin will be in the hands of Kartik but he will have a new partner in Orissa's highly rated Sanjay Satpathy.
The Railways keeps acquiring experienced players from other states because it provides jobs. As part of this on-going process Jacob Martin is supposed to join them on return from South Africa and indications are Deep Dasgupta is contemplating a similar move. All this makes the Railways resemble a Rest Of India squad, a collection of players from different backgrounds. But while many outsiders come in, young talent also emerges from the Railway junior teams. Murali Kartik, off spinner Parida and Zakir are examples of such players, all of them made outstanding contributions in the under-19 tournaments and progressed to Ranji.
The Board's rules allowing professionals from outside to play Ranji (overriding normal eligibility conditions of birth and employment) have transformed Central Zone cricket. The steady influx of talent raises standards, matches are keenly fought and there is plenty of pressure on players to keep their places. Presently, these players trickle in to further their careers (Nikhil Chopra, for example) while others are motivated by financial considerations, certainly the coaching assignments are contract appointments and the money in some cases is not that bad.
At some stage or the other, four of the five teams in the zone have made it to the finals of Ranji which indicates that cricket here is as strong as anywhere else. Having successfully tried out the formula of imported players and imported coaches, Central Zone could take the ultimate leap of offering players yearly contracts. Don't scoff. This could happen - all it needs is one bold, progressive cricket official to set the ball rolling.
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