2016 | The Year Of the Under Dog- Story No. 7

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2016 | The Year Of the Under Dog- Story No. 7

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Bastab K Parida

12/30/2016

Our No.7 story in the underdog series features the Assam Ranji Team that achieved the unthinkable by entering the semi-finals of the 2015-16 Ranji Trophy. With a concrete vision and sound execution, Assam proved that they have the capability to take on the big boys of the Indian domestic circuit.

Playing cricket professionally in Assam, or any of the North Eastern states of India for that matter, is never easy due to the odds that are firmly stacked against them. The unpredictable climatic conditions, coupled with the ever present political turmoil in the state only add to their woes.

Despite facing such adversities, the Assam Ranji team produced one of the biggest underdog stories of the year by qualifying for the semi-finals, for the first time in their 66-year history. 

After staying put in the lower-tier plate group since their first appearance, Assam entered the quarter-finals in the 2014-15 season by topping the Group-C table. But the real magic came through in the following season when they managed to secure five outright victories against the top teams for their semi-final qualification.

The mission started with a first-innings lead against defending champions Karnataka in their first Group-A match of the tournament. But, the comforts of home territory dragged down the importance of their herculean efforts, and it was described as a fluke by many experts. But, determined to create an impact- led by an inspirational captain, a visionary coach, and a pace bowler who had seen death from very close quarters, Assam proved everyone wrong by defeating Rajasthan and Haryana in their following matches. Defeating the table-toppers Delhi was the cherry on the cake, and it also ensured their knock-out berth for the second consecutive time.

Assam faltered in the semi-final in which Saurashtra beat them convincingly by 10 wickets to secure their final date with the eventual champions Mumbai. But in the journey, Assam, sans any big names, had created a ripple for sure. 

Creating an upset in a match or two is one thing, but repeating the feat time and again is another. So, how did the resurgence come about? Many factors came together to ensure this phenomenon.

Earlier, Assam’s biggest reason for their failure was the lack of match-winners in the team. But since the 2014-15 season that had undergone a metamorphosis as the small names in the team started weaving magic- both with the willow and the leather. Guys like Krishna Das, Arup Das, Swarupam Purkayastha, Rahul Hazarika, and Gokul Sharma made sure that the team performed consistently and didn’t lose the momentum mid-way. 

Young pacer Krishna Das, who had faced a life-threatening road accident in 2004, has been their most successful bowler for the last three seasons. Although that accident had left him with broken legs, a severely damaged left shoulder, a fractured left hand, and several stitches throughout the body, it couldn’t hinder him from achieving his dream of playing for Assam. Just two months after that accident, Krishna came back strongly to the cricket field, although with a slightly disoriented action. Now almost after a decade, Krishna was picking wickets at will, becoming the main enforcer of Assam’s rise.

They say you can’t win a multi-day match riding on one shoulder. Another pacer in the form of Arup Das stepped in to make his presence felt. Arup was a childhood friend of Krishna who grew up playing cricket together in their town Barpeta. That bonding helped the duo to form a deadly partnership in first-class cricket for Assam. 

The man, who has been leading the team in their resurgence, was the then-coach Sanath Kumar, a former Karnataka player and the former assistant coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore. Sanath, who had been with Assam for 10 years till the 2015-16 season, albeit during different spells and capacities, made sure that the talents didn’t go unnoticed.

Small states like Assam and Tripura have never been devoid of talents but what those players lack the most is proper guidance and the dare to dream. That is where the importance of a professional cricketer counts a lot. The Assam Cricket Association understood that point and roped in Tamil Nadu players KB Arun Karthik and J Syed Mohammed along with Karnataka all-rounder Amit Verma. Karthik repaid that faith surrounding him and inspired the younger lot with his bat, by scoring at an average of a shade over 50.

But this was not the first time that Assam had hired professionals. From the 1990s, Assam has been a place for the discarded cricketers to play a year or two before hanging their boots. Chandrakant Pandit, Lalchand Rajput, and Sulakshan Kulkarni in the 1990s, and Vinayak Samant, Divakar Vasu, J Arunkumar, Rashmi Ranjan Parida, Jacob Martin, Anand Katti, Amol Muzumdar, Sairaj Bahutule, and Dheeraj Jadhav in the 21st century have been part of the team. Their contribution to the state’s cricket can’t be ignored at all, as they dotted the landscape for their success in 2016.

"The thing about our professionals is that they are quality players, but not stars. So they are equally driven to perform and prove themselves as much as the others. They have gelled well; the experience they bring is valuable," Sanath had said, in an interview to ESPN Cricinfo.

Assam failed to emulate the same performance this year as they lost five matches without posing any big challenge, but nonetheless, their performance in the 2015-16 season was a revelation.  They had proved that with a concrete vision and sound execution, a state, which had to fight against a lot of odds, can still achieve the wonders.

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