In normal circumstances, the Services versus Mumbai game (16-21 January) in Delhi would have been just another domestic match even though it was purported to be the semi-finals of the country’s premier domestic tournament, the Ranji Trophy. But there was one big reason why the match had special significance for the Services players and spectators.
The team was a surprise entrant in the penultimate round. A hard-working side without any superstars, Services had reached this far with three wins, five draws and one defeat. The proceedings at the Palam A Ground in Delhi, though, were saved from being mundane by the presence of Sachin Tendulkar, who recently retired from One Day Internationals (ODIs) and was making a rare domestic appearances for Mumbai.
Tendulkar once admitted that when playing domestic cricket, which he does rarely, he normally asks the non-striker what kind of bowler he is facing. But for once, most of the other Mumbai players too had no clue about their opposition. Yashpal Singh, the top run scorer (790) for Services this year, says he was the only player who had played against Tendulkar—in an Indian Premier League (IPL) match in 2010. “We were the underdogs, we just wanted to do well and not think too much,” says Singh.
Services were also up against a 39-time champion (Mumbai beat Saurashtra in the final on 28 January to win their 40th title). “I was extremely upset at not being part of the team because of a knee injury and also missing a chance of sharing the same field with Tendulkar,” says Soumik Chatterjee, the Services captain who did not play the match.
Debutants Nakul Verma, Anshul Gupta and Shadab Nazar were aware this could be their first and last on-field experience with Tendulkar. “I saw Sachin bhai’s kit-bag,” says Verma. “There were pictures of God (Sai Baba, Sherawali) stuck and a note pasted which said: ‘All the best, from Arjun, Sara and mama’. I thought that this man is so grounded.”
Verma also speaks of the small tool-kit, with a hammer and a cutter to work on his bat, which Tendulkar carries. Verma also noticed three-four grips on Tendulkar’s bats.
Says Chatterjee, “Sachin was so focused and involved that he used to talk to the bowlers after almost every ball.”
Most of the Services team had hoped to treat Tendulkar as just another player, but they were floored by the 15 minutes he spent with them in the dressing room after the sixth day. Medium-pacer Suraj Yadav, who is the leading wicket-taker (43) for Services this year, and has also been selected for the National Cricket Academy camp, says the key take away from the pep talk was, “Whatever be the profession, you have to be completely involved to be successful”.
Wing Commander Deepak Bhaskar, manager of the Services team, says Tendulkar’s advice was to remember the importance of putting pressure on the other team by playing on a batsman’s patience. “It is all about creating that one hole in the wall (the batting line-up) and maintaining that pressure until the wall crumbles.” Bhaskar adds: “He treated us as an opponent till the match got over, then he was his real self.”
Verma says two things will remain etched in memory: “Face challenges and do not avoid the bowler you fear the most. Your best friend is not the one who you go out with for a coffee or a movie but the one who helps you overcome a difficult situation between the 22 yards.”
On field, says Nazar, “the jitters were only till Tendulkar came to the crease. After that things were normal.” But Nazar remembers Tendulkar’s emphasis on talking cricket to people because “the more you talk the more you learn about the game”.
Mumbai won the rain-affected game on the basis of a first-innings lead but for the Services’ players, there was more to it than the disappointment of losing a place in the final.