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Assam players pose for photograph after defeating Rajasthan by an innings and 142 runs on the last day of Ranji cricket tournament in Guwahati on Sunday. Photo: PTI
Assam players pose for photograph after defeating Rajasthan by an innings and 142 runs on the last day of Ranji cricket tournament in Guwahati on Sunday. Photo: PTI

A rising in the east

As Mumbai clinch their 41st Ranji Trophy title, the untold story of how cricketing minnows Assam reached the semi-finals for the first time in their history

In Assam, it rains for eight months in the year, not ideal conditions for cricket, a sport in which players trot off the field when a cloud so much as casts a shadow on the ground. The Nehru Stadium, in Guwahati, Assam’s largest city, is one of the few cricket stadiums in the country that is also used for football. Assam’s greatest first-class cricketers—Rajesh Borah, who scored over 3,000 first-class runs in the 1980s and 1990s, and fast bowlers Munna Kakoti and Anup Ghatak—are probably known only to locals and quizzing enthusiasts. No one from the state has ever played for India.

It is not surprising then that when former Assam captain Bimal Bharali was asked by website ESPNcricinfo to describe the state of cricket in Assam back in 2007, he said, “No exposure, no backing, no patron, no recognition."

Yet, nine years on, Assam reached the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy, India’s premier domestic cricket competition. It was their best-ever finish since they made their debut in the tournament in 1948-49. Along the way, they beat Delhi, Rajasthan and Punjab, all teams with illustrious histories, and won on first-innings lead against Karnataka, the defending champions.

What is even more impressive is that this was the second season running that Assam made the knockout stages of the Ranji Trophy—they reached the quarter-finals in 2014-15. In the past two seasons they have won nine of their 19 matches, a remarkable improvement on the less than 15% win record they had in the Ranji Trophy before that.

At the centre of this rise has been a coach determined to give youth an opportunity and two young seam bowlers—Krishna and Arup Das—who have been playing together since they were children.

Sanath Kumar, the former Karnataka bowler who had coached Assam in the mid-2000s, returned to the role ahead of the 2014-15 season. He had had stints with Karnataka, Baroda and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the meantime, but was keen to resume work on the changes he had tried to spark in Assamese cricket in his first stint.

During those five seasons, he and Rajesh Borah, then head coach at the Assam Cricket Association, had put a lot of work into finding young talent from outside Guwahati, where most of Assam’s cricketers tended to come from, and had been making commendable progress before four of the brightest young talents left and signed lucrative contracts with the rebel Indian Cricket League.

Despite that setback, Assam managed to get promoted to the elite division of the Ranji Trophy in 2009-10, but hopes of further progress were deflated when they finished 26th out of 27 teams in the 2013-14 season. This was when Sanath was brought back.

Back in 2005, Sanath had been particularly impressed with a then 15-year-old seam bowler named Krishna Das, from remote Barpeta in Lower Assam, a region that had produced few cricketers, and handed him a first-class debut. In October 2006, however, Krishna was injured in a car accident that threatened to end his career.

He played only a few games thereafter till 2014-15, but when Sanath returned he was determined to resurrect Krishna’s career. He made him play the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s pre-season tournament, and Krishna delivered by picking up 23 wickets at 18.56.

Then, in the 2014-15 Ranji season, he joined Arup Das, also from the Barpeta district, to open Assam’s attack. The duo took a total of 47 wickets through the season, supporting spinner Swarupam Purkayastha, whose 36 wickets made him the most successful spin bowler of the season across teams.

The combination of a threatening opening bowling partnership and a match-winning spinner made Assam an exciting proposition ahead of the 2015-16 season, but they were dealt a blow when Purkayastha’s action came under scrutiny, forcing him to miss three games. The two Dases, who had been friends from childhood, now had to shoulder the bowling attack and they responded with 85 wickets at a combined average of 17.25. Krishna’s 50 wickets made him the second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament, a feat that had seemed impossible when he was lying motionless in a hospital 10 years ago, his coach Sanath at his side.

While Krishna was the star of the group stages, taking five five-wicket hauls, Arup was the one who took Assam further than they had ever been in the Ranji Trophy. His eight second-innings wickets thwarted Punjab in the quarter-finals.

“Punjab batsmen are stroke players, so back-of-a-length deliveries and swing troubled them," Arup, who learnt about bowling by watching India seamer Praveen Kumar on television, says of his game plan. “(Indian spinner) Harbhajan Singh came to our dressing room and praised me."

Sanath explains that it was the contrasting personalities of the two Dases that made them such a deadly pair. “Arup is a lion-hearted and bindaas (free-spirited) guy on and off the field. His inswingers and bouncers are good; he may not impress in the nets, but he is very intelligent and knows how to pick up wickets," he says. “Inswingers are Krishna’s strength, and he is the fittest player in the team. Both are equally hungry to play a higher level of cricket, which is a rarity in Assam, and bond really well. Arup is the guy who has fun but scores well in exams, while Krishna studies hard for his marks."

Since Assam had never won in their previous eight knockout fixtures in the top division, Sanath’s preparation for their quarter-final against Punjab was meticulous. The game was to be played in Valsad, Gujarat, so he arranged for practice sessions on the main pitch at the Bilakhiya Stadium in Vapi, Gujarat, to help his team get accustomed to the conditions.

The rain in Assam means the team cannot prepare much in the off season, so Sanath had to be quick with his thinking as the season progressed. He quickly realized that seam bowling would be the key to his team’s success, for it was something opponents would not expect from Assam. “Because we are Assam, when we play away games, teams prepare green pitches for us, hoping for outright wins. It suits us as seamers are our strength."

More than on-field strategy, Sanath focused on creating an atmosphere in the dressing room that encouraged players to revel in each other’s success. The team management collected funds from each individual and an in-house jury awarded 1,000 to their own man of the match, best batsman, best bowler, best fielder, best encourager and best team man after every game. Those who slipped up on the field were made to pay fines. “That way everyone was accountable and in good spirit," Sanath says. “There was bonding in the team."

A fatherly figure to the boys, Sanath set achievable goals to keep the team confident. “All I asked for is their best in each session and for them not to think about the result," he says. “The fun in coaching small teams is that you can make a real difference. It gives me personal satisfaction."

While the Krishna and Arup Das opening bowling duo reflected Assam’s emphasis on giving young players chances, a clutch of senior professional players was equally important to their incredible run. Assam have always made intelligent use of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s rule to allow teams to sign up three professionals from other states. The Mumbai trio of Chandrakant Pandit, Lalchand Rajput and Sulakshan Kulkarni played for the state in the early 1990s and Amol Muzumdar, the second-most prolific Ranji batsman ever, moved there in 2009.

For the 2015-16 season, they had Arun Karthik and Amit Verma, two batsmen with plenty of Ranji Trophy runs behind them, and J. Syed Mohammed, a left-arm all-rounder who grew up in Tamil Nadu but joined Assam in 2011-12, having never played first-class cricket for his home state.

Mohammed made two major contributions to Assam’s run, the first in the season opener, against Karnataka, which set the tone for the rest of the campaign. His 7 for 44 reduced Karnataka to a low total, letting Assam get a first-inning lead, which gave them their first points of the tournament and, more importantly, the belief that they could challenge the top teams. “The Karnataka match was the most important," says coach Sanath. “I told the boys, ‘This is the game, be positive and don’t think just about surviving.’"

In the quarter-final, when Assam lost five wickets for just over 100 runs, Mohammed came in and scored 121 to keep them in the game. It was only his second first-class century. “To stay away from home for four-five months is challenging," Mohammed said of playing for Assam. “I am glad I delivered for Assam, who gave my career a new lease of life."

Assam, it seemed, kept finding heroes when they needed them. Karthik’s 802 runs through the season included a century in tricky conditions against Maharashtra, earning Assam crucial away points. “It was one of the most challenging knocks of my career," Karthik says. “The wicket was damp and green; the ball was not coming on to the bat. One ball kicked off from a spot on a good length spot, while another rolled."

While Sanath ensured his team prepared right for games, captain Gokul Sharma made critical decisions on the field. “He, unlike many others, is never hesitant to go beyond his comfort zone," Sanath says of Sharma.

So where does this campaign leave Assamese cricket? Sharma’s goal is “to try winning the Ranji Trophy", but a lot remains to be done, and the team will have to cope with increased expectations. This season, in the semi-final against Saurashtra, the lack of experience showed. “With live coverage, most of the boys were not playing their usual bindaas cricket," Sanath says.

Mostly, though, in order for Assam to sustain their success, the state needs an evolution of its grass-roots cricket and a more defined structure to the way players are developed. “Assam needs a professional league with television coverage and media hype that will make players temperamentally stronger," Sanath says. “The current crop is experienced, but beyond this batch we don’t have bench strength. A year-round professional academy is a must to build on this season’s progress."

Sidhanta Patnaik is a senior staff writer at Wisden India. He tweets @sidhpat

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