New Delhi: As dusk set in at the air force station ground at Palam, there was a sense of gratification in the air. With the backdrop and noise of an air force plane descending down to land at the nearby Palam Airport, a sergeant in the air force walked to the middle of the ground after the team meeting and bend down on his knees as if praying. Almost immediately, those in the pavilion inquired whether he was crying. As it turned out, he was.
Playing his debut Ranji Trophy season back in 2006 against Tripura, Sergeant Soomik Chatarjee was at the crease when his team, Services, registered a 10-wicket victory to claim a bonus point. He had scored 62 then. Now, in 2012, Chatarjee found himself in the middle once again and this time around, he was the captain. Services had just posted another 10-wicket victory and claimed a bonus point against Assam. A first win for Services, that too with a bonus point for the first time in six years, was overwhelming for the 24-year-old and indeed he found it hard to keep his emotions in check.
For three days, Services dominated the Group C table toppers, which was something no one expected. Services have been perennial underdogs and are considered easy-beats. With three drawn games before this, they did not go into the game against an in-form Assam hoping for an easy win. “The expectations of an outright win rose only when we got two quick wickets in the second innings”, said Chatarjee after the game. The last three seasons for Services were forgettable but this year it was clear that they wanted to change that. For starters, the BCCI re-laid the Palam pitch and invested in better training equipment after the management put in a request to the board.
Last year, Services had fielded five debutants in their opening match and this season they blooded two, but more importantly three of five debutants last year were already regulars in the playing XI. With the experience of stalwart Yashpal Singh and 38-year-old wicketkeeper Sarabjit Singh to mentor the new players, Services hoped for a better campaign in the new Ranji format. They took three points in their season opener against Andhra and then conceded the first-innings lead to Himachal Pradesh. Yashpal scored a double-century in the third game against Tripura as Services picked up three points.
Debutant medium-pacer Shadab Nazar impressed in his first game, scoring an unbeaten 52 off 72 balls when batting at No. 10 and claiming three wickets in the draw against Andhra. Ansuhl Gupta, the other debutant this season, had twin fifties against Himachal and 147 against Tripura.
The middle-order batsman Rajat Paliwal was also enjoying a purple patch with scores of 72, 52 and 104* in three innings.
But the Assam game was a different ball game. Services were playing their first home game and with a re-laid pitch, the ‘home advantage’ was nullified. The bowlers took centre stage on day one by bundling out Assam for 182. Suraj Yadav, the 25-year-old right-arm medium-pacer playing his second season, scalped four wickets with Nazar and Nishan Singh picking two each. This performance left Chatarjee a happy man. “I expected a lot from the bowlers as they were not able to provide the breakthroughs in the previous games but they did that here,” he said.
Riding on the bowler’s good performance, Services’ batsmen ensured the first-innings lead with the pitch holding up well. Paliwal’s 167 was the fulcrum around which the batting revolved even though Yashpal failed to deliver. The 24-year-old, playing his second season, had got into the Services squad after an open net selection. The technically sound batsman from Sonepat joined the Services just for cricket and is content_cn with batting long hours in the middle. His numbers this season show that.
Nazar, who took match-winning figures of 6 for 50 against Assam, is also enjoying the season so far both with the bat and bowl. The 26-year-old, who is a corporal in the air force, had to wait a long time to get a place in the squad and is holding on to the opportunity for dear life. After being in the reserves for over three years, Nazar went back to his hometown of Bijnor for some soul searching and under his first coach he tweaked his bowling action to come out as a better cricketer. His 11 wickets in four matches in the Inter-Services tournament paved the way for a place in the Ranji squad.
With fixtures against Kerala, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand to go, Services would be hoping to get into the knock-out stages which they have not done in quite a while. The win against table-toppbers Assam has clearly bolstered their chances of qualification as they jumped to second spot in the group standings. Chatarjee will also be hoping that his team gallops on in the tournament, but to see him shed tears of joy once again, Services might well have to script a fairytale saga this season.