Friday, December 27, 2013

Murali Kartik Railways' Ranji Turnaround

Murali Kartik mentors a ‘silent’ transformational performance at Railways
Fast Bowling Trio, Team Bonding and 3Outright wins leads Railways into the Knock out phase
25years ago in the summer of 1988, I umpired a practice match at the YMCA Nandanam ground played between two well known academy sides in Madras – YMCA TSR v Vadapalani SC (VSC). A tiny 11year old from the VSC impressed, that day under the watchful eyes of his then coach Mr. Iqbal, not just with his cricketing skills but with his aggression and competitive spirit as well and his determination to help the un-fancied team win. That day he fought till the end to secure victory for the then under-dog VSC side in their ‘away’ match.

The class VII Jawahar Vidyalaya student Murali Kartik bowled left arm over, was quite quick and beat batsmen for pace on that matting wicket at the center YMCA ground. Later, he came on to bat in the middle order and in his aggressive style took his team to win.

Two and a half decades later and with the experience of over 200first class matches, Kartik, 37, has lost none of his aggression and the competitive spirit that was so symbolic of him even before he had touched his teens and he has done this season exactly what I saw him do that day at YMCA – bring together a young and un-fancied team, build the confidence in them, take on the opposition with aggression and beat them.
(the one difference between then and now is that the left arm quickie of Madras became a left arm tweaker when he moved to Delhi when still in his teens)

Unfortunately, despite displaying outstanding leadership taking over the team in a difficult transition phase and securing the kind of results that no cricket expert would have predicted at the start of the Ranji season, the media focus has been on an one off mankading incident – he once again- as he did in England during the county season there last year - did warn the non striker) instead of  his outstanding achievement with this young and rather un-fancied team.

Despite being the best left arm spinner of the last two decades, he was sidelined for reasons that still remain a mystery. Now in his 20th season of first class cricket, Kartik has, over the last two months, quietly mentored a Railways team into the top of the table and the first team into the knock out phase of the Ranji Trophy from this group, with still a league match in hand. While Karnataka grabbed all the headlines for its first ever outright win over Bombay, Kartik was leading his side to a comeback outright win against Services after setting up a bold declaration on the final morning of the match at its home ground in Delhi.

Chalking out a Turnaround story
While the media focus has been on the failures of Sehwag and Gambir in Delhi in the North of the country and the abysmal performance of TN down South, the new look Railways side has gone almost unnoticed with its remarkable turnaround performance this year under the captaincy of Kartik moving up from 5th and 8th in the league phase in the last two years to top of the table with a match still to play.

It is important to put the performance of Railways and the role of Kartik in perspective. Railways has no big names, the team does not possess the ‘best of infrastructure’ that most other Ranji teams boast of. There are no physios to massage the tired legs at the end of the day and to turn around injuries. There are no branded clothes similar to what the more prominent teams have!! In that sense, it has never been easy for Railways and more often than not, they are a self dependent lot having to take care of their own selves.

Over the last 12months, Railways has lost 3 of its most prominent players of the last decade and a half. For the best part of the 90s and through the last decade, Yere Gowda (Gowd) was the back bone of the middle order and anchored the batting providing stability to the team.  Sanjay Bangar made significant contributions both with the bat and ball over the last decade and more. 
On the spin bowling front, the duo of Murali Kartik and Kulamani Parida toiled hard rolling their arm over tirelessly time and again match after match over the last 15years.

Mentoring a young bunch to success
With the retirement of these three experienced players, Murali Kartik, who has also captained the team in the past, has taken over a mentoring role in an effort to bring the team, comprising of players from different Railway divisions, together into a performing unit. What the team lacks in terms of infrastructure, it makes up with determination and team spirit.

Kartik’s eyes light up when he is asked about his new young team that he has taken charge of this season ‘The team is definitely in a transition stage with a number of new faces. At the start of the season, I wanted to make them dream big. I wanted the entire team to believe in themselves and their ability to perform and topple the more fancied teams. I asked them to perform every match to the best of their ability and not be too bothered about opposition names.’

The pace at which Kartik has been able to bring the best out of these talented youngsters and get them to perform as a team striving for success is a great endorsement of his leadership and mentoring abilities. 

Backed by their captain, the most successful fast bowling trio in the country have bundled out oppositions with a great amount of consistency. Kartik has extracted the best out of Anureet Singh, K Upadhyay and R Mali and that really has been one of the big success stories this year for the Railways – that of consistently bowling out opposition. The trio have bowled over 80% of the overs bowled by Railways this season and the wicket taking strike rate is quite commendable.

Consistently bowling out opposition in under a day
A look at Railways’ performance this year points to the fact that they are probably one of the best bowling units in the country, this despite the fact that Kartik has held himself back through most of the early season. Of course, they have played most of their matches on green tops but Kartik is all for such wickets to improve the quality of cricket in India. He even called the experience of playing against Rajasthan in Jaipur and against TN at Jamia as similar to a match at Wimbledon!!!

Kartik has also pushed spinner Karn Sharma (ahead of bowling himself) to take up more responsibility and perform in crunch situations to help him move up the ladder into the next level. Kartik has bowled and batted only when absolutely required and has mentored his young teammates to strong and successful performances this year.

Madras and Delhi - Contrasting matches
What a contrast to what has been happening in Kartik’s home town here in Madras. Earlier this week, three spinners bowled over a 100overs for TN without any success conceding the first innings lead easily to an under performing Rajasthan side (one that had beaten them in the Ranji Final a couple of years ago at the same venue), up North at Delhi, Kartik had his 3fast bowlers bowl a 100overs (yes, of course the IPL lad Karn Sharma surprised everyone with  8wicket haul in the match) helping fashion a stunning comeback win against Services after Kartik declared on the final morning leaving Rawat stranded just 8runs short of a century.

The Railways team has also had to counter foggy weather in the North of the country over the last fortnight or so. And the decision to declare on the final morning also assumed significance on account of this ( the threat of  weather knocking off play on the final day) for he had to take a calculated risk in terms of timing the declaration and allowing his bowlers enough time to bowl out Services. (remember only around 30overs were possible on the last two days against TN)

Kartik says with pride ‘This is a team that comprises players who put the team ahead of themselves. Hence it was an easy decision to make, in that sense. Railways had 6points to gain and just 1point to lose. We sacrificed Rawat’s century in a bid to try and achieve a victory on the final day. And our bowlers did just that.’

Kartik’s key contribution with the bat
Railways had surrendered the first innings lead to Services after a dismal opening day batting.  Kartik himself played a key role as an opener in the comeback win as it was his 70+ opening partnership with Shukla that brought Railways back into the match and set up the competitive 2nd innings score.

Last month, after his fast bowlers had run through Saurashtra on day 1, Kartik helped his team to a vital first innings lead with an unbeaten 43 after his team was struggling at 100/6 chasing Saurashtra’s 165.

The trio of Mali, Anureet and Upadhyay took 18 of the wickets against Baroda’s Rayudu, Pathan and Co., securing an innings win for Railways, another feather in the cap of Murali Kartik and his young team. This also included bowling the more fancied opponents in under 50overs!!

While the more talked about teams in its zone, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and UP are still struggling, the under-dog Railways reigns supreme under Kartik.

This is only a beginning
With one league match still to go, the team now has a lot of time to plan for its knock out phase, though the opposition or the venue will not be known for some time yet (till the final league matches are concluded). The team is confident now but our feet is firmly on the ground says Kartik reminding his players that this is only a beginning and there is lot of work yet to be done this season. While a couple of the players in the team have already signed up with IPL teams, Kartik is keen in them aiming for Duleep Trophy and Irani Trophy next year so they can set their sights on the longer version of the game. Kartik believes exceptional performances this season will drive them in that direction.

Playing on Green Tops
Kartik has also particularly liked the green wickets that the team has played on. “It is important for the fast bowlers to keep themselves under control and bowl the right areas on such wickets to induce the edges. It makes for a good contest when there are seaming conditions and fast bowlers make the batsmen hop on their feet and induce edges into the slips at constant intervals. That is what the contest between bat and ball is all about. And that is what I have experienced consistently over the last decade playing county cricket. Of course, ideally I would also like the ball to turn on day 3 and 4 of a Ranji contest so the batsman’s ability is put to test against the spinners as well.”

Over the last decade, Kartik has followed up a full county season (April-September) with a full Ranji season. Having turned 37 just a few months back, Kartik’s still has undying passion for the game and that keeps the adrenalin ticking for him. “I still feel the ball comes out of my hand as well as it did 10years ago.’

Many who have seen him bowl this year think that he is still the best left arm spinner in the country (Definitely the Englishmen including Nasser Hussain who have seen him perform in English county cricket vouch for him as the best left arm spinner they have played from India in the last two decades and they hold him in high stead where ever he goes in England) and that is yet another motivator for him to continue on the domestic scene here in India.

It is another question if he can do a ‘John Traicos’ in India!!! Given that Railways are in the knock out phase and are likely to give the best a run for their money ( irrespective of who they face in the Quarters and onwards), one hopes the selectors will keep a close watch on this veteran and if merit warrants, select him once again for India, his age notwithstanding.

Kartik must be commended for this transformational performance of bringing together quite an un-fancied team. If the team keeps its spirit going, it would be no surprise if they lift the Ranji Trophy in a few months time. By the time the season ends, his fast bowling trio could become house hold names in Indian cricket.

Kartik on this part says his immediate focus is to continue the good work with the team and get them to give their best in the next match. He says the knock out is still far way off, but when it does come, he says his team will be motivated to give their best and find happiness in each others’ success.

In the end that is what sport is meant to do.


Anonymous said...

This would go unnoticed but for keen enthusiasts like Prabhu getting into the details. Truth is Karthik would have found a permanent place in any internation side , here he had to struggle , now he is making a marked contribution to cricket in india by showing better teams that a committed team is bigger then any bunch of merely super talented individuals who put self ahead of the team and the sport!! Bravo , Karthik!!!

Anonymous said...

Good Article. Lot of facts that many may not know.

Anonymous said...

It was an enjoyable read.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work, Prabhu

enRenRum-anbudan.BALA said...

Good detailed Analysis.... Enjoyed reading it being a hardcore cricket fan myself :-)