The Assam Ranji team’s maiden entry into the semi-fils has warmed the cockles of cricket enthusiasts’ hearts in the State, coming as it does after a giant-killing run in the group stage. And as they have done in match after match this season, several players have put up their hands to play a crucial role for the team’s cause. The semis were being played at neutral venues to negate home advantage, and Assam at Valsad in Gujarat was up against Punjab to which it had lost in three Ranji engagements in earlier years. But after the pace duo of Krish Das and Arup Das, ably supported by all-rounder Pallavkumar Das, made regular breakthroughs to rout Punjab for 137 in the first innings, Jamaluddin Syed Mohammad hit a battling overnight century, only his second first-class hundred. More importantly, he held on to the innings for over 21 overs with the last two wickets while grafting 100 runs. The wagging by the Team Assam tail ensured it got a healthy first innings lead of 186 runs. When Punjab began with a victory target of 288, it was the turn of Arup Das to run amok with eight scalps, finishing with a total match haul of 11 wickets. In the last-four clash, Assam will have to play Saurashtra for a place in the fils. Languishing for years at the bottom of domestic cricket, can Assam Ranji cricketers now play out of their skins twice more and accomplish what has hitherto been unthinkable? But a look at some epic moments of this team during their amazing run, shows that it has brought a tremendous work ethic, consistency and character to the field, which needs to be properly appreciated. This is a far cry from earlier years when the Assam Ranji teams mostly ended on the losing side, despite some occasiol flashes in the pan.
When last year’s Ranji champions Kartaka began their title defence against Assam in Guwahati on October last year, not many would have bet upon the home team. Led by R Viy Kumar, the Kartaka team had players like Robin Uthappa and several others who have figured at the intertiol level. But the Assam team got off to a rousing start with Jamaluddin Syed Mohammad bagging seven wickets with his left arm spin to help bowl out Kartaka for 187. Then the entire Assam team batted with grit to take a crucial first innings lead of seven runs. When Kartaka set a target of 388 and bowled strongly, KB Arun Karthick hit a valiant 115 to help Assam escape defeat, and hang on to first-innings lead. Team Assam then followed this up by thrashing two-time Ranji champions Rajasthan by an innings and 152 runs, thanks to another superlative ton by Karthick and a rip-roaring 10-wicket haul by Krish Das. When the Delhi team came visiting, Gautam Gambhir’s men were handed an outright defeat in a tense, low scorer in which most Assam bowlers were among the wickets. Though the Delhi bowling attack threatened to run away with the game, the 83-run fourth wicket partnership between Karthick and rising talent Rahul Hazarika helped stem the tide. Playing Harya for the first time, the Assam team despite conceding a first innings lead of 48 runs, creditably held its nerve by first bowling out their rivals and then chasing down a target of 160 runs. Against Bengal in a crucial Group A match, there was much suspense whether the Assam team would at all qualify for the knockout stage. After conceding a massive 301-run first innings lead to Bengal, Assam fought a tremendous rearguard battle to force a draw. The all-important single point to sneak into the knockout stage came thanks to a patient half-century by opener Pallavkumar Das, and then the last three men Amit Sinha, JS Mohammad and Wasiqur Rahman seeing off 18.5 overs for just 17 runs. By saving this match, the Assam team pipped Delhi by one point and entered the quarter-fils as the third team from Group A behind Vidarbha and Bengal. Fittingly, Team Assam has now capitalised on that hard-fought entry by upending Punjab to create history. What this journey shows is a team with never-say-die spirit, in which the batters and bowlers have backed each other’s efforts to the hilt — all astutely marshalled by skipper Gokul Sharma and welded into a fighting unit by coach Sath Kumar. Thanks to them, Assam cricket, emerging painfully from Bikash Baruah’s long reign of sleaze, is at last hitting the headlines for the right reasons. Whether this will translate into more exposure for Assam cricketers in the IPL and call-ups for the tiol cricket teams will be followed with great interest here.