Despite semifinal defeat, Assam’s Vijay Hazare showing was creditable.

-Atreyo Mukhopadhyay

One of the greatest joys of watching domestic cricket, or sport for that matter, is to witness the rise of the underdogs. The favourites usually have better resources, following and the wherewithal. They are expected to win. But it’s a different story as far as the smaller sides go. For them, it’s almost always an uphill task, where they have to punch above weight to make a mark.

Assam’s story in this season’s Vijay Hazare Trophy has been one like that. They lost to Maharashtra in the semifinal on Wednesday alright, but not before making 338 chasing a target of 351. They had beaten Jammu & Kashmir by seven wickets after conceding 350 in the quarterfinals. In the group stages they had put it across fancied sides like Karnataka, Delhi, Vidarbha and Rajasthan.

This has been some rise, considering that Assam does not have much of a standing in the domestic circuit. None of them has ever played for India, hardly came into national reckoning do be honest. For years, their role was to make up the numbers, produce one or two performances of note and get knocked out from the early stages of the competitions. Not that there had never been any exception, but those were exceptions. It was more or less taken for granted that they would lose.

They turned things around in some style in the national 50-over championship. Chasing down a total of above 290 against Karnataka, 350 against Jammu & Kashmir, defending 250 against Delhi and coming close despite conceding 350 against Maharashtra, the Assam players showed a lot of character and verve, other than the skills. The most impressive part was, it was a team effort.

Yes, Riyan Parag was the most standout performer with the bat and cracked three centuries including a 116-ball 174 in the quarter-final. He was also the inspiration one can say. Having being a regular in the IPL for Rajasthan Royals for a few seasons, he is perhaps more confident than his teammates. The point to note is, almost all his teammates contributed. It’s difficult for a team to come up with a string of impressive performances if it’s dependent on one or two individuals.

Assam got timely and crucial runs also from Shib Sankar Roy, Swarupam Purakayastha and Rishbah Das. Mukhtar Hussain, Avinov Choudhury, Rajjakuddin Ahmed and Parag himself took wickets. It was total team work, without which it’s not possible to perform consistently in a long tournament like the Vijay Hazare Tophy. Assam do not have a lot of players in the list of top 10 run scorers or wicket takers. And that shows how creditably they played as a unit.

Courtesy: Assam Cricket Association

This has not happened just like that. After years of mediocre or below-par performances, their cricket authorities took a decision a few years back that they will not hire outstation players. Every team can recruit three and Assam was one of the teams which used to do that. Instead, they decided that they would groom their own players, give them some time and then see where it goes. Initially, even the support staff was also entirely from Assam.

Although they do have Vidarbha’s Trevor Gonzalves as head coach these days, the batting and bowling coaches are their home grown Subhrajit Saikia and Salil Sinha, respectively. And they have stuck to the ploy of fielding their own players. This plan did not pay off immediately, but it’s for all to see that it eventually has. Assam had been winning the odd matches in the last few years, but now they have put up a performance worth noting. Yes, they are not going to be in the final, but they have offered the joy of watching the underdogs outsmart fancied opponents. Well done boys.

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