Haven’t had enough opportunities to prove myself: Anureet Singh
Anureet Singh, Railways' highest wicket-taker. (Getty Images)

When Mumbai hammered Railways to score 400 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy in September, Anureet Singh had the second-best figures of 3 for 73. His wickets included that of Mumbai’s top-scorer Shreyas Iyer, captain Ajinkya Rahane and promising allrounder Shivam Dube. Last ball of the innings, Anureet split the webbing on his left arm, attempting a caught and bowled which curtailed his 2018-19 Vijay Hazare Trophy campaign to just three matches.

Following a timely recovery, Anureet returned just in time for Railways’ Ranji Trophy opener against the same opponent, and on a flat surface, removed three of Mumbai’s top four batsmen. Later, with the bat, with Railways struggling at 115 for 6, Anureet scored 38 off 45 balls with seven boundaries, a crucial knock that guaranteed Mumbai a second dig. The 41-time Ranji winners eventually walked away with three points, but it could have easily been seven had Anureet and the rest of Railways’ lower order not chipped in with vital contributions.

“We could have done better with the bat. In the first innings, we lost our first four wickets for some 60-odd runs. Then we had one partnership where we thought we could move forward but then Mahesh got out as well,” Anureet told CricketCountry. “Avinash Yadav and Harsh Tyagi played out time and I think that was a wonderful effort. That was an important period with the ball moving in the morning session. Our plan was to not concede the follow-on because then that would have made life tough for us early into the season. Some 200-odd runs were scored by the tail, not something you see too often.”

The current Ranji Trophy is Anureet’s 10th overall. But despite taking over 100 First-Class wickets in the last four seasons, the best Anureet has to show are a handful of India A games and a few IPL matches. The year was 2015, when Kings XI Punjab took Anureet under its wings, but after the first season, he played just three matches in the next two. Earlier this year, he was picked by Rajasthan Royals, where again, his appearance was limited to three matches.

“I just feel that based on the run I had during the 2015 season, I didn’t get enough chances to prove myself. After picking around 40 wickets for three consecutive years, I felt 2015 could have been my breakthrough year. I played in IPL as well but after one year, I didn’t get many matches to prove myself. Injuries aside, I have done mostly well. I became Railways’ leading-wicket taker of all time and you are bound to feel a little bad when your efforts aren’t rewarded. I hope it changes this year.”

Anureet Singh has played 18 matches across three seasons for Kings XI Punjab. (Image courtesy: IPL)
Anureet Singh has played 18 matches across three seasons for Kings XI Punjab. (Image courtesy: IPL)

Lack of quality pacers in Railways meant that Anureet had to go back to bowling long spells and live up to his moniker of being a ‘workhorse’. A total of 45 overs in the opener was perhaps the ideal warm-up, although the 30-year-old admitted he wouldn’t mind cutting down a little.

“I was under pressure while making a comeback because everytime you return from such an injury, you have to be a little careful to ensure you don’t hurt yourself again. The wicket wasn’t what we were expecting. It was flat. After taking the first three wickets, I did feel confident but at this stage of my career, I want to bowl slightly smaller spells and not go big at a stretch,” he said.

But while Anureet’s request is logical, it may struggle to find may takers within the team management. The days of Railways’ mighty three-pronged pace attack comprising KK Upadhyay, Ranjit Mali and Anureet are long gone, but youngsters like Manish Rao, Karan Thakur and Manjeet Chaudhary do offer them hope. Thakur, despite not playing the first game, boasts 27 wickets in six First-Class games, while Chaudhary can repeatedly clock in at an excess of 135. Rao picked up just one wicket in the match but constantly troubled Mumbai’s batsmen.

Concerns also remain in the batting department. As per Anureet, one of the main reasons behind Railways’ dip in form has been because of their batting. They have maintained the crux of their middle order – Arindam Ghosh, Nitin Bhille and captain Mahesh Rawat, but these names haven’t done justice to the vast experience they possess.

“In the last three years, our batting hasn’t come good. Back in the day, out line-up used to go deep with presence of allrounder like Sanjay Bangar and JP Yadav. They used to cover up to a lot of extent,” Anureet said. “But now, there are quite a few youngsters in the side who have done well last year and will only get better. The bowling unit I feel has been up there and it has proved its mettle. Abhinav Dixit is a promising talent but unfortunately, he pulled his hamstring in the previous game. That was his first match.”

Not surprisingly, prior to the start of the season, there were talks of a potential venue shift for Railways. Banned by the BCCI for two years due to unsuitable playing conditions, the Karnail Singh Stadium returned to host six matches during the 2014-15 season. But unfortunately, over the last four years, the quality has once again dropped significantly in terms of infrastructure. In the first game, hose pipes filled in the gap on the boundary as the Stadium ran out of ropes. That, surprisingly enough, is the least of players’ concerns.

“Over the years, the pitches have become flatter. Targets like 400 runs have been chased in one day. Heading into the first match, as part of home advantage, we were expecting the ball to spin from day one, but it started turning only on the fourth day. That’s why we played two seamers. On top of that, the nets are bad, and the wickets aren’t prepared. There are six wickets, but we can’t even them all,” Anureet said.

Infrastructure aside, Railways have also been hampered by the lack of a proper coach. Following Abhay Sharma’s departure in 2014-15, Harvinder Singh remained in charge for two years. But ever since, Railways have either banked on make-shift domestic coaches, or senior players like Rawat and Anureet himself to guide players. This season, Dinesh Lad, father of Mumbai batsman Siddhesh Lad and childhood coach of Rohit Sharma has been brought in to streamline the team.

“No one can ever be like Abhay Sharma. He had a different aura,” Anureet said. “You obviously can’t compare to Abhay sir, but we at least need a point-person we can go to. In between, the situation was so bad that Mahesh used to look after the batting unit and I was mentoring the bowlers. Last year, we had Sanjit Sanyal, who has played for Railways and Bengal. He used to look after us well… and I won’t lie, the players benefitted a lot from him. But what is the point if they can’t hang in for long?”

Anureet has been Railways’ go-to man for the last five seasons, and this year promises to be no different. That said, he alone can’t be getting the job done. About time Railways’ plea stops falling on deaf ears.