A handful of people have hauled Rajasthan out of the country’s cricket dumps, proving there is more to the game than merely playing it
It was 3.30 p.m. on Janurary 15, 2011. Baroda, set a target of 375 runs in 29 overs, had just lost their fourth wicket on 24. It was clear that their target, already Mount Improbable, was now in the realm of the impossible. The captains shook hands. Baroda had conceded. And Rajasthan won their first Ranji trophy.
The last time Rajasthan had reached a Ranji final was in 1973-74. Never before had a team from the Plate (or the junior) division of Ranji won the title. And barely a year ago, in 2009-10, Rajasthan had ranked last even in this category.
Sharda Ugra, senior editor at Cricinfo, says quality administration is what is common to all the better performing teams and many teams languishing in the Plate division could learn a lot from Rajasthan’s turnaround. “In the 1990s, Punjab came up in a big way, primarily because they improved the administration of the game,” says Ugra.
Champion by a Mile
Not only did Rajasthan finish as Ranji champions, they wiped the floor with their opposition. The team remained unbeaten in the season and not once did they concede the first innings lead. They scored the highest team total — 641 for 7 declared — in the tournament. In four of the season’s nine matches, they scored more than 500 and twice missed the mark by about 10 runs. In the last 10 years, Rajasthan had crossed 500 in an innings just once.
Two of the lowest batting totals in this Ranji championship were against Rajasthan. Their bowlers Pankaj Singh and Deepak Chahar took 43 and 40 wickets respectively to become two of the top three wicket takers in the competition.
This does not sound like Rajasthan. It’s more like Steve Waugh’s marauders! How did a bunch of losers end up doing the victory lap?
Every journey begins with a first step. Rajasthan’s first step was Sanjay Dixit being elected president of Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) in 2009. A 1986 batch IAS officer, Dixit climbed the ranks of Rajasthan’s cricket administration to eventually challenge and defeat Lalit Modi, the disgraced Indian Premier League czar.
Dixit loves cricket. He grew up in Lucknow and would have perhaps played professionally had he not excelled in academics. “In India, we don’t let the brightest students take up sports,” he says. Dixit studied marine engineering and worked for four years in the merchant navy before taking the civil service examinations and joining the Rajasthan cadre.
He says the only time he did not play was for the four years he spent sailing. Once on shore, he went back to troubling batsmen with his special variety of fast leg spin.
By 1991, he had led the Rajasthan government secretariat to win all the possible championships. In 1994, he was chosen president of the Barmer Cricket Association while he was posted there as district magistrate. By the time he became the head of RCA in 2009, he knew what ailed Rajasthan cricket.
Part of the problem was politics. The RCA was often jocularly called the Rungta Cricket Association, since one family had a stranglehold over it. Then Modi took over in 2005. While infrastructure was built to establish a state-of-the-art RCA Academy, little was done to improve the quality of cricket in the state.
Cricketers and administrators were seen to belong to one camp or another. The factionalism and apathy affected every aspect of the game, including team selections. In 2009, there were two sets of teams claiming they represented Rajasthan.
Image: Amit Verma
GOOD SHEPHERD Sanjay Dixit, the man who led the change
This led to some perverse practices. Since the RCA did not even supply balls for local and state matches, local teams would use the worst possible ball because such a ball would soften quickly and become more difficult to hit. The same players suffered heavily when they played outside the state where the much harder Kookaburra ball was used.
In December 2009, Dixit got his second chance to lead RCA. He had been elected RCA president in March 2009, but by September Modi had gathered enough momentum to stall proceedings. In countering Modi, Dixit got support from C.P. Joshi, the then Union minister for rural development.
In the December RCA elections, Joshi ran against Modi for the post of president, while Dixit ran for honorary secretary. This Joshi-Dixit combine defeated Modi.
However, the 2009-10 Ranji season was coming to a close and the damage had been done. Rajasthan not only stayed in the Plate division of Ranji, it ranked last in it. The under-19 team was relegated to the same division while the under-16 team failed to qualify for the national championship.
“The ultimate test of cricket associations is how their teams perform. RCA was a complete failure,” says Dixit.
To get everybody to see beyond their factions, he had to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. He brought in sweeping changes in the selection panels by appointing only those who had played Ranji cricket for Rajasthan and understood the game well. “Dixit would discuss each selection to ensure only merit was considered and, over time, people forgot which group they belonged to,” says Vinod Mathur, one of the selectors of the junior cricket teams in Rajasthan. Mathur admits he had earlier belonged to the so-called Rungta faction.
Enter, a Coach
The most far-reaching and influential of Dixit’s decisions was bringing back RCA old-timer Tarak Sinha as chief coach and director of the RCA Academy, and the appointment of Hrishikesh Kanitkar, as the captain and batting spearhead of the team.
The 60-year-old Sinha — founder and chief coach of Delhi’s famous Sonnet Cricket Club — is one of the most revered coaches in the country, though many believe India never recognised his contribution. Raman Lamba, Manoj Prabhakar, Ashish Nehra, Akash Chopra and Shikhar Dhawan are some of the players who have emerged from Sinha’s club.
Sinha had resigned from RCA in September 2009, owing to the stalemate brought about by Modi. After a chat over the phone, Dixit convinced Sinha to come back. The deal? Sinha would help Dixit improve the quality of cricket in Rajasthan and Dixit would give him a free hand.
Sinha toured the state, holding cricket camps and matches to search for talent. One teenager he chose was a fast bowler from Hanumangarh, who reminded him of his other celebrated disciple, Manoj Prabhakar. “Deepak Chahar has an exceptional ability to swing the ball both ways,” says Sinha, who took the 17-year-old under his wing and sent him to many national tournaments and a couple in Australia.
In the opening match of 2010, Chahar announced his entry by destroying Hyderabad. He took 8 wickets for just 10 runs in 7.3 overs, helping Rajasthan create history by bowling out Hyderabad for 21 runs in the first innings. Chahar’s 40 wickets in the season is being termed as a ‘dream debut’.
Sinha and Dixit also pushed for measures to make players battle-ready. Many new tournaments were organised, not just at the senior level but also at the under-14, under-16, under-19 and under-22 levels. Most of these tournaments, especially under-16 onwards, were converted from one-day matches to two- or three-day ones.
Earlier, in one season, a cricketer played at most 15 local one-day games. This was raised to at least 30 matches, of two to three days each. When there were no matches scheduled in Rajasthan, Sinha took a select team to play in Delhi’s competitive cricket season. The level of umpiring in these matches was improved by getting only those qualified to stand in First Class matches. Another first was referees for each match, even trials.
The RCA also invested in the fitness of their players. Ashok Menaria, the 19-year-old attacking left-handed batsman, was promptly sent to Germany to be treated for a career-threatening groin injury. Boosted by the confidence shown in his abilities, Menaria created a record of three back-to-back centuries in the Ranji quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals.
A Few Good Men
Dixit and Sinha both knew that Rajasthan players, on their own, would find it difficult to get out of the hole. In the past 75 years, only one Rajasthan batsman had an average of more than 40 runs in Ranji matches.
Unlike Tests, typically won by bowlers, batsmen are key to Ranji matches as they are usually won on the first innings lead. The winning side bats the opposition out of the game.
Rajasthan needed a superb top order. They decided to retain Orissa batsman Rashmi Parida from the last season and invite Delhi opener Akash Chopra and Madhya Pradesh’s captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar. That Chopra and Kanitkar were certified Level 1 coaches helped in their selection. Both could mentor and score big runs and Chopra was part of Gautam Gambhir’s unit that had won the Ranji in 2007-08.
All three ended up among the top 10 scorers in the 2010 season, hitting eight centuries in 12 innings among them. But, more importantly, they shared their experience and insight with the team. Local Rajasthan batsmen such as Menaria, Vineet Saxena and Vaibhav Deshpande, who scored another six centuries among them, looked up to the seniors.
For instance, Kanitkar helped Menaria prepare against Mumbai. Rajasthan had never beaten Mumbai. “In 2008, I asked my seniors how I should approach my batting. All of them were in awe of the Mumbai attack, which had Ramesh Powar and Ajit Agarkar, and advised me to play defensively, which is not my natural game. I was very uncomfortable and got out very cheaply in both the innings,” says Menaria.
Kanitkar’s approach was different. “He said, if you get a ball that you can hit, then go for it. He said, don’t think who the bowler is, where the fielders are. You have a great balance and if you hit well, the ball will sail out of the ground,” says Menaria. Against Mumbai, his first 40 runs had five sixes.
Kanitkar supported his new wards because he didn’t get much support during his early days. “Many of my seniors came down on me harshly if I made a mistake. This pushed me to make other mistakes,” says Kanitkar, who has won the Ranji for the first time despite being around since 1994-95.
While the bulk of the focus is on the Ranji victory, RCA’s new approach has resulted in achievements across the board in Rajasthan cricket. This was the first time that its under-16 team reached the semi-finals at the national level, while the under-19 team became the central zone champions for the first time.
Even from the senior team, it is the first time that six players from Rajasthan have stormed into the Central Zone cricket team, compared to occasional entries earlier. “In three to five years, we wish to field a full squad only of Rajasthan’s talent, who are equally competitive,” says Dixit.
“This has been a season of many firsts for us,” he says, but promises it won’t be the last.