No flash in the pan

No flash in the pan


A well-knit Rajasthan side proved doubters wrong by retaining the Ranji Trophy crown in fine style.

No More a one hit wonder: Rajasthan punched above their weight for the second consecutive season. PTI

That it’s not always the strongest, or even the most consistent, but the smartest and most disciplined team that can have the last laugh was reiterated by Rajasthan’s wonderfully planned and executed defence of their Ranji Trophy title.

Last season, Rajasthan had turned the cricketing order in the country on its head by scripting an epochal, fairytale run that began in the unfashionable Plate Division and culminated in a fabulous victory in the final against Baroda. The consensus then was that Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s men had the rub of the green going their way, that they had punched well above their weight, that their dream title triumph was no more than a flash in the pan.

That belief gained credence in the early part of the 2011-12 season as the defending champions stuttered and stumbled horrendously as they set out to show that last season wasn’t a fluke. They conceded the first-innings lead in their first five games and, with the league phase all but over, their immediate priority was to stave off relegation, forget about making the knockout quarterfinals.

It appeared as if the pressure of having to front up after the heroics of last season was beginning to tell on the team. Pushed to a corner, the character and mettle of the side was tested; how outstandingly brilliantly Rajasthan bounced back from the lows of five points from five games to repeat Ranji champions is a story more gripping and fascinating than what happened last season.
Needless to say, Rajasthan needed a bit of luck to go their way, but as they have shown for two seasons on the trot now, they have also found ways of making their own luck. Outright victories in their last two league fixtures – against Saurashtra and the Railways – followed by the first-innings lead in the quarterfinals against Plate qualifiers Hyderabad set up an unlikely semifinal clash against Haryana, in Lahli.

Haryana’s was the fairytale story of this season. No big names, no superstar egos -- just a quiet professionalism and a tremendous hunger drove Amit Mishra’s boys to the last four. Haryana knew they could not take on Rajasthan on equal terms, so they gambled by opting for a green-top. It was a gamble that almost paid off, but Rajasthan had the greater firepower and a wealth of experience in the shape of Kanitkar, Aakash Chopra and Pankaj Singh that helped them tide over various flash points.

Where Rajasthan’s was a stuttering run that gathered late momentum, their opponents in the final had been quite the form side of the competition. Yes, Tamil Nadu had just one outright win coming into the title clash, but that was largely because they played on batsman-friendly tracks across the country. Their top-four have all played Test cricket for India, and all of them made bucketloads of runs up until the semifinals, where they gave 39-time champs Mumbai a taste of their own medicine and buried them under an avalanche of runs at the Wankhede stadium.

The final in Chennai, everyone except the Rajasthan team concurred, would be a mismatch. For all their resilience, the visitors would be blown away by the Tamil Nadu batting. That was the theory, at least.

Such theories, invariably, fall flat on their face. Rajasthan won a crucial toss, then showcased the bloody-mindedness that has been their calling card for two years now. Vineet Saxena, the dour opener with the patience of a Job, made the most of a sluggish surface to post a monumental 257, a 15-hour marathon that was notable for focus, determination and sereneness, not flashy, flamboyant strokeplay that lured Tamil Nadu to their doom later on.

Saxena ended the season as the second highest run-getter behind team-mate Robin Bist, an epitome of consistency and the only man to top 1000 runs for the season. Neither man will don India colours in a hurry – Saxena, 31 already, perhaps never at all – but the 24-year-old Bist in particular will be hard to ignore if he continues to stack up the numbers.

What came as a shot in the arm for Rajasthan was the emergence towards the second half of the season of Rituraj Singh as a fantastic wicket-taking force. The paceman has the wonderful ability to swing the ball both ways, and is accurate to a fault like the taller, more experienced Pankaj. The two men bowled an outstanding stump-to-stump line on an unresponsive Chepauk strip in the final, feeding off the confidence of having 621 on the board to strangulate the attack-minded, over-confident Tamil Nadu batsmen who made no allowance for the slowness of a surface that perforce demanded eschewing playing across the line.

Tamil Nadu’s long wait to add to their two Ranji crowns – their last title came in 1988 – therefore continues, but no praise can be too high for the manner in which Lakshmipathi Balaji marshalled his resources, especially a reasonably thin bowling attack. J Kaushik, in his first season, finished as the team’s highest wicket-taker with 28 scalps, notable but paling in comparison with TP Sudhindra’s season-high 40.

The Madhya Pradesh paceman led the charge of the quicker bowlers as spinners were relegated to playing the support cast. Interestingly, Kaushik apart, most of the leading wicket-takers were from the northern part of the country where overhead conditions during the winter facilitated swing bowling, always a demanding challenge for even the most accomplished of batsmen.

While Rajasthan can allow themselves a pat on the back, the same can’t be said of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. To them, another box in the domestic calendar has been ticked, another formality gone through. Precious little was done to address the quality of pitches, even less so to attract crowds to games. The big boys were understandably away on national duty, but several associations missed a trick by not taking the games away from major centres.

In Shimoga, nearly 20,000 people saw Karnataka battle Uttar Pradesh over four days in an inconsequential league game; the final in Chennai was patronised by no more than 2,000 despite the gates being thrown open. There is a clear message which not even the BCCI can afford to ignore. Or, so we believe.