Aakash Chopra was one in the motley group of cricketers who moved to Rajasthan this season. The former Delhi opener can't pin-point the exact moment when this bunch from different states and cultures came together — he calls it the "McDonald's moment", a la Chak De India — but one incident stands out in his memory.
"We were playing in the Buchi Babu Tournament against Tamil Nadu," Chopra says. "The light had faded away, and it was a really tight game. Suddenly, Deepak Chahar decided he wanted to bowl. He grabbed the ball, wiped out the Tamil Nadu tail, and we won by five runs."
It was one of the many incidents that united this motley bunch, which had cricketers who'd left their home states and their comfort zones, coming to a politically volatile cricketing set-up in Rajasthan. The turmoil may not have been incidental to the fact that Rajasthan took the wooden spoon in the Ranji Trophy Plate Division in the previous season.
From being one of the lowest ranked domestic teams last season to winning the biggest domestic competition the next season is one hell of a story that needs retelling.
"It was a volatile situation; the set-up was democratic only in name, and there was political instability in the Rajasthan Cricket Association," Chopra recalls what had gone on last year when the RCA was torn between Lalit Modi and the incumbent Sanjay Dixit.
Then, things changed.
At the heart of Rajasthan cricket were Dixit and coach Tarak Sinha whose stint at Delhi's Sonnet Cricket Club is the stuff of legend. Chopra reckons Sinha has probably produced more international cricketers than any other coach in India. Rajasthan also hired professionals from other states, and perhaps the most important hire of them all was Hrishikesh Kanitkar as captain.
For the all fine things he's done, Kanitkar would be remembered for a single slog-sweep in Dhaka thirteen years ago. In 2000, he played the last of his 34 ODIs in Australia, a disastrous tour which ended other international careers as well — opener Devang Gandhi, all-rounder Vijay Bharadwaj and wicketkeeper MSK Prasad.
Kanitkar continued playing for Maharashtra before moving to Madhya Pradesh. At the start of this season, Kanitkar was unsure Madhya Pradesh would retain him. So when the Rajasthan offer arrived, he grabbed it.
He describes his own captaincy style as thus: "Many people don't accept others making mistakes which I think is the wrong approach. Once the boys know that they are allowed to make mistakes, they make less of them as the pressure is gone. Then they can aspire to be the best they can, not as good as anybody else."
Personally, this has been a good season for Kanitkar. Not having made a hundred in the previous three First Class seasons, he has made four this season. While Kanitkar is a veteran now, at the other end of that spectrum is the rookie Chahar.
The now popular story goes that Chahar was turned away by Greg Chappell, who was earlier in-charge of the coaching activities at the RCA. Sinha took over from Chappell, and one of the things he's done is travelling extensively through the 33 districts in Rajasthan.
He has been scouting talents for the U-16 and U-22 level and has emphasised upon the days format of playing (instead of the innings format) which moulds junior cricketers to the needs to playing long innings and bowling lengthy spells.
One such talent who was spotted in Hanumangarh was Chahar. He was fast-tracked to the Ranji team from the U-19 level. What happened then on the first day of the Ranji season would be talked about for long.
In his Ranji debut, Chahar swung the new ball at awkward angles and took 8-10 as Hyderabad were shot out for 21, a Ranji Trophy record. It set the tone for the remainder of the season. While Chahar took 40 wickets, Pankaj Singh took 43, including 14-52 against Tripura. The only time Rajasthan scored less than 400 this season was in that low-scorer against Tripura in Kota, where they made only 150 and yet nearly won by an innings.
In the Plate semi-final, Chopra made 301 as Rajasthan beat Maharashtra to enter the Super League quarter-final. Kanitkar topped their run charts with 744 runs while Chopra followed close on 734. Another recent hire and a veteran, Rashmi Parida, who had served Orissa and Assam earlier, was third on 607.
"When you are seniors in the team," explains Chopra, "your job profile is no longer limited to scoring runs and taking wickets. If you want the team to succeed, you need to work closely with the youngsters, to comfort them so they are not intimidated by this level of cricket."
In the Super League quarter-final against Mumbai, Pankaj took 6-64 as Mumbai were bowled out for 252. Rajasthan responded with 589 with hundreds from Vineet Saxena, Kanitkar and the 20-year-old Ashok Maneria.
In the semi-final against Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan lost the toss in overcast conditions. Still, Kanitkar and Maneria got hundreds again along with Chopra, and TN fell short despite S Badrinath's 175.
"We did not fancy our chances till we beat Baroda," Chopra says. "Our belief grew session by session, rather than day by day. Our first goal was reaching the quarter-finals. Winning the trophy wasn't even a realistic goal."
Parida and Maneria made 89 and 101 in the final against Baroda, securing the trophy for them in a tricky situation when they were 61-4 having taken the first innings lead.
At the end of it, Chopra says, this is the "happiest" dressing room he's been a part of.
"The feeling hasn't sunk in. Seventy-seven years is a long time."