Indian domestic cricket is a complicated creature. The scorecards, the fat batting averages, the results conceal more than they reveal to the untrained eye. That is why you need an insider to guide you through its many complexities. Someone, who has waged many cricketing battles over the years, or someone who can talk about the sport with the authority of an academician. Luckily for us, there’s Aakash Chopra who straddles the divide with ease.
Rajasthan, where Chopra is an opening batsman, became the fifth team to win the Ranji Trophy two years in a row. Two seasons ago, they were the wooden spooners. They turned it around. Importing players from other states (including Hrishikesh Kanitkar as captain), and hiring a support staff to manage the team off the field put the onus on the players to deliver. Deliver they did.
Chopra’s recently-released book, Out Of The Blue, begins with these poignant words: “When you are Rajasthan, last in the Plate division, never having won the title, never even coming close to a final in over three decades, you don’t play to win the honour, you play to save what you can of yours.” This was last season. But did this feeling go away after winning the title?
He says whatever euphoria they had about being the defending champions evaporated quickly. They were thumped in the Irani Trophy (by 404 runs). Then, they were on the verge of relegation after conceding lead in their first five Ranji games.
“Reality hits you hard,” he says. “We started as underdogs. But no matter how much we love the underdog’s story, we crave to be the top-dog. We wanted to prove we weren’t a flash in the pan. But after being humbled by Rest of India and then by Karnataka in the tournament opener, we the realised the tag of defending champions means nothing – you have to go out there and punch above your weight, try to be relevant, competitive all over again.”
“It would have been humiliating to be relegated after winning the title,” Chopra says. “But with the Orissa game, the luck which had eluded us, eventually arrived.”
The standout moments were against Saurashtra and Haryana in the semifinal. Rajasthan’s strength is pace, and they prepare pace-friendly wickets in Jaipur, their home venue. There, the pacers took all 10 Saurashtra wickets on the final day to score a big win. In the semifinal, Haryana bowled them out for 89 before the Rajasthan pacers combined to take all 20 wickets for a big win on a seaming wicket.
The final didn’t make for pretty cricket. The Chidambaram Stadium pitch was slow. Tamil Nadu’s Dinesh Karthik lamented that losing the toss equalled losing the game. Chopra says a Test centre is expected to deliver better. “TN came hard at us, but (as Rajasthan batted out two days losing just two wickets) their shoulders drooped. They were waiting for us to declare. When you see that, you know you have a foot in the door,” he says.
Batting averages can be inflated on such surfaces, which are available in plenty through the country. Have they become more batsman-friendly over the years? Or are these the same pitches have helped raise the Sachin, Dravids and Laxmans?
Chopra insists the tracks haven’t changed over the years, and those players became great by playing at higher levels of the sport. “What have changed are the batsmen’s attitude and coaching. Earlier, batting was much about technique and occupying the crease. Now, with T20 cricket, there’s a radical shift towards scoring quickly, which has resulted in concessions on technique,” Chopra says.
So what does that say about a bowler like Pankaj Singh? Someone who’s been discarded after playing one ODI for India, but someone who retains his enthusiasm for the sport by taking bucketful of wickets on these wickets year after year.
“After 50 wickets in a season, and a Ranji title, you seek some acknowledgement for your efforts,” Chopra says. “If it doesn’t arrive, it can deflate you. If you let the disappointment linger, your performance will suffer and you are shooting yourself in the foot. The only person who suffers in this scenario is the player. It’s a double whammy.”
What next for Rajasthan? Chopra says beyond the obvious target of trying to retain the title, it would be great for their players to climb up the rungs of the domestic hierarchy – the zonal teams, the India ‘A’ teams, and gradually the national team.
“Robin Bist (with a thousand runs this Ranji season) Deepak Chahar, Ashok Menaria and Pankaj Singh need to be taken to the next level,” he says. “They play for a champion side, so they are champions too. They may not be ready to establish themselves in the Indian squad, but they must be tried out for the ‘A’ tours and Duleep Trophy. They have the talent, hunger, desire to excel and their credentials are backed by sterling performances.”
"You have to acknowledge this team has won twice. That's important to me," he says.