How Rajasthan held their ground

A three-part series on Rajasthan went from Ranji Trophy no-hopers to champions to strugglers again before defending their title.

Rajasthan's Ranji Trophy team led by Hrishikesh Kanitkar, first in whites from the left.

Starting From Scratch

As we sat in our dressing room on a cold November day of 2011, at the end of the match against Karnataka, the pressure of being the defending champions had already evaporated. We may have been the Ranji champions last season, had started as favourites this season too — but the opposition had outplayed us in every department now, that too in our own backyard. This game, we’d saved by the skin of our teeth — our fairytale journey had indeed ended, we realized that it was time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Winning the title the previous year meant absolutely nothing this year — we weren’t entitled to any favours. If anything, our status as defending champions made the oppositions bring their best game to the park. We needed to step up a few notches to stay relevant in the tournament. Since we had seen the worst (Karnataka piled over 600 runs and enforced the follow-on) in the very first game, we vowed to not throw in the towel regardless of the situation.
Hammered In Mumbai

A week later, we resolved to lift our game in the second match of the season against the mighty Mumbai. We’d defeated them during the quarter finals last year—now their ‘invincible’ tag didn’t deter us all that much. After winning the toss and batting first, we showed that our batting might was at par with the best in the business. We scored over 500 runs expecting to test the opposition. But it wasn’t meant to be —Mumbai batsmen didn’t even break a sweat in order to overhaul the total we posted. After two games, we had only 2 points in our kitty. The only consolation was that we had already played against the two best sides in our group — things must improve when we play relatively lesser teams, or so we thought.
Staring Down The Barrel

If there was any team that was faring even poorly than us, it was Railways. They played their first two games on dustbowls and lost both. It was the most appropriate time for us to play against them, for running into another in-form team would have tested us further. Once again we batted well on what we thought was another tough wicket. The ball stayed alarmingly low throughout and the Railways wicketkeeper wore the helmet even for medium pacers, because an attempted bouncer always bounced a few times before reaching him.

We expected our bowlers to utilize the conditions — it was justified to entertain the thoughts of getting an outright win. But our bowling came croppers once again as we allowed Railways to overhaul our total of over 500. The results of the first couple of matches had only hurt our pride but this one deflated our hopes. Whatever we did wasn’t enough to gain even three points. The season was slipping away.
There was a bit of a break after the third game, which allowed recuperating and, also reflecting on how things had panned out so far. Around this time I also released my book Out of The Blue — Rajasthan’s Road to the Ranji Trophy chronicling our success story of the previous season. If winning the trophy last season was completely ‘out of the blue’, the way we were performing this season wasn’t less intimidating either. Was it really a flash in the pan? Were we actually good enough? Doubts had flooded our emotions but, once again, we reminded ourselves that we had vowed to keep fighting. If we were to go down, we wouldn’t without a fight.
Playing For Pride

The game against Uttar Pradesh was meant to be the turning point of the season. C’mon, things had to change at some stage, we thought. But once again we were on the receiving end. UP further exposed our weakness by posting a big total batting first and then enforcing the follow-on, rubbing salt on our open, hurting wounds. We saved the match but not the pride.
The fifth match of the season came and went too. Our opposition kept changing, the results didn’t. Once again we conceded the first innings lead. Our batting prowess ensured that we didn’t lose a single game, but collectively we weren’t moving ahead. We needed our bowlers to fire too. So far, whatever could have gone wrong had indeed gone wrong. Five points from five games meant that Rajasthan was staring down the relegation. We needed the rub of the green to go our way.
(In the next edition of this three-part series, the author recounts how Rajasthan turned its fate 360-degrees in the remaining two league matches and how the team reached the finals. Also read: Part 3: How Tamil Nadu's slow pitch ploy backfired)

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