Read Part 1 | Part 2
Our semi-final against Haryana ended in two days — preposterous for a match of that stature. The flip side was that we were left with a couple of choices to toy with —firstly, the option of taking the six-hour ride back to Jaipur for some practice before the final in Chennai, or fly straight well in advance to acclimatize. We did the latter — thanks to the accommodating Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.
Last year, Vadodara hadn’t been as convivial — they’d told us to delay our arrival, since the practice pitches hadn’t been readied. Our experience in the circuit told us that that was a rather lame excuse to disrupt our preparations, but we couldn’t do much about it. We were happy that TNCA obliged.
Playing in Chennai requires skill modification – the pitch made of red soil has extra bounce and assistance for spinners – but the city also needs you to get used to the heat, especially if you’ve just finished a game in freezing Lahli. Our preparation, not sure if by design or by default, was close to perfect. We were told to practice in the morning the first day and in the afternoon the following day. While playing at 2 pm in Chennai can be physically draining, we didn’t complain much because it allowed us to encounter the prevailing conditions before the real event.
Day 1 — Right Foot Forward
We were surprised to see that the curator had chosen a strip made of black soil instead of the traditional red. It didn’t have much grass on top and absolutely no moisture below. We realized that toss was going to be the deciding factor. The team batting first would hold all the aces. Skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar won the most important toss of the season and we went out with the resolve of batting Tamil Nadu out of the game.
We started positively, scoring 17 runs of the first over of the innings. If that over briefly allowed us to entertain the thoughts of dominating the attack on a flat surface, the next few overs ensured that 17 an over was going to be an aberration. It was indeed a slow, low surface which gave very little liberty to score freely. I got hit on the eye while attempting a hook but decided to carry on, for I knew the importance of not giving TN an inch. Vineet, on the other end, batted in the manner best suited to succeeding on that surface, that is playing with a straight bat in the ‘V’. We didn’t lose a single wicket on Day 1 and the pressure was on TN to make a match of it.
Day 2 — Slow and Steady
I missed my ton by 6 runs but only one more wicket fell in the entire day’s play. Vineet Saxena went on to score his maiden double century and remained unbeaten at the end of second day. Kanitkar contributed with a fine fifty before departing and Robin Bist, the highest scorer this season, looked in good shape when umpires called the day. Even though we didn’t lose too many wickets on the second day, we moved at a snail’s pace and received a lot of flak for our tactics. It was imperative for us to remind everyone that we hadn’t planned to bat slowly but it was the slowness of the track that forced us to behave in such a manner.
I firmly believe that the quality of cricket we produce is directly proportionate to the quality of pitches we prepare. Since it was a sluggish pitch, it produced sluggish cricket. Also, the rules required us to bat for as long as we could, scoring rate be damned. If first innings lead was good enough to win the game then so be it, there was no reason for us to rack our brains and jeopardize our chances of retaining the title.
Day 3 — One Hand on The Trophy
We barely managed to reach the ground on the morning of Day 3 — most roads leading to the stadium had been cordoned off, perhaps as a part of the security routine leading up to the Republic Day. It wasn’t the best way to start the day but it didn’t deter our resolve one bit. Vineet Saxena continued to bat with authority and Robin gave him good support from the other end. We needed to accelerate a bit, for we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. There’s a rule in domestic cricket that if the first innings’ aren’t completed, then the team with a better run-rate is declared the winner. Tactically, we wanted them to chase over 500 runs and also bat over 200 overs. We did what was needed and Tamil Nadu had to bat the tricky last session. Having spent eight sessions in the field, it was always going to be tough for the openers — both of them departed soon after their arrival. But it was only when we had reeled in Badrinath — the biggest fish in their team – we knew we had one hand on the trophy.
Day 4 — Inching Closer
The match math looked like this — Rajasthan needed seven wickets while Tamil Nadu had to bat 180 overs or score over 550 runs to win the match. Clearly, the dice was loaded in our favour, yet we didn’t want take the foot off the pedal — typical of the little guy in the contest. The relentless pressure and severely deteriorated surface made both survival and run-scoring extremely difficult. Dinesh Karthik displayed a lot of resistance but it was never going to be enough, for the body language of their team had given away their resignation. We got a huge first innings lead and with that we had both our hands firmly on the silverware. They had prepared a surface keeping in mind the lack of depth in our spin department but they didn’t take into account the fact that our batting was as good as any batting line-up in the country. They had expected to win the toss, but cricket matches rarely follow a premeditated script. Their plan had backfired.
Day 5 – The Final Frontier
We couldn’t wait to get over with the formalities of playing on the final day and celebrate our victory — till not too long ago, the mere thought of qualifying for the knock-outs had been bizarre. Robin lit up the day for a brief period when he crossed the 1000-run mark in the Ranji Trophy season. It was a proud moment for him, the team and Rajasthan. He was only the first man from Rajasthan to have done it. I hope better things lie ahead for him. But this wasn’t a day to celebrate personal landmarks and achievements; the day belonged to the entire team. We had achieved what most teams couldn’t – successfully defending the Ranji Trophy. Our resilience, our resolve and most importantly, our belief proved what happened last season may have been ‘Out Of The Blue’ but it wasn’t a flash in the pan. We, Rajasthan, are here to stay.
(This concludes the three-part series on Rajasthan's road to victory. Read Part 1 & Part 2)