(This is Part 2 of the story of Rajasthan's successful title defense | Read Part 1 | Part 3)
Battle for Survival
One look at the pitch made Jaydev Shah, Saurashtra’s captain, ask in jest if it was a cricket pitch or a billiard’s table. Yes, it was a bit too green and also a bit too moist for our liking but these were exceptional circumstances. We, Rajasthan, had reached a stage where if we hadn’t strived for the maximum points (six) from the Saurashtra game, we would have had to bid goodbye to the knockouts. It was a different matter, that even a win would have given us only an outside chance. Consequently, and with fingers crossed, we dished out a green top knowing fully well that if we lost the toss we would be asked to bat first and then the hope of an outright win would fall flat on its face. But the gamble was worth taking, for our batting was still in good form.
As it always happens, when the home team tinkers with the conditions to suit their cause, we lost the toss and were asked to bat first. Dreadful. But, just like we’d stood our ground during the previous matches, we showed a lot of character, resilience and the ability to bat long durations to post a decent total. And then, the bowling, for the first time in the season, came to the fore. The team (Saurashtra), which had scored over 600 runs against Mumbai in their previous game barely managed to avoid the follow-on. Now that we had one foot in the door, we barged in with all our might. Once again, we batted well and made Saurashtra bat on the last day to save the match, which they couldn’t. Ten points in our kitty meant that we were not going down at least. One worst fear was out of the way.
Fortune Favours The Brave
Now that we had nothing to lose, we gave it our all in the game against Orissa. We needed to win with a bonus to give ourselves a chance of qualifying. But we also knew that even that might not be enough if other results didn’t go our way. That’s when the rub of the green went our way, finally. We wanted Punjab to not take the first innings lead. They didn’t. We wanted Uttar Pradesh to not get an outright win. They too didn’t. We wanted Saurashtra to win against Railways but not with a bonus and they also complied. Somebody up there really wanted us to have another shot at defending the crown.
But the Ranji Trophy is never won without hiccups on the way. We hit a roadblock in the quarterfinals against Hyderabad. In the first innings, we were reduced to 120 for 5. It was the first time in two years that our top five had failed after electing to bat. Even though we hadn’t encountered an identical situation earlier, we had indeed gone through many tough phases and had always managed to claw our way out of the hole. That’s exactly what we did one more time and scored enough to enforce the follow-on. Finally, we were back to where the defending champions belong—the final four.
Meeting Haryana, Head-On
If 120 for 5 had unsettled us, getting bowled out for 89 sent shockwaves through the team. Hyderabad had briefly managed to rock our boat, but Haryana went further and hit us like a tsunami. There ought to be a saviour who’d save the day for the team, there always had been one, we thought. But it wasn’t to be on that day and the entire team was back in the hut a little after lunch break.
The track at Lahli, Rohtak, was conducive to swing and seam bowling, which was our strength too. Even after getting dismissed for a paltry total, there was a sense of calm within the team. The team-talk in the huddle before going in to field was about how Haryana must find themselves under pressure. It was one thing dismissing the opposition for 89, it’s quite another to believe that you wouldn’t succumb to tricky batting conditions. We dismissed them for 97 but the roar from their dressing room when they overhauled our first innings total gave away their lack of self-belief.
We knew that a slender first innings lead was not going to affect the outcome of the match, for there were three more days to go on a bowler-friendly surface, yet they found reassurance in a minuscule eight-run lead. We won the match convincingly and booked our seat in the final clash against the powerhouse of domestic cricket, Tamil Nadu, who had decimated Mumbai in their backyard to reach the last stage.
(In the last edition of this three-part series, the author describes how Rajasthan took on the mighty Tamil Nadu to defend their Ranji crown)