Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rajasthan - The Ranji Trophy Champions

Rajasthan cricket has been an integral fabric of the Indian cricket set up and has rich historical significance dating back to 1887. Off field opulence and the flamboyancy have always been associated with Rajasthan cricket and its two famous sons have gone on to be top cricket administrators of the country. Late Raj Singh Dungapur and Lalit Modi have had their days influence on the world cricket order. However till the beginning of 2010-2011 season their standard of cricket performance in various domestic competitions had been average if leniency would be the basis of judgment. The script has now changed as the team has gone on to create history by winning this season’s Ranji Trophy. 15th January 2011 is a red lettered day for Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA).

The intent was clear right from the beginning of the cricketing year and RCA did its homework by taking some brave decisions to set the house in order. Gagan Khoda, the face of Rajasthan’s on field woes for years was shown the door and fresh blood was injected in the form of youngsters. The significance of first innings lead in Ranji Trophy cricket is paramount therefore the batting was bolstered by signing Aakash Chopra, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Rashmi Ranjan Pardia as professionals for the year. Apart from bringing in the international experience, the three domestic giants along with the other veterans formed the core think tank of the team.

Irrespective of all the backend fine tuning and setting a strong base hardly anyone had taken notice of Rajasthan, quite predictable as they were one among many ‘I was also there’ teams in the Plate group. However when debutant Deepak Chahar bundled out Hyderabad for 21 runs courtesy his 8 wicket haul on the first day of the season (match haul – 12 wickets) perceptions changed. If there were still some doubters, the air was cleared by skipper Kanitkar (193*) as he batted Rajasthan to a position of victory. Kanitkar’s exposure to the big league was the rational behind his appointment as the team’s captain and as the season progressed his calming influence on the team was clearly on display as he scored bucketful of runs and made the right moves on the field.

The initial momentum created by the young Chahar and the seasoned pro Kanitkar was seized by the team and the aggressive mode was noticed by anyone and everyone. Tripura and Jharkhand were mauled whereas Goa and Madhya Pradesh were tamed and fittingly Rajasthan topped its group to qualify for the semifinals. Through out the season Aakash Chopra, one of the most media friendly Indian cricketer used his twitter account and cricinfo columns to generate enough interest about this fairytale ride. He celebrated the hype by scoring an unbeaten triple century in the semifinals against Maharashtra. After the cake walk the scene shifted to the quarterfinal stages of the elite group.

Rajasthan’s romantic journey would have led to many fans desire for a miracle but very few would have visualized what was about to unfold. A quarterfinal clash against 39 times Ranji Trophy champion Mumbai was a no brainer for the Pundits who had predicted a convincing win for Mumbai in their pre match analysis. Who knows what would have happened had Mumbai opted to bowl first but Wasim Jaffer committed the cardinal sin of deciding to take first strike on a green surface against an attack that consisted of the top bowlers of the season (Season haul: Pankaj Singh – 43 wickets, Deepak Chahar – 40 wickets, Vivek Yadav -22 wickets). On the lines of expectation the seamers ran through the Mumbai line up to dismiss them for a meager 252. With more than three days to go, Rajasthan made merry of Mumbai attack as Vineet Saxena and Hrishikesh Kanitkar registered centuries to their name and the young Ashok Menaria announced his arrival (121). Rajasthan ensured that the wounds inflicted on Mumbai are remembered when the two teams face off some other season.

After Mumbai it was time for to play checkmate against Tamil Nadu, who had managed to enter the knockout stage despite rain being a constant threat throughout their road to semifinals. Being put into bat Rajasthan found themselves in a familiar zone and the top order batsmen made optimum utilization of the opportunity by piling up a mammoth 552 at a snail’s pace of 2.9 runs per over. Tamil Nadu failed to catch up, albeit Subramanium Badrinath’s valiant unbeaten 175.

Baroda, another minnow in the Ranji Trophy circuit were the other finalists though their victory against Karnataka in the semifinals had raised many eyebrows. The stage was set for a final that would go down the folklore for the teams it featured. Baroda became yet another team to play into the strength of Rajasthan as they decided to bowl first on their home ground. Rajasthan cherished the familiarity of the circumstances on the big match day and put up a competitive 394 (Kanitkar – 61, Robin Bist – 77, RR Parida – 56, A. Menaria – 45). Most of the Baroda batsmen failed to apply themselves as Deepak Chahar yet again joined the party (wickets) and helped Rajasthan take a vital 33 runs lead. There were quite celebrations in the Rajasthan camp but they slipped to 11/3 and then 61/4 in the second innings. Baroda’s hope for a dramatic comeback was kept at bay as Rashmi Ranjan Pardia (89) and Ashok Menaria (101) stitched a 165 runs partnership and with that the verdict was sealed – maiden Ranji Trophy title for Rajasthan. Fittingly Rashmi Ranjan Parida was adjudged as the man of the match (In 2000-01 while playing for Orissa he had scored 94 and 71 at the same ground against the same opponent in the semifinals but Baroda had proceeded to the finals on the basis of the first innings lead). Immediate rewards were showered on the team as the chief minister of Rajasthan Mr. Ashok Gehlot announced a cash award Rs. 1 crore for the team and promised to allocate 16.18 hectare land for the proposed construction of a state of art cricket stadium. This victory is a tribute to the late Raj Singh Dungapur who had been a part of Rajasthan’s eight failed attempts to lay their hand on the coveted Ranji trophy. He must be smiling upstairs.

The Ranji Trophy champions for the season Rajasthan achieved only two outright wins and were declared winners in the remaining seven matches on the basis of first innings lead. Is domestic cricket hampering the overall competitive standard? As the season comes to an end there are many such critical questions that BCCI has to answer but for the moment it is time to celebrate the victory of cricket. Rajasthan’s win has the potential to inspire an entire new generation to aspire to play for their state cricket teams across the country. It is a romantic season that will be remembered and spoken about in the corridors of Indian cricket for many many years to come.

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