Uttarakhand's rise from Big-Bang chaos to the Ranji quarterfinals
Picture this: Rishabh Pant is leading Uttarakhand in their quarterfinal against Vidarbha in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy. In an alternate universe, that would have been possible.
This could-have-been story starts with the BCCI exploring the option of granting membership to the newly-formed state in 2000, and finding four different factions fighting among themselves. Had an association been formed then, Pant, born in the state, might well have played for them instead of seeking the greener pastures of Delhi. Those four groups have still not reached a resolution.
But, thanks to the Lodha recommendations, Uttarakhand has gone from a state with too many - and therefore none - associations, to a team that has gone 15 matches on the trot, across formats, without defeat (albeit against fellow newbies). It has become a side that alone in the Plate Group had star performers from home-grown talent, and not just the professionals. A side that jokes together, laughs together, stops for mithai [dessert] and chai [tea] on the way back from the stadium together, sits around a bonfire together, and most importantly, wins together.
Until last year, players in the state didn't have a team. This season, established domestic stars have come to Uttarakhand in search of a team to call their own. And they've taken that team to the quarterfinals of the Ranji Trophy, with the promise of elevation to Group C next year.
It began like the Big Bang - in chaos. Not from the association, because the BCCI stepped in, and Ratnakar Shetty, widely respected across the spectrum, had been appointed to keep the show running.
The chaos was in the form of the extended monsoon that Dehradun gets, which played havoc with practice sessions. For most teams, having every outdoor practice session washed out entirely would fall in the 'disaster' category. What, then, of the effect on a team trying to cobble together players for its first-ever season?
Cricket came to their rescue, with the facilities at the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy in Dehradun used extensively. It's an academy that was set up because of a father's love for the game and his son. And while Abhimanyu Easwaran has lit up the Ranji Trophy for Bengal, the academy was a life-saver for Uttarakhand.
"They organised our trials even though it rained like anything," captain Rajat Bhatia recalls. "We practised and stayed there, got all the facilities there."
Both Bhatia and coach KP Bhaskar had been hand-picked by Shetty, whose tryst with Uttarakhand was a long-time coming.
"When the new state was formed in 2000, I was appointed by the board to visit there," Shetty tells ESPNcricinfo. "The affiliations were going to be decided, so along with Shivlal Yadav and the late Mr Sharad Diwadkar, I had visited Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in 2002. This was to start the process of their affiliation. Unfortunately in Uttarakhand, because of their internal politics, it didn't go through then."
The situation with four groups claiming the right to represent the state hasn't changed, but last year, the Committee of Administrators stepped in and formed the Uttarakhand Cricket Consensus Committee, of which Shetty was appointed convener. The UCCC has representatives from all four groups, as well as a representative of the BCCI Treasurer's office, since the BCCI has borne all expenses for all the state's teams.
"The first thing I requested the board was that BCCI should appoint selectors, coaches and support staff for all the teams," he said. "At least for the first year, it's better to have BCCI run the show. There is huge talent in this state. I've been trying to make them understand that it is important that there is an association. Unless you have an association, you can never hope to organise an international match. They have a lovely stadium, which is now the home ground of the Afghanistan team. Uttarakhand have to pay to play on that ground. Reaching the quarterfinal should motivate people there to put differences aside. I had told them they have to look at the interest of the cricketers. How much they have lost? Rishabh Pant would have played for Uttarakhand and not for Delhi."
Talent alone might not have been enough though. What has worked for Uttarakhand is how well the coach and the professionals have not just guided the team, but gelled together. The merriment at training sessions is spontaneous and infectious, with the wisecracks generally led by left-arm spinner Mayank Mishra and seamer Girish Rauturi.
Getting them together is like having a stand-up act.
"He's on a diet right now," Mishra says of Rauturi. "So one day we had gone to a snacks shop just to have a bite. He asked for milk, and we were going to put sugar in it, when he cried out, 'No, no, I don't want eat anything sweet.' And immediately after he tells the waiter, 'Do one thing, get me a couple of balmithai' [brown chocolate-like fudge that's coated with white sugar balls]."
Even as team-mates collapse in laughter and Rauturi protests that "that's all lies!" Mishra delivers the punchline: "Meetha chhod rakha hai, par mithai kha leta hai'" [He's given up sweets, but he has desserts].
The witticisms make it fun, but just what having a team has meant to them comes through when they get serious. "The day the team got selected was 'Karva Chauth'," Rauturi remembers. "When I get married, I'll definitely fast for my wife on that day, whether she does it or not. I couldn't sleep the entire night because I was so keyed up about being selected in the Ranji Trophy team.
"I was playing in Roorkee, in the same academy that Rishabh Pant used to practise in. I've played with him a lot. Whenever he used to bat in the nets, he used to ask me to bowl fast. We used a synthetic ball, and when I bowled bouncers, he would sometimes hit them, sometimes get beaten. He was always a good puller."
For Mishra, who had a bit of a career as a professional singer, going to talent shows and performing at local events before cricket took over as his first love, it was emotional. "My father has been telling me since I'm 18 years old that 'you can try for two more years' to make a career in cricket. I'm 28 now, so that 'two more years' continued for a while. I was of course very happy when I was selected in the Ranji Trophy team, but I think my father was even happier than me. We were both in tears when I told him over the phone."
Then there's Deepak Dhapola, Uttarakhand's bowling star. He was rested for one match, but still has 44 wickets, at an average of 13.36 and a strike-rate of 31.20. Dhapola is a seasoned cricketer, though he's a local lad. He's practised at Rajkumar Sharma's academy, and bowled to the most famous pupil there several times. He was even part of the probables for the Delhi Ranji side a couple of years back. "I've bowled to Virat (Kohli) several times, and he's encouraged me always," Dhapola says. And, having bowled to the best batsman in the world several times, he naturally isn't fazed by what's coming up against bigger teams. "If you bowl well, it doesn't matter who is at the other end," he says. "We may be the underdogs, but if we play well, there's no reason we can't do well in the quarterfinals."
Uttarakhand has been helped by the prior existence of a cricket culture, though until last year, the majority of cricket played there was of 20 or 40 overs. So the players are still raw. Coach Bhaskar, who was in charge of Delhi until last year, points to the nuance between coaching a side like Delhi and one like Uttarakhand.
"These guys listen to you. Even if they don't like it, they don't show it on the face," Bhaskar says. "A top team like a Delhi or Mumbai might tell you on your face, 'Leave me alone'. So that way you can put your point across to these guys.
"I remember in Delhi last year, Manoj (Prabhakar) was there. Sometimes it becomes very difficult. What happens is, Manoj would come out with some suggestion and they would turn their faces, not even respond. That happened with me also. They would listen, but not respond. So in one meeting I said clearly, 'You guys are more aware, more well-versed with the game. What I need is a pause from your side, a few seconds just to look into our face and listen to what a senior cricketer, ex-cricketer is saying.' See, somebody getting Rs 10 crore in the IPL, why would he listen to someone like me? In the end, when you are coaching a team like Delhi, or Karnataka or Mumbai, you can only act as a guide. Here you can stress on points a bit more."
The new players all speak of the professionals with affection rather than awe. All three of Bhatia, Vineet Saxena and Malolan Rangarajan gravitated to Uttarakhand for the most basic reasons of all - they needed a home, and they wanted to simply play cricket.
Malolan was left frustrated on Tamil Nadu's bench, because even though he had good results, he couldn't expect to get into the XI ahead of R Ashwin and Washington Sundar. That meant he played only five games for TN across two years. "I was just not enjoying my cricket anymore, because I wasn't playing at all," he says. "There is no one to compete with Ashwin in a World XI, leave alone a TN XI. The Tamil Nadu dressing room is one of the best I've been part of - no two ways about it - but that isn't enough. My only thing was I wanted to play. Not even play more, just play. So it was time to move on.
"The boys at Uttarakhand are really good and have made me feel at home. Luckily for me, I stayed in Delhi for five-six years when I was young, so I speak Hindi. So I get their jokes, I make my own jokes."
Saxena tells a similar story. "Last year, I didn't play for Rajasthan. And the reasons why I didn't play are unknown to me. I was available but not picked."
For Bhatia, he was left in the limbo by Delhi, when officials first told him he could be a selector, but then it dawned too late that he had to have been retired for five years to be eligible. Then, Uttarakhand came calling. Bhatia, though, will not be available for the quarterfinal. He'll be in Hawaii, not holidaying, but completing the second semester of a biomechanics course he signed up to do last year. He had told the association that he would leave mid-January.
He's also left a deep imprint on the squad. Younger players speak glowingly of the freedom he gives them, of how he backs them and believes in them, and of how they haven't played under a captain who has said, "I don't care about the result."
And while the pace attack led by Dhapola has been Uttarakhand's standout feature, Bhatia and Saxena were the ones who gave the team its most remarkable moment of the season. Both men came together with the team on 92 for 4 on the second day, after Meghalaya had made 311. They batted through the entire next day, each hitting double-centuries and ensuring Uttarakhand eventually won.
"The team wanted that professionalism from us, and that's what we delivered," Bhatia says. "When the chips are down and you are coming forward and taking the match away from the opposition completely… There were many moments in the season, and this was ours."
What those many moments have also done is ensure that the next time the state has a Rishabh Pant on its hands, he won't have to leave to be able to make a career in cricket.
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo