May 6, 2008

A royal fairytale

Boosted by the inspired, top-notch captaincy of Shane Warne, the Rajasthan side have been the romantic success story of the IPL

The gambler: Warne has brought his card-player's instincts to Twenty20 with great success Martin Williamson

We often see gestures like it on the field, but only occasionally get to hear the tales behind them. Here is one. When Yusuf Pathan tempted Adam Gilchrist out of his crease and had him stranded in only the third over of Rajasthan Royals' match against the Deccan Chargers, no one was more animated than Shane Warne. While his team-mates were still celebrating, he turned towards the Rajasthan dugout and made a little gesture that said: "I told you so."

"We knew it was coming," said Jeremy Snape, who is part of Rajasthan's support staff as performance coach. It had been Warne's idea to throw in Pathan's offspin early against Gilchrist and he had been certain Pathan would get Gilchrist out. "It took us a long time to discuss the machinations of this strategy," Snape said. "When something like that happens, it's brilliant."

With Warne orchestrating the moves as captain-coach, such things have happened again and again with the Rajasthan Royals. Batsmen and bowlers are known to have golden streaks, but for nearly two weeks we have seen a captain in the zone. After a disastrous opening match, the most unfancied team of the competition has won five in row, and everything Warne has touched has turned to gold. The importance of luck in captaincy cannot be overstated, but to repeat a hoary phrase, fortune favours the brave. Warne has backed his instincts and gambled away.

In their second match, against Punjab, he had two legspinners - himself and the unheralded Dinesh Salunkhe, who came into the spotlight through a TV talent-hunt show and is yet to play a first-class match - bowling together after six overs, and they claimed three wickets in as many overs. Salunkhe got Mahela Jayawerdene stumped.

Chasing 217 against the Deccan Chargers, Warne promoted Yusuf Pathan to No. 3 and Pathan blasted a 21-ball half century.

Against the Royal Challengers, the customary deep fine-leg was done away with and a man was posted at the square-leg boundary instead. Rahul Dravid pulled the first ball he faced straight to him, and three more wickets fell to the short-ball trap.

In the next match, against Kolkata, Warne pulled out little-known Swapnil Asnodkar, a frail-looking opening batsman from Goa with a strike-rate of 41.23 in List A limited-overs cricket, and Asnodkar blazed away to 60 off 34 balls.

Against Chennai, Warne handed the new ball to Sohail Tanvir and told him to look for wickets: in the first over, Tanvir took two.

Outrageous luck or flashes of genius? A bit of both perhaps, but it is worth noting that the outcomes wouldn't have been possible without either.

Before he came to Jaipur, Warne, who retired from one-day cricket in 2003, had played only a couple of Twenty20 games for Hampshire, who he led for couple of seasons, but it didn't take him to long to grasp the dynamics of the shortest format. "Twenty20 is all about surprises," he said. "It's about doing something that the opposition doesn't really expect." And with every match, Warne's propensity for the unexpected has merely grown.

More inspirational has been the way Warne and he support staff have moulded a team of bravehearts out of relative lightweights. Their only major current international player is Graeme Smith. The batting is thin on paper; and the franchise gambled on appointing Warne - whose antipathy towards professional coaches is only too well known - head of the coaching team. It could have all gone hopelessly wrong, as it did for the ICL, which appointed Brian Lara, another mercurial genius, captain of their Mumbai team. Lara hardly scored a run in the first season, and didn't play in the second tournament, and his team disintegrated around his obvious lack of interest.

But Warne evidently still has a fire raging within him. Denied the captaincy by a conservative Australian cricket board, which feared a public-relations disaster if he was given the job, Warne led Hampshire with passion. In Jaipur he has plunged himself into mentoring a young team with sense of a mission. Every Rajasthan player you meet speaks about Warne's ability to inspire and visualise, his positive thinking, and his human touch. Warne hasn't so much imposed himself on the team as he has lifted it. In every match Rajasthan have found a new hero.

Salunkhe was the one in the game against Punjab. "Mahela [Jayawardene] and Yuvraj [Singh] were batting when Warne asked me to bowl," Salunkhe said. "I was afraid - Mahela is such a good player of spin. Warne marched up to me and said, 'Put your chest out, stand tall, be confident. I believe you can get him. Tell me you can do it.'

"In the world there can be only one Taj Mahal. Similarly, there can only be one Shane Warne."

Given Warne's position on professional coaches, Snape, who has a masters in sports psychology, was initially wary of taking up a role under him. Those apprehensions have since melted away and been replaced by admiration. "You can study psychology for as long as you want, but he has lived it," Snape says of Warne.

"Warnie would never use the p word, "psychology", but he lives it. He's a great motivator. He's very passionate, he thinks very clearly. One of my big points for the boys is to choose the strategy carefully with a cool head and then commit wholeheartedly to it. Warnie exemplifies that in the way he plays his cricket.

A hero per match: the likes of Yusuf Pathan have shone under Warne's captaincy © Getty Images

He's got careers outside, in journalism and poker. This is a six-week tournament that's very exciting for him. He's got a chance to leave a legacy. That comes down to the personality again. Stockbrokers in London earn millions - but they all want to feel part of something that's bigger than them. Want to feel like they've created something. We all feel like that at Rajasthan. There's no heritage, there's no black and white pictures on the wall. It's a start-up. For someone like Warnie, who's done so much in cricket, it's exciting to be able to say, 'We were part of that tournament. And these are the stars that came up from it.' And he's shared his knowledge, which is one of his great skills."

Rajasthan Royals are the most no-frills franchise in the IPL. They have no Bollywood stars in their entourage, but they do possess a well-knit support team. Apart from Snape, who contributes to planning and strategy, there is Darren Berry, the assistant coach, who, in Warne's words, brings "a structured approach to training".

Warne says that they have tried to be "the smartest, the cleverest team in the competition". Snape says they want to the clearest-thinking team. "Technically, the players aren't going to change over the six weeks, but it's the ones who are going to have the clearest decision-making under pressure who are going to do really well. That's the theme of our discussions. Of course, we'd like our plans to work, but that's when the real cricket starts - when your plan doesn't work and you've got to adapt."

Above all, Warne has been there to provide the bits of magic that only he can. The Royals' dressing room is still heady with the 16 runs he blasted off three balls from Andrew Symonds' final over against the Deccan Chargers, but it is the dismissal of Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the game against Chennai that will have made fans' eyes moist with nostalgia.

The first ball landed on leg and middle and spun past Dhoni's tentative bat. Dhoni barely managed to keep out the next one, which pitched on nearly the same spot and straightened. The third was floated just a bit more to draw the batsman forward, and held back just a bit to ensure that it landed short enough to spin and catch the edge. Even if Dhoni had missed it, he would have been stumped. It was a sublime working-over, a piece of art.

Warne's and Rajasthan's unexpected success is both uplifting and reassuring. It is a reaffirmation that old-fashioned cricket values and skills have their place in the game's newest, and to many the crassest, form.

Long may Warne continue to reign.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo