The boys who believed
Namaste, auntieji," Rituraj Singh says, bowing to touch the feet of Anuradha Kanitkar, mother of the captain of the Rajasthan team. It is the evening of the fourth day of the Ranji Trophy final. Earlier in the day Rajasthan effectively put the seal on their second straight title, having taken an unassailable 347-run lead against Tamil Nadu. Rituraj, 21, could hardly believe his luck at being part of a champion team in his debut first-class season. "Why lucky?" Mrs Kanitkar asks him. "You deserve it. You have worked so hard."
Both were correct in their way. Luck and hard work figured prominently in Rajasthan's campaign. They started their defence of the title aiming to get to the knockouts first. But a month into the season they found themselves with their work further cut out, having to avoiding relegation after they conceded a first-innings lead in their first five matches. Left with only two group games and five points to their name, they were up against it.
"We were wary of Saurashtra because they had beaten Punjab outright in Mohali," Hrishikesh Kanitkar says. The plan was to get a first-innings lead in that first match and then go all out for victory against Orissa, even if that would not be sufficient to stay in the race for the knockouts. The objective back then was to not get relegated.
Rajasthan lost the toss on a green wicket against Saurashtra. Vineet Saxena got a century, and Puneet Yadav, playing only his second match, followed suit. The fast bowlers knocked Saurashtra out twice, led by Sumit Mathur, who picked a fine time to take his second five-for in five years.
The goal now was to aim for maximum points against Orissa. "There was a glimmer of hope of qualifying [for the knockouts], provided the results in the other matches went our way," Kanitkar says.
Three other teams - Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Saurashtra - were in the fray for the knockout spot Rajasthan had their eyes on. Punjab only needed a first-innings' lead against Mumbai, but they failed and stayed on 15 points. Saurashtra needed six to get to 17 points against Railways but only got five. Rajasthan managed six points against Orissa. In that game and against Saurashtra, Rajasthan did not lose 20 wickets, which proved crucial in keeping their quotient ahead of those of the other two teams.
As defending champions they got to play their next match against the Plate team that qualified for the knockouts, Hyderabad. "You can call it luck, destiny," Kanitkar says about the way his side made it past the three other teams that were tied on points going into the last round.
You also need to credit the men who stood up when it mattered. Rituraj had gone wicketless in the first innings against Orissa, but he returned to take his maiden five-for, 6 for 75, bundling Orissa out quickly after Rajasthan enforced the follow-on. In the semi-final, with the new ball in hand, on a seaming pitch, in bowler-friendly conditions, Rituraj finished with a match haul of 12 wickets.
He had been raring to go for the last two years, after his Under-22 performances, where he was the highest wicket-taker in the 2010-11 season. He got a call from the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) operations manager before the game against Saurashtra. Deepak Chahar, who shot to fame last season, was down with jaundice, and Rituraj at first thought he was being called to help in the nets.
For Pankaj Singh, the leader of Rajasthan's fast bowling attack, the difference in the campaigns between the two years was that last year they did not expect to be champions. As defending champions this year, there was a bit of pressure, he says.
After five games, the fielding was hurting the team's chances, Pankaj says. Against Mumbai, Rajasthan made 530. "We got two early wickets but then we dropped Rohit Sharma and Abhishek Nayar early on." Both scored centuries - Rohit a double. "Against Uttar Pradesh we dropped a lot of catches again. Somewhere we knew that we are doing well, but it was not enough to win the match."
Personally for Pankaj, when Rajasthan lost to Railways on first innings, it was gutting. He had taken eight against Karnataka and Mumbai, so to go down to Railways was a blow. "They had lost two matches in a row. We all knew we had to make a statement that we were not champions by fluke," he says. Railways got a four-run lead, having lost eight wickets. "I felt that I had to deliver. It hurt me," Pankaj, who went wicketless from 38 overs, says. It was Rajasthan's second match in a row where the batsmen had put up 500-plus totals but the bowlers had failed to get the opposition out.
In the next match, Punjab made 597. Ravi Inder Singh, one of four players who made centuries in that innings, said the Rajasthan bowlers were not up to the mark. It was the first game for the former South Africa fast bowler Meyrick Pringle, who had been drafted in as a bowling consultant for three matches by the RCA. Pringle asked the Rajasthan quicks to go all out in the second innings. A fired-up Pankaj troubled not just Ravi Inder, he also was on a hat-trick in the 18 overs Punjab batted. By the end of the season Pankaj had 35 wickets - the fourth-highest wicket-taker this season, with six fewer than the leader, TP Sudhindra of Madhya Pradesh.
For Robin Bist this season was all about proving he is not a fifties-only man. Bist, who moved to Rajasthan from Delhi, made five half-centuries last season, when he scored 454 runs in all. He didn't make the best start this year, with only 67 runs in Rajasthan's first match, against Karnataka, but Kanitkar told him he had never seen him hit the ball so fluently and asked him to come back unbeaten as often as he could.
By the time they got to the final, Bist was 115 adrift of 1000 runs in the season. He made 57 in the first innings against Tamil Nadu, and wanted to ask Kanitkar if he could be promoted to No. 3 in the second, but he didn't have to: the captain himself asked him to go up the order. Though Bist missed out on his fifth hundred of the season by eight runs, he became only the 12th man to get to four figures in a Ranji season. And he was not out four times in ten matches.
Another key contributor was Mathur, who had been in and out of the squad till Kanitkar took over. Against Baroda, before last year's final, Kanitkar and the team management decided to keep Mathur out for an extra spinner. Mathur nearly broke down in his room when he was told. "Maybe God did want me to play, I thought. I went to Hrishi's room to express my disappointment. He told me [Rohit] Jhalani [the wicketkeeper] was not in form with the bat. That did not allow him to play an extra bowler."
As soon as Mathur stepped into Chepauk this time, the ghosts of the past came back to haunt him. "The pitch was similar and I was afraid, but I was told I was playing," he says, smiling, holding his daughter Angel in his arms, after Rajasthan were crowned champions.
In the end the story of Rajasthan's success this year was built by individuals who never lost faith in their team. They knew that they belonged, that they had the drive, determination and patience to quell their doubts and work as a team.
Statuettes of deities encircle a lamp on the dressing-room table. Pop music pipes through Aakash Chopra's iPod. Chopra says he is more settled now, after marriage, even if he is a loner by nature. In contrast to his more reticent captain, he is voluble, eloquent.
He sums up the season as a rollercoaster ride, marked by "the belief that no matter how dire the situation there will be someone who will stand up and get counted".
"I never saw that kind of spirit and conviction when Delhi were defending champions," says Chopra, who played for Delhi for 12 years before moving to Rajasthan last season.
In the final Rajasthan stayed calm and relaxed even as the critics and the Twitterati pelted abuse at what they saw as the team's tortuous approach on the first two days. "There was one guy who wrote: 'I have bought your Out of the Blue [Chopra's book on Rajasthan's victory last season], but I will not read your hypocrisy.' Chopra says. "I just shut my laptop."
The first day, Rajasthan were anxious and understood the toss would be the most important thing, he says. "We [knew we] must, must bat them out of the game, especially with our apparent weakness in the spin department."
The match started on a painful note for Chopra, when he tried to pull a short delivery from Jagannathan Kaushik, hurried into the shot and was hit in the face. "It was the first time in my career - the ball getting through the visor," he says. He still has a black eye from it.
The second day the visitors grew confident, even if they only made 183 runs. "The third day we knew that we had one foot in the door," Chopra says, after Rituraj and Pankaj packed off the Tamil Nadu top order in about an hour.
Chopra has seen Rajasthan transform itself from an insular team, where the senior players would rest on their laurels and clip the wings of their ambitious younger team-mates.
It is to their credit that Rajasthan won despite all the politicking in the RCA set-up. There are 37 districts in the state, which cast votes to decide who comes into power in the association. Rajasthan had about ten managers during the season, as against one last year. They did not have a video analyst. One of their assistant coaches, Harish Joshi, was sacked this year. Pringle, who proved influential in the fast bowlers' success, was not asked to extend his stint.
After the final, the administrators turned up to stake claim to the trophy, getting themselves photographed holding it, almost elbowing the players out of the way. On the bright side, Kanitkar has made certain that only he, the coach, Amit Asava, and the senior players have a say in selection.
Humility has been a hallmark for Rajasthan. In his media briefings during the group stages, Kanitkar stressed on the fact that they were new kids on the Elite block, looking to learn.
"Ranji Trophy is not won easily. We keep reminding the players to expect a fight," Chopra says. Last year Kanitkar was the team's highest run-scorer, Chopra was ten runs behind. The third professional, Rashmi Ranjan Parida ("Paddy bhaiyya"), was the Man of the Match in the final. "This is his stage," Chopra said then. "He will not play for India ever. He will not play for the IPL. But he is the Man-of-the-Match in the final. There were only 76 people before him to earn that reward."
This year Saxena became the latest to join that band. The squad lifted him aloft after they won. A bunch of individuals with their varying back stories, working to get the team ahead while enjoying each other's success.
When they won the trophy two years in a row, Rajasthan became only the fifth team in Ranji Trophy history to achieve such a feat. Chopra, who has played in three Ranji finals - for Delhi in 2008 and now twice for Rajasthan - has won all three. "It is not like winning a Test series in Australia, but if anything comes close it is winning the Ranji Trophy."
"As a player you want to play for the country. But after few years we might realise the importance of being the Ranji champions. You can be a member of the Indian side, but alone you can't be a champion. You need a good bunch of players. And that happens only once or twice in a decade," Pankaj says.
Bist reckons that the youngsters have played their part, backing up the guidance the professionals have provided. "They have shown the character and the fire inside them to perform. It is every cricketer's dream to win, to touch, the Ranji Trophy."
For Rituraj the team's unity has been special. "After being part of this team, after performing, after playing with these seniors, I can say I am a capable bowler now," he says.
Nearly two hours after Rajasthan have been crowned champions, the players and their families bask in the afterglow, out on the Chepauk lawns, when the sprinklers come to life. There is a loud cheer. There's no champagne to spray about but this will do.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo