Rajasthan's old-school marathon man
It was a couple of the hours after the third day's play in this year's Ranji Trophy final between Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. Vineet Saxena, who had occupied the Chepauk pitch for 15 hours and seven minutes, was sitting in his hotel room. His perseverance and endurance had earned him 257 runs - enough to take Rajasthan to a winning position and to break the will of the opposition. Tamil Nadu had already lost their top order in their first innings. Rajasthan had a foot in the door but they were not thinking of the title yet. Just like Saxena, who became the 21st batsman to register a double-century in a Ranji final, would not acknowledge that he had played a match-turning knock.
Was it the most significant innings of his life? "Yes, maybe," he says. "I never had a double-century in first-class cricket. It couldn't have come at a better time. I am not realising [the importance of it] at the moment, but over time I will definitely savour it."
Saxena set up camp on the Chepauk pitch for three days. The challenge was different on each, and so, as he explains, was his batting. On day one he shared a laborious 221-run undefeated opening partnership with Aakash Chopra, finishing on 120 from 269 deliveries, with 16 boundaries. The next evening he returned unconquered again, having added 87 runs to his total, from just under 48 overs. On the third day he was a little bolder, though still steady, collecting 50 runs from 107 deliveries.
The innings may have been yawn-inducing at times, but it was a gruelling challenge mentally, Saxena says, especially on the hot second day. "Generally what happens is, if the batsman has crossed 100, he tends to dominate and gets the next hundred in fewer balls. But it was the other way round for me."
His captain, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who joined him at the crease after Chopra was dismissed early on the second morning, had been a calming influence for the first two sessions, but the toughest phase came when Saxena went past 180.
"They were bowling negative with the left-arm spinner [Aushik Srinivas] bowling over the wicket and behind my legs. I was stuck around 195 for quite a bit," he says. "If the bowler is bowling well and you are making an effort to stay there, there is a challenge. But here there was no challenge." It was more a test of patience.
On his way back to the hotel on the second evening, Saxena knew Rajasthan had eight wickets in hand but their total was not much for two days' work. "At the back of my mind I was thinking what had gone wrong," he says. The next morning he was slightly more expressive in the company of young Robin Bist, the top run-maker for the season. Saxena even stepped out to hit Srinivas high for a six.
Saxena is a grafter, not embarrassed to score slowly in a day and age when aggression is generally the preferred mindset. His game was developed on lawn-grass turf pitches, where an "outswinger could come in like an offcutter". The cautious approach born of this upbringing paid dividends in this year's semi-final against Haryana, a low-scoring affair, over in three days, in which he top-scored in both innings. His second-innings 58 was the only fifty by a batsman on either side; he stayed nearly three hours at the crease for it, before he was run out. Rituraj Singh then bundled Haryana out in no time and Rajasthan had made their second straight Ranji final. Saxena rates that innings a notch higher than his effort in the final.
He made his first-class debut in 1999, for Rajasthan. Lack of support and exposure frustrated him and forced him to move to Railways - for whom he had been working in the clerical cadre since 2000 - for a season, 2005-06. The following season he returned to Rajasthan when he was asked to do so by Hanumant Singh, the former India and Rajasthan cricketer. Hanumant died in October 2006, just before the start of the Ranji season, and Saxena found he was not exactly welcomed back. "The voices were growing about how I left Rajasthan when we got relegated to Plate group. But as soon as we were back in Elite, I was back," Saxena says. The reality was that Railways, his employers, had given him an ultimatum: play for them or quit his job. Hanumant had come to his rescue, but his death put Saxena in a spot.
Saxena did make the squad that season on the back of being the highest scorer in the selection tournaments. But Vikram Solanki, the overseas player from England, and Gagan Khoda were the openers. In the third match of the season Saxena got his chance but only made a duck and 18. He played the next game before being dropped for the rest of season. That was when he enrolled himself in a course to qualify as a Chartered Financial Analyst. He kept his cricketing ambitions intact, though, telling himself he would give cricket another year. He ended with 566 runs the following season and his cricket career was back on track, though the studies fell by the wayside.
Over the last few years Saxena has averaged around 300 runs in the Ranji aggregates. Not being in the top bracket has kept him somewhat anonymous, which is fine by him. "There is no added pressure on you.
"I have been playing first-class cricket for ten to 12 years," he says. "I played for India Under-19s in 1998-99, but nothing happened after that. I also dreamed of playing higher cricket but that did not happen for me. My job has always been to try my best, perform. If something happens, then very nice."
The Ranji final has been the embodiment of that outlook. "I have done the hard work but nothing big," he says. "Probably this was my opportunity and I did not want to let it go. I had a very good chance of scoring 300, because only I could have got myself out, not the bowler" Exhaustion finally put paid to his aspirations of a triple-century in a final, a feat that has been achieved only by Gul Mohammad in Ranji Trophy history.
Over the years India's domestic circuit has been replete with stories like Saxena's. A player who works hard, keeps at it for a decade and remains unknown to the world. What is the biggest challenge for cricketers like this? Is it to build belief in the first place or to keep it as the years pass?
"It is a mixture," Saxena says. "You need to have a certain amount of self-belief that you can do better. The second thing is hunger." He provides an example. In 2007-08 he played against England Lions for Central Zone in the Duleep Trophy, and made 34 and 29. "If you are scoring thirties you have a start, but you need to capitalise. I have done the hard work, but when the time came to reap the fruits, I have let them go."
The second half of 2009 was harrowing for Saxena, probably the most challenging time in his life. In July he was appointed captain of a team that would travel to Australia to play some practice matches. Soon after, his father, who had a history of heart disease, needed bypass surgery, for which he was rushed to Ahmedabad from Udaipur. He suffered a cardiac arrest, went into a coma and died. A week later Saxena travelled to Australia at his mother's insistence that it had been his father's dream to see his son excel at cricket.
That October, Anushree, his daughter, born premature but healthy, suffered an infection. Saxena had to play cricket regardless, as it was the family's only means of livelihood. On November 22, the day he returned from Goa after playing a group match, the child took a turn for the worse and was taken to the doctor, only to be declared dead. Nine days later Saxena played in Rajasthan's match against Vidarbha in Jaipur. "I had no option," he says. He took his mother and wife along, not wanting them to be left alone, grieving.
Times are happier now. Saxena has a three-month old daughter, Anvita, who he says has been lucky for him.
"I am playing cricket because of my father," he says. "My mother always wanted me to focus on my studies. But yesterday she had tears in her eyes." He dedicated the double-century to his father.
A couple of Rajasthan's finest, Salim Durani and Hanumant Singh, never won the Ranji Trophy in their time. "Rajasthan were a strong team in the 1960s," Saxena says, "making the finals so many times, but those greats were not able to win the title. Last year we did it. And again we did it this time and my contribution is there in that win. That is a very big feeling."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo