Youth at the forefront of Jharkhand's rise
Over the last four seasons, Jharkhand have been consistently inconsistent. The quarter-finalists of 2012-13 were relegated to Group C in the following season. They finished fourth in 2014-15 before earning a promotion with their second-place finish last year. Now, they are the toppers in a group comprising traditional power houses Delhi and Karnataka. Having set themselves up to climb the summit - they've never been there before - the side is keen to prove the old adage of 'two steps forward and three steps back' doesn't come back to haunt them.
With a quarter-final berth sealed even before their final league game against Odisha in Thumba, Jharkhand had an opportunity to build on their gains. They could have opted to experiment, but they were ruthless in their demolition, winning by an innings to set up a quarter-final clash with Haryana.
The reasons for their irregularities over the years are manifold, ranging from inexperience to lack of opportunities. But having invested in youth, their patience is slowly bearing fruit. That they haven't been afraid to leave out experienced seniors like Shiv Gautam, Samar Quadri and Rameez Nemat is indication of their change in focus.
Four members of their core this year - Ishan Kishan, Kaushal Singh, Virat Singh and Ashish Kumar - made their debuts two seasons ago. While Kishan - earmarked in Indian cricket as one for the future - has scored over 600 runs, Ashish, their pace spearhead, has taken 31 wickets. More importantly, he's delivered in the absence of Varun Aaron, the designated captain, who has been out for most parts of the season.
What stands out about their resurgence has been their brand of cricket; a defensive mindset has given way to a more flamboyant approach. It has resulted in them pushing harder to secure outright wins and not just settle for a lead. The turning point, according to Saurabh Tiwary, the stand-in captain, was an interaction MS Dhoni had with the team during a pre-season camp.
"He speaks from the heart," Tiwary told ESPNcricinfo. "One of the things he said was, when a spinner is bowling, we should be trying to score at least three-four runs every over. Previously, we used to bat an entire day and score 220-230. But look at our scores this season: we have scored over 300 in a day. So there has been a shift in our mindset that has resulted in us pushing for wins. Whatever he said were the basics, but that's exactly what many don't understand."
The results are there for everyone to see. In 2014-15, Jharkhand had just two outright wins. The season before that, they were winless. But they have picked up a total of nine wins in the last two seasons - five this time, along with Karnataka, being the most by a team across all groups.
"The key has been not just in individuals identifying their roles and playing them well, but as importantly, in finishing what they set out to do," explains Shahbaz Nadeem, their talismanic left-arm spinner and senior member. "Knowing why you are in the team and in what situation your skills come into play as a fast bowler or a spinner is very important, and we have done that well this time. My role as a senior is to communicate to all the bowlers and help them plan dismissals."
Nadeem and Tiwary have been two of the most consistent performers for Jharkhand. In four seasons prior to this one, they topped Jharkhand's bowling and batting charts thrice. This year, Nadeem has again been their highest wicket-taker while Tiwary has taken the backseat only to Kishan and Ishank Jaggi.
Jharkhand's first outright win came in their season opener, against Maharashtra. In the next match, they conceded the first-innings lead to Karnataka but have since displayed remarkable consistency, beating Rajasthan, taking the first-innings lead against Vidarbha and Delhi, crushing Saurashtra by an innings, beating Assam by five wickets and then thrashing Odisha inside three days.
Part of that consistency has been due to the importance given to fitness. Players have been given weekly fitness targets that have been monitored throughout the season. The results of some of that were discernible in the match against Odisha where Jharkhand impressed with their running between the wickets and fielding.
That isn't to say everything is perfect. There is still room for improvement, with Tiwary, who the team has monitored closely, being a case-in point. He limped off on the second day with cramps after scoring a half-century, albeit in sapping conditions. "We are only 40 percent there," coach Rajiv Kumar explains. "Sometimes, when a good partnership is going, you need that one brilliant run-out. But creating that opportunity can happen only if you are fit."
Jharkhand also benefitted from comprehensive preparation that started with camps as early as in June last year. That apart, the players also took part in the Buchi Babu, before travelling to Bengal and then again playing a few matches in Ranchi. "In the past, 70 percent of the boys had no cricket before the Ranji season," Rajiv says. "Things are different now."
As happy as they are with the immediate results, the association doesn't want to sit back and rest on their improvements. Identifying the need to have a feeder system, JSCA president Amitabh Chaudhary said, was the first step towards improvement.
If youngsters like Kishan have shone, it is because of a significant shift to a structured Under-14 and Under-16 system. More tournaments have been introduced and turf wickets have been installed across districts. To select a team for the Vijay Merchant Trophy, India's premier U-16 tournament, there is now a districts league, and a detailed league-cum-final knockout inter-district tournament. Besides, the state has been split into four divisions that take part in a divisional league and the process is repeated for all levels from U-19 to seniors.
"It takes a heavy toll in terms of finances and the collective energies of the associations, but it's worth it," Chaudhary says of the expansion plans. "And the best thing is with such an elaborate and comprehensive system in place, nobody can act funny with the selection process. The system is insulated.
"Ten years ago, there would be a total of 50 matches. Today, we have over 50 tournaments. We've tried to cover even the remote corners of the state. There is a place called Torpa in the Khunti district, adjoining Ranchi. If you go there during mid-day, you will find it absolutely desolate. Guys from such areas are coming in and playing.
"Of course, there is always room for improvement. And, as it is, we never believe in any sensational steps taken and anything with the intent of making a splash. We have been trying to put some systems in place and it's taken some time. But we've had the satisfaction of seeing the systems finally falling in place and bearing fruit."
While getting to the knockouts is seen as a victory in itself, the team management has impressed on the need to dream big. Of that, there has been plenty of evidence during the course of the season. Now, for them to build on the improvements.
Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo