Haryana: The 'simple boys with self-belief'
In a season of tackling hairpin bends and skimming cliff edges of elimination, Haryana find themselves on solid ground and in their very element. Their first Ranji Trophy semi-final in 20 years will be only their third game at home this season - at the Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium in Lahli, outside Rohtak. It is a venue that coach Ashwini Kumar believes has played its part in altering his team's fortunes - despite last season's quarter-final loss to Tamil Nadu.
In the semi-final, Haryana will meet a team whose success last season unlocked belief and confidence among the lower orders of Indian first-class cricket. Rajasthan arrive in Rohtak as defending champions, their surge out of the Plate League causing a stirring among the Ranji small fry. This season Haryana have produced the early aftershock. Their victory over Karnataka in a low-scoring game lasting only three days in Bangalore was the only outright result in the quarter-finals.
Ashwini, whose tenure as Haryana coach since 2000 was briefly interrupted before he returned in 2009, said his team is only now hitting its full stride. "Struggle has been our habit this year," he told ESPNcricinfo, "We've had so many ups and downs and still the team has managed to get past everything." Whether it was injuries to key players, playing four of their six league matches away from home or heading into their final league game against Gujarat with relegation looming.
Haryana's batsmen crossed 300 in each of their first five league matches, but they took the first-innings lead in only two. The team followed on against Madhya Pradesh in Rohtak, and went into their last league game with the big drop looming.
Their batsmen produced 207 in their first innings against Gujarat. Yet thanks to their bowlers, only a seventh-wicket partnership took Gujarat past the Haryana total. From this situation Haryana produced a big victory and gave their season the gear it will require to keep going. In their second innings, Haryana declared at 321 for 5, with middle-order batsman Priyank Tehlan 15 short of his maiden first-class century in only his sixth game. "We could have batted for another five or ten overs but we needed overs to get them out," Anirudh Chaudhry, the Haryana Cricket Association secretary, said. Six wickets went to the spin team of captain Amit Mishra and debutant offspinner Jayant Yadav, who was picked over legspinner Yuzvendra Chahal.
Haryana has had a rash of rookies this season. The five debuts in their opening match against Delhi came from injuries to key players even though there was a worry of opening the Ranji season with "half the team made of up new players," according to Chaudhry. Medium-pacer Sanjay Budhwar was recovering from a surgery, Mohit Sharma had a hand injury, Mishra a shin problem and halfway through the season, Joginder Sharma had an accident.
Chaudhry said Haryana had been "fired up" fighting for promotion to the knock-outs. "These are simple boys with self-belief." The victory over Karnataka, which Chaudhry followed on live streaming, was the team's giant stride after three years of quarter-final defeats. "Karnataka was a very good team. They are an old association, they have a history. The country's leading wicket-taker is president. They have a wealth of experience to consult."
It took a "bowling spell of his life" from Harshal Patel, the Gujarat fast bowler signed on as a professional, to break open Karnataka's batting which set up the eventual victory. After his parents' migration to New Jersey, Harshal stayed on in India for cricket and it is a decision he may never regret.
Ashwini counts seven debutants for Haryana this season, with Chaudhry pointing out that along with that, there are two players playing their first full Ranji season. The average age of the 17 players who have turned out for Haryana in 2011-12 is just over 23.
The sudden mushrooming of twenty-somethings has come, Ashwini said, due to a combination of factors, one of which he believes is the HCA's fully-equipped cricket facility at Lahli. "It is our own stadium. We are able to hold off-season camps and have good practice facilities. We can train our coaches here. It is convenient for kids to get here for long periods of training. We can have trials."
Compared to 150 players who would turn up for open trials in a city, Lalhi's trials pull in 350 from towns and villages, Chaudhry said, their bats "wrapped in gunny bags."
The other reason for the surge in Haryana's overall fortunes and aspirations in the Ranji Trophy is "a big difference in the thinking of the players over the last decade," Ashwini said. This comes from the success of their peers from other states. "Rajasthan has won the Ranji Trophy. Our boys saw how Jharkhand won the 50-over title last year and Bengal the Twenty20 title. We had qualified for the knockouts in all three. The players now believe that it doesn't matter if you come from a small state, if you do well, you can represent India."
It has been many years since Haryana produced a player who gets the kind of attention that makes selectors bolt upright in their seats. Any performance that gets them into their first Ranji final since 1991, though, might just do it.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo