Kanitkar 'humbled' to be in final again
Late on the second day of the Ranji Trophy semi-final in Rohtak, Rajasthan opener Vineet Saxena talked about his team's careering path to the final, from the edge of elimination to a second straight final.
Winning their last two league matches outright, one of them with bonus points, was the minimum that Rajasthan needed to do for a chance to enter the quarter-finals. Despite that, the ticket to the knock-out rounds would only come through with every last-round result from their group falling their way.
When it actually happened and the defending champions made the quarters after having sneaked ahead of Saurashtra on the quotient, Saxena said with a smile, "We thought maybe God has something else planned for us."
Divine intervention aside, Rajasthan's road to the Ranji final has largely been made up of steering clear of contemplating the end of the line. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the Rajasthan captain, said that Rajasthan didn't think about making it all the way. "We weren't looking at the final because we didn't start very well."
Now that they are in the final, Kanitkar said that getting a second shot at the title was "a humbling thing" because of what it has taken to get there and also knowing "that there are many teams who have done it many times."
As the wickets fell in the semi-final, even Kanitkar, a seasoned and calm-tempered cricketer rarely given to theatrics or over-the-top celebrations, was heard shouting encouragement at his bowlers.
Amit Asawa, the Rajasthan coach, found himself trying to let it all sink in. "It is amazing," he said, "I am out of words. Two years ago we were in the bottom of the Plate League and now we are in our second straight final."
The team had been preparing itself since July, Asawa, a former Rajasthan player, said. Defending the title would demand more of the players with the increased competition in the Elite League and the weight of last year's performance on their shoulders. "We had heard all this in the air that we were tagged the champions but we didn't keep the pressure of being champions," Asawa said.
The main priority, Asawa said, was to make their place in the Elite League secure. "We knew we were in the Elite League and we would be facing strong teams. We wanted to remain here so this has far more significance and has been tougher than what we did last year … for me Rajasthan cricket has grown in the last two years."
The team prepared for their new season with the players sharing time in the Rajasthan Cricket Association Academy in Jaipur and the older pros getting to understand their younger team-mates. "We were living together for a long time," Kanitkar said. "We knew what turns someone on to get going, who to talk to, who to leave alone."
The performances of Rajasthan's players in the semi-final, Asawa said, needed to be judged "by character in the context of the game." By that count, he said, Saxena's being the top scorer in both innings "was like him scoring 125. Similarly a lot of the younger players would have got a lot of confidence from the game, like Robin Bist and Puneet Yadav with the bat and of course, Rituraj Singh."
When asked for his assessment of the Lahli wicket, which offered sideways movement and assistance to the bowlers on all three days, Kanitkar grinned at first and replied, "You're asking the wrong person - we have won, I like the wicket."
He then said that the track had shrunk the Ranji Trophy's most precious commodity - the first-innings lead -to a respectable size. "The first-innings lead was not important - not when if it wasn't a big one. A wicket like this gives you a chance to come back in the game, gives your bowlers a chance." He then added, "I don't know how I'd have answered the question had I been on the losing side … but I have to say it was a sporting wicket for both teams because it made you fight for every run."
After the on-field celebrations were done, Rajasthan walked off the field, waving stumps and fists. Their joy was made only audible as they walked into their dressing room behind the sight screen and away from the sight of their dejected hosts - the Haryana players and support staff, former players like Rajinder Goel watching from the sidelines, association officials, scorers, odd-jobs men, cleaners and cooks who had turned up to this venue 13 km outside Rohtak.
In less than an hour after the final ball, the stadium was cleared of its chairs and tables and the boundary ropes were piled into coils to be put away. The door of the Haryana dressing room was sealed shut. The team were talking about their road and how it had ended. Rajasthan had by then had begun gathering into their bus, in one sense already on their way to the final, the venue of which all of them seemed to know was going to be Chennai.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo