Rajasthan's very own Captain Cool triumphs
The neatness of the hotel guest is apparent. Six pairs of footwear are arranged in two neat lines on a small mat in front of the bed. The items on the writing table lie in a straight line. The bed is pristine. The kit bag lies in one corner, zipped. On the field and off it, Hrishikesh Kanitkar is an orderly person. His whites are always carefully creased; even the way he walks is measured. This is the man who, today, lifted the Ranji Trophy for the second straight year as Rajasthan captain.
Barring Mumbai, who have won the title 39 times, only three other teams - Maharashtra, Delhi and Karnataka - have managed to win consecutive titles. Only DB Deodhar (for Maharashtra in 1940 and 1941) and Bishan Singh Bedi (for Delhi in 1979 and 1980), along with a select few Mumbai captains, have had the honour of leading a victorious side for two straight years.
Yet, as he reclines on his bed, Kanitkar shows no emotion. Asked why the room is so distinctly tidy, Kanitkar explains it simply helps him find things easily. It does, though, suggest he is meticulous in his ways, perhaps rigid; but Kanitkar insists he is not someone who leads his team by following a set template. "I am very spontaneous. I am instinctive," he says.
In Rajasthan's group match against Mumbai, Kanitkar showed some of that instinct when he moved slip to short fine leg for Suryakumar Yadav, who was sweeping frequently, and had him caught in the position almost instantly.
Kanitkar says his father Hemant, a former captain of Maharashtra, had always told him to listen to his inner voice and trust it. "My father always told me that when you are leading, suddenly you feel like moving a fielder to a particular spot. He said you have to do it and follow that instinct." In the Ranji final, Kanitkar moved the square leg fielder to midwicket twice, based entirely on his instinct. M Vijay and K Vasudevadas both hit into the hands of those very fielders.
Cajoling and nursing his bowling attack is another big part of Kanitkar's job. On the third day of the Ranji final, Dinesh Karthik was comfortably driving the second new ball, which frustrated medium-pacer Pankaj Singh. Kanitkar swiftly moved himself from first slip to mid-off, and asked his strike bowler to pitch in good areas and bowl as if he were trying to dismiss the top order at the start of an innings. "We were getting defensive with the field so I told him to bowl in good areas and I would set normal fields and let Karthik try and pierce the field," Kanitkar says.
Pankaj acknowledges his captain's role in helping him stay focussed. "He just told me that we were trying too hard to get the wicket," Pankaj says about his spell to Karthik. "He is a very senior guy. He is your captain and wants the best for you and the team. If what I am doing is not working he makes suggestions and I should accept them. Sometimes I suggest something, and he accepts it most often and refuses at times."
So what was the biggest challenge of defending the crown? Last year, Rajasthan had no idea what path they were traversing. They had nothing to lose and they won the tournament. This year Kanitkar's challenge was to make sure the players believed they deserved to be champions but also had their feet on the ground. According to Kanitkar, the essential ingredient was several players stepping up to perform vital roles, however unglamorous they may have seemed.
"You need heroes for different situations in different games, and a hero could be somebody who bowls a decent spell and keeps the opposition run-rate in check. Like in the semi-final (against Haryana), Puneet Yadav took a couple of very good catches. Even though he did not score too many runs, his catches made the difference because it was a low-scoring game. Hence I say to get here you need the whole team to perform"
Rajasthan's hero in the final was Vineet Saxena , who batted for fifteen hours to score 257 and drain Tamil Nadu of all motivation. Saxena admits the presence of his captain at the other end on the second day was influential. Kanitkar's 67 was part of an important 126-run stand for the second wicket, which not only kept Saxena relaxed, but further frustrated Tamil Nadu, who had gone wicketless on the first day.
Kanitkar scored only one century this season, but as a professional his role is extended to mentoring the other players. "I have to be someone who affects the team positively even when I am not performing," he says. The best way to get his message across, Kanitkar believes, is to deliver it in a "casual" way, rather than in a dictatorial manner.
Kanitkar is not the first professional to lead Rajasthan. For two seasons - 2004-05 and 2005-06 - Ajay Jadeja was the captain. When he left, Rajasthan were relegated to the Plate division. In May 2011, the current national selector Narendra Hirwani, who was with the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association, recommended Kanitkar to the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) officials Rajeev Rathore and Sanjay Dixit (then RCA secretary). Kanitkar had moved from his native Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, where he played as a professional for two seasons. Both Maharashtra and MP let Kanitkar go for the same reason: they wanted to blood young players.
Aakash Chopra, another of the three professionals signed by the RCA two years ago (Rashmi Parida is the third), believes Kanitkar was the right man to lead. "He has never been too demanding," Chopra says of his captain. "He has always said give your 100 % and I am happy. For these kids it worked. Cricket is an expression of the self and now they could do that."
This was in complete contrast to a few years ago, when players like Saxena were, on occasion, publicly ridiculed by their captains. That only stunted their growth. They never had a voice. Kanitkar's arrival changed that.
"He does not lose his cool at all," Chopra says. "That has played a significant role, more than bringing people together. Generally he is a shy guy who is not really expressive. For an introvert to be a successful captain is not easy, especially if he is going to a new state."
Saxena says Kanitkar is the "the Mr Cricket" of Rajasthan. "As a cricketer he is close to perfection," Saxena says. What inspires and amazes Saxena is Kanitkar's commitment and the hard work he puts in despite his age - Kanitkar is 37 years old. "If he has got out early he will never miss going to the gym later in the evening. He will do that extra job come what may. He will make sure he does not let the day go to waste," Saxena says.
The confidence an experienced hand like Kanitkar can help instill in a player is perhaps best reflected in the growth of Rajasthan's youngest team-member, medium-pacer Rituraj Singh. Rituraj debuted this season and made a mark immediately, bagging three five-wicket hauls, including one in the semis against Haryana. Ritu, as he is known, admits he would ask Kanitkar to stand at mid-on or mid-off as he needed his calming influence.
In the semi-final, Rituraj was hit for consecutive boundaries; it was not anything to worry about but Kanitkar understood the young bowler may have been rattled. He ran to Rituraj and told him the two balls were good and he just needed to stay patient. Even in the final, Kanitkar gave Rituraj a plan to bowl to. "He kept asking me to focus on my length. He kept reminding me about the basics," Rituraj says.
Kanitkar was brought up by sport-loving parents. His father Hemant has always been a quiet inspiration ("He will only call to congratulate when the match is over," Kanitkar says). His mother hid behind trees during his school days to watch her son bat. "They never put pressure on me regardless of whether I performed or not. They always gave me positive feedback," Kanitkar says of his parents.
At 37, Kanitkar is a father figure to the youngsters in the Rajasthan squad, but remains a bachelor. The woman in his life, he says, has always been his mother, Anuradha, who has been heartily clapping and cheering Rajasthan at Chepauk.
This support has allowed Kanitkar to transform himself from someone who once, as shocking as it might sound to his team-mates now, would let incidents on the field get to him and react badly. Over the years, as he matured and understood himself, Kanitkar re-shaped his thoughts.
"It is okay to make mistakes. It is okay to get out. It is okay to drop a catch; it is like dropping a cup and it breaks," Kanitkar says. He has grown from "being very unaccepting of such things" to accepting errors now. It has only put the rest of the players at ease.
If there was a message for his triumphant team going forward, he said it was only to stay consistent. "Keep getting to the knockouts," he says.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo