Four points from four matches. Bottom of the table. Three big wins, a first-innings lead, and Uttar Pradesh are Ranji champions for the first time in the history.
Eight points from four matches. Bottom of the table. Three big wins and UP are one match short of becoming the champions for the second time in three years.
Not much has changed, has it? Outside UP, though, the world has changed a lot over the last two years. Teams over the country have become more professional: almost all the strong teams now have a proper physiotherapist, a trainer, and a video analyst. In UP, change means the retirement of three seniors - Gyanendra Pandey, Ashish Zaidi and Rizwan Shamshad - one of whom has become the coach and one the manager. They now have a physio who doubles up as a trainer. Otherwise life is pretty much the same; there is no video analysis, every time they arrange a camp they have to arrange a ground - the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association (UPCA) doesn't own one. At times players have to pool in to buy the SG Test balls. The extended team - players, coach, manager and physio - feels the only contribution from outside has been the stinging criticism from former players.
The loss of Shalabh Srivastava, their key left-arm opening bowler, to the Indian Cricket League is a glaring example of how the system doesn't care for its cricket. Srivastava, the third-highest wicket-taker in the 1999-2000 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, which India won, was a blossoming talent when he had to undertake expensive knee surgery in South Africa in 2003. He was assured that he would be reimbursed but it hasn't happened yet. In 2007 - at 26 and ostensibly in the prime of his career - he didn't even have a job. He joined Indian Railways and was then expected to play for them. Playing in the Plate League didn't excite him and he subsequently joined the ICL.
His replacement was Sudeep Tyagi, a tall lively right-arm medium-pacer who took 19 wickets in his first two matches; yet Tyagi could have been warming the bench in the Under-22 tournament had Mohammad Kaif and Pandey, the coach, not picked him for senior tournament. That the bench is no longer studded with politicians' relatives is seen as a major advance in UP cricket.
Given such poor infrastructure, who told UP they could win the Ranji Trophy and reach the final two years later? "If anybody other than us (the players, the coach, manager and physio) claims credit for this success, it is bulls**t," says one player. His anger underscores the team's greatest strength - tremendous self-belief in the face of all the roadblocks, the poor practising facilities, the substandard gyms, zero assistance. They knew they had come back from an identical situation two years ago, and they reminded themselves of that. In Kaif they have a leader who inspires; in Pandey a coach who was one of them last season and one they respect; and in Zaidi a manager who knew the art of taking wickets in Indian domestic cricket and is sharing it.
Most of their youngsters have come up through the hostel system, which has been a successful conveyor belt for UP. Even before they reach the Ranji team, they have a sense of bonding having stayed in the same hostels and learned the game with each other. They are all ready to play, fight and go up or down together.
|Even before they reach the Ranji team, UP have a sense of bonding having stayed in the same hostels and learned the game with each other. They are all ready to play, fight and go up or down together|
Moreover, as Kaif says, "The players are very quick learners and hard workers." The hard work shows in their fielding: they are perhaps the best fielding side in the Ranji Trophy, what with Suresh Raina and Kaif leading the pack.
Their major success, though, has come with the ball. Tyagi has bowled with the maturity that belies someone in his first season. He will most likely end the leading wicket-taker - his 39 wickets at 19.84 are one short of the leader R Vinay Kumar who is out of the competition and Praveen Kumar with 28 wickets at 16.42 has the next best tally for a bowler alive in the tournament. Kumar, who missed the first two matches, has come back and duly enhanced his reputation of being one of the hardest workers on field among the pace bowlers in domestic cricket. He, like Zaidi, seems to know how to take wickets in domestic cricket. The two have given them good starts in all the three matches they have won in their late surge to the finals. Between them they have bowled long spells (188.4 overs out of 363.1) and taken 32 wickets in the last three matches, with Piyush Chawla and Praveen Gupta forming a good spin tag team towards the end of the season.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a pluck from the U-19 side, has bowled steady right-arm medium pace and shown cricketing smartness with the bat. On a pitch - in the semi-final - where others found hard to score runs, he stayed at the wicket for 105 minutes, during which time the team scored 88 runs.
A weak inexperienced batting line-up, especially with Raina fizzling out after a flying start, has been led and held together by Kaif. His 80 in the extremely low-scoring semi-final against Saurashtra was the difference between the two sides. The batting, apart from the two, has not looked special: they are still struggling for a pair of decent openers as was the case two years ago. As many as six have tried their hand at the dreaded job and just when Tanmay Srivastava and Rohit Prakash Srivastava seemed like forging a longish partnership, Tanmay had to go to play for India U-19. The young batsmen in the middle play too many shots, don't have the patience to build a long innings, and one wonders if video analysis wouldn't help.
UP are a team easy to like - just like their captain. They are exciting to watch in the field, flashy with the bat, and never short of humour off the field. On sheer talent and grit, they have presented another story of success despite the system in India. Two years after their maiden success, nothing speaks of the system more than the fact that they are still an underdog story - it was endearing the first time round just like any underdog story is, but it is disappointing this time. A Ranji Trophy triumph should mean more.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo