Haryana, quietly ambitious
Haryana might never have been a strong team, but they gave us one of the most enduring Ranji Trophy images of all time. In 1991, their year of glory under Kapil Dev, Mumbai's Dilip Vengsarkar left the field in tears in an intensely fought final. It captured the fierce desire of Mumbai for Ranji success, and also reflected a wonderful moment of rare success for an unfancied team. Haryana have never entered another final again.
For years now, they have been wallowing in the middle rung in the domestic circuit. The 2000s decade twice dragged them down to the Plate League, but they re-entered the Super League last year, and have reached the quarter-finals this year. Hope floats.
Ashwini Kumar, the coach, is understandably cautious, and modestly ambitious. "We need to stay in the Super League for 3-4 years continuously, gain experience, mature as players and go from strength to strength. Bigger goals can wait. If you keep improving yourself each season, the results will take care of themselves."
Ashwini looks back at the early part of the decade as a rebuilding phase. "Chetan Sharma, Ajay Jadeja, Amarjeet Kaypee all had quit, the experience was thin and a new team was being built." Haryana were Under-19 champions around 2000. Camps were held across districts, talent hunts were done and the feeder system was beginning to slowly churn out the players.
Meanwhile, at the Ranji level, the team was slipping. Amit Mishra, their current captain, sees it as an absence of confidence due of a lack of talent and big players. "It was bound to show on field but we started to turn around things in the last three years. The talent came in, and it was a great feeling last year to get out of the Plate League."
The motivation to remain in the Super League is obvious enough; your performances here are noted. As Mishra says, "Plate mei performance ka jyaada weightage nahi dete hain (There is not much weightage given to Plate performances). The boys know the importance of staying and doing well in Super".
This season, as witnessed in matches held in North India, the seamers, led by Joginder Sharma, have propelled Haryana. Joginder, fated to be remembered forever for a solitary ball of fame that won India the Twenty20 World Cup, has been on a comeback trail since his shoulder surgery in 2007-08 put him out of action in the next season. "I was struggling for the last two years but I felt fully fit at the start of this season. When I came to the pre-season camp, I was inspired by the hard work put in by the young team-mates and told myself that I have to lead from the front this year." With 29 wickets, Joginder is the joint-third highest wicket-taker this Ranji season across all teams. The seniors have done well in the past as well: Haryana have three bowlers who have taken hat-tricks - Joginder Sharma, Amit Mishra, and Dhruv Singh - and possess one triple centurion in Sunny Singh.
At 27, Joginder finds himself, along with Hemang Badani and Mishra, one of the seniors in this young team. "I am desperate to do well and bring back the name of Haryana. It's not about winning the Ranji Trophy but being a part of growth. We seniors told the boys that Super League is not something to be fearful about. The skills are the same here. Don't worry about the reputation of the opposition player; just do your thing. The results are there as you can see." It's a sentiment that seems to be prevalent in the think-tank. The coach, the captain and the seniors share that thought and the younger players have responded.
Badani came in as a professional this year and has led from the front with 374 runs, just 11 runs short of the top-scorer Nitin Saini. He top-scored on difficult tracks against Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka and proved his worth. " I came in with an open mind. It was a chance to come back to first-class cricket after playing in ICL. It was a nice opportunity to play with a side with young guys and try to qualify for knockouts; it's very heartening that we have done that. Coming from Chennai, it was a different experience playing in these seaming tracks here, We have a great bunch of guys who are keen to do well; it has been a very refreshing experience." According to Joginder, the young batsmen have learnt a lot from Badani.
The first challenge came against Himachal Pradesh when they were asked to bat on a pitch that had something for the seamers. Haryana responded by scoring 316, led by Badani's 65, before bowling out Himachal for a handsome lead. Ashwini sees it as a sign of his batsmen getting better against seamers because of the practice against their own bowlers on such pitches. They turned up the heat against the stronger teams like Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh as well. UP chose to bat but folded for 167 and Haryana gained a 105-run lead before Joginder grabbed a six-for to steamroll UP for 174 in the second. Mishra looks at that win as a great confidence booster. "That game made everyone feel that they not only belong here at this level but that they can excel."
A semi-final spot beckons if they can go past Tamil Nadu, and even if they don't, their future in the Super League looks secure. Ashwini, as ever, likes to keep it simple. "It will all depend on how hard the boys continue to work." It might seem a cliché but in the end, everything does depend on that. Haryana don't want to look at the stars; they just want to walk on the ground. It seems a sensible move. Perhaps, one day not in the distant future, they might provide us with another memorable Ranji moment.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo