Odisha's exit in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final against Gujarat marked the end of what has been a bittersweet 2016-17 season. The end was as harrowing as it was heartbreaking; they were outplayed over five days in Jaipur. Their bowlers had to spend over two days on the field, watching Gujarat pile on 641, their highest total in the tournament's history, in their second innings and contend with an unbeaten triple century from opener Samit Gohel.
Yet, it was largely a season of improvement. The Gujarat match was their first appearance in a knockout fixture since they played Punjab in the quarter-final of the 2001-02 season in Mohali. That side had stalwarts - SS Das, Rashmi Ranjan Parida, Sanjay Raul, Pravanjan Mullick and Debasis Mohanty among others. Three of those - Das, Parida and Mohanty have been associated as coaches since their retirement.
The intermediary period made for one of the most intriguing cases in the Ranji Trophy. Since losing the Plate Final in 2006-07, Odisha hadn't threatened to qualify for the knockouts. And yet, they found a way to remain on the periphery of the top-tier teams throughout.
In 2015-16, they escaped relegation with an eighth-place finish in Group A. They had a solitary win after eight matches, lost three and conceded the first-innings lead in three of their four drawn games. This year, they didn't have a single defeat until their final group fixture, against Jharkhand.
As a side that prides itself on its seam attack, their new-ball combination of Basant Mohanty and Suryakant Pradhan were their biggest weapons. But they were often let down by the batting, and did not have the cushion of big runs. Odisha's average first-innings score in 2015-16 was 233; this year, it was 250, the difference of 17 indicating marginal improvement at best. But Odisha could take heart from the number of people that put their hands up.
The performances were reward for affording the players complete individual freedom. "We tried to go away from the way we usually play. In saying that, I don't mean anybody's game changed, but we tried not to curb our natural instincts," Govinda Poddar, the captain, told ESPNcricinfo. "Too often, we see that the pressure of playing at the Ranji level changes the way a player plays naturally. We have tried to let players express themselves."
In 2015-16, Poddar did the heavy lifting with 555 runs that included three centuries, while Natraj Behera and Anurag Sarangi played supporting acts. This year, their batting unit discovered greater harmony. Each of their top six batsmen hit a century, three of them in one innings against Rajasthan after being made to follow-on. Four of the top-six scored in excess of 400 runs. And yet, quite ironically, it was their batting that ended up being chiefly responsible for their defeat against Jharkhand, and their subsequent ouster.
Odisha's preparation coming into the tournament was lackluster. They missed out on the Buchi Babu tournament in Chennai - one of two invitational tournaments they play every year, the other being the KSCA Invitational - due to the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association advancing the tournament to accommodate the Tamil Nadu Premier League. To compensate for that, they went to Pune to play in the Nabholkar Trophy, only for rain to upset their plans. That meant most of the practice the players got were from league matches, corporate tournaments and their inter-districts league.
That aside, they were also hampered by off-field issues, the age-fudging that led to one-year bans on several junior cricketers being the foremost. Shubham Nayak, the 18-year old offspinner, who was in contention for national berth for the Under-19 World Cup this year, and 17-year old wicketkeeper-batsman Rajesh Dhuper, were among promising players to miss out as a result.
Despite that, they found young heroes - none bigger than Subhranshu Senapati and Sandeep Pattnaik, both in their teens. Senapati lent solidity to the middle order with his 438 runs, while Pattnaik finished marginally better, with 454 runs opening the innings. Those performances helped take some of the load off the seniors.
Biplab Samantray was able to hit back from a horrendous 2015-16, with 517 runs - the most for Odisha - alongside 12 wickets. Given his position in the order - No. 6 - Samantray's form was integral as he was the glue between the middle and the lower order. "I was fortunate to have a good bunch of youngsters and senior players, who gelled well right from the start when we went to Bangalore for the KSCA Invitational tournament," Poddar said. "The youngsters came with their own perspective and ideas, so all the eleven that played were involved. We were getting good, positive information."
Poddar nearly didn't take up the captaincy because of the association's history of knee-jerk reactions to on-field performances. He needed time to mull over the decision, and it needed assurance from Mohanty, the head coach, that he would he given the space he needed as captain.
Once he took over, Poddar brought in changes. He tried to get rid of the copious chopping and changing, and gruesome systems like team meetings to carry out a post-mortem of every single defeat. "Previously, after one poor session, the atmosphere within the dressing room used to become so bad," he said. "When a player performs poorly, there is no point in pointing it out to him 10 times; nobody knows that he has made a mistake better than the player himself.
"We tried to keep away from these things. Before the session, each person is handed out a task and they try to execute it. But once they are back in their rooms, we make sure to give them their space. Now, I see that if we have made a mistake, we don't repeat it the next day."
Poddar also had to deal with the absence of some key personnel. Natraj Behera, their second-highest scorer last year, had to pull out due to personal problems, and Sarangi was dropped after a string of poor performances. That Odisha still did not give in to the temptation to sign up professionals reinforced the faith they had in their own talent.
"We still believe in our boys. We have the talent, though it has not subsequently shown through in performances," Das, their academy director, said. "I don't think signing professionals will majorly help, unless he is also coaching. He has to contribute both ways, and I think we haven't found that sort of a player."
The end result obscured what they had achieved in the weeks prior to the twin defeats. They began by conceding first-innings points to Vidarbha but quickly offset that by earning a hard-fought outright win against Saurashtra in their second match. But it was their performance at a critical stage against tough opponents that stood out.
Odisha took a 163-run lead after being 140 for 6 against Karnataka in Delhi. Moreover, they even bowled themselves to a position from where they could push for an outright win. But Karnataka were rescued by lower-order contributions. If that wasn't impressive enough, they routed Maharashtra by an innings inside two days in Wayanad. It instilled the belief that something special could be in store. And the end result was they qualified ahead of a powerhouse like Delhi.
Despite tripping up at a critical juncture, a young team has impressed with its ability to deal with hardships and shown that it can hang around with the big boys. As Poddar pointed out, the key would now be in ensuring that the players are made to feel secure by providing them with a healthy environment where they can be nurtured. So long as that happens, it shouldn't be too surprising if the promise shown in 2016-17 does not end up being a flash in the pan.