Defending champions Rajasthan conceded the first-innings lead in five consecutive matches at the beginning of the 2011-12 Ranji Trophy season. Incredibly they did not lose or win any of the matches. Consequently there were on five points after five matches, yet they managed to retain their Elite spot and make the semi-finals. Aakash Chopra, the insider, reveals how Rajasthan stayed Elite.
Firstly, it helped us stay in the Elite Group and then helped us make the knockouts. We started really slowly, conceding first-innings leads in the first five group matches. Something like that is enough to break some teams completely because you feel you are not good enough and that could lead you to lose a match. But Rajasthan somehow did not fold, and managed to salvage a point from each of those five games. That kept us alive in the competition. That resilience we showed in saving those matches helped us a lot. It started from the first match itself where Karnataka enforced the follow-on against us. We managed a draw despite being seven wickets down in the second innings. It would have been a nightmarish start to the season. Then, against Uttar Pradesh, once again against a team with a good bowling attack, we were made to follow on. But again we hung around and managed a draw. Those two examples show a bit of character. It might not show a lot of depth in your skills department because you are conceding 200-plus run leads but then we did not lose hope till the end. It shows that even after being down and out, we refused to be bulldozed over.
Local players coming to the fore
Without the local players, we would not have been here. Robin Bist has been a sensational batsman, piling on 841 runs in eight matches. He was always there and thereabouts, scoring half-centuries consistently but he has taken his game to the next level. Vineet Saxena and Dishant Yagnik, who scored an important century in the quarter-finals against Hyderabad, have played an equally crucial role in the middle order. The other matchwinners have been the fast bowling trio of Sumit Mathur, Rituraj Singh and Pankaj Singh. They won us matches when it mattered most. Then there was Ashok Menaria, who scored a double-century before injury ruled him out of the season. These set of local cricketers performed really well and supported the three professionals. Probably, we being the defending champions instilled belief in these cricketers that they are up to it, they are not lesser players than anyone else on the circuit and they can also win. Before last year Rajasthan were so used to losing, and if they were in a situation that seemed a little difficult, they would be quick to throw in the towel. But now, regardless of the situation, however hopeless it might be, we can still bounce back. That is what we did last season and now it has become part of the fabric. They have become believers that if you have the resolve you can turn a situation around.
The spine of our side has been our batting, which prospered even on helpful tracks for the bowlers. The two instances I want to point out were both matches played at home - against Saurashtra and Orissa, our opponents in the last two group matches. We had to win both those matches to keep our knockout dreams alive. We lost both tosses and we had to bat first in conditions where bowlers could easily dominate on at least the first two days. Against Orissa we needed an outright win with a bonus point to qualify for the quarter-finals. That could be only achieved by bowling first and batting only once. But batting first meant that we needed to score enough runs to enforce the follow-on, something that was tricky on a green pitch. But our batting depth made sure we did it.
Then in the quarter-finals, we were in a precarious situation at 120 for 5. So again we showed the depth in our batting to stay strong and go on to raise a strong total on a pitch full of variable bounce and no pace. Batting was a lot of hard work and that is why it took us two days to get those 400 runs.
Strangely, our bowling was below-par in the first five rounds, but then it changed completely in the last two rounds and the quarter-finals. When you know that you have to win with a bonus point, there is a lot of pressure on the bowlers: first you have to bowl out the opposition to enforce the follow-on and then go back again and bowl your heart out and make sure we get that sixth point. They did that against Saurashtra and Orissa. Our fast bowlers were incredible and stood up to the task. Mathur's spell against Saurashtra was the best spell of the tournament for me. On a fourth-day track in Jaipur, on a surface where we had made 241 for 4 decl, fast bowling was not really an easy task. So for Mathur to come and bowled aggressive lines and lengths, and get the better of a Saurashtra batting line-up including Cheteshwar Pujara was really amazing. In fact, that five-for was his first since 2007 (against Himachal Pradesh). That kind of bowling effort put us right back in the tournament. It was very easy for us that to be happy with three points and be happy with the thought that we would not be relegated. But Mathur got the ball to do a lot and change the storyline.
I have to admit we have been fortunate to come this far. Despite the fact that we won the last two group matches with bonus points, still every other result during the final round of matches in Group A had to go our way. With Railways and UP tied on 13 points going into their final group match, we needed neither of those to score outright wins. Both of them needed not to win and they did not. In the match between Saurashtra and Railways, we wanted Saurashtra to win but not with the bonus point; also we could not afford a Railways victory in that contest. In the match between Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, we wanted Karnataka, who had already made the quarters, to win; at the same time we wanted UP to not score an outright win. Punjab were the other team who could have denied us an entry into the semi-finals because they were on fifteen points before clashing with Mumbai in their last round. If they had even taken the first-innings lead, we were out. Punjab just got one point out of it. These things were beyond our control, and, hence we needed a bit of luck.