The first day of November 2010 began quietly for the Hyderabad team. The morning air in Jaipur had a little nip, but the sun was steadily breaking through. Hyderabad were playing Rajasthan in the first round of the 2010-11 Ranji Trophy Plate League. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the Rajasthan captain, won the toss and elected to field. Little did he know that his decision would lead to a headline-making sequence of events that would leave an indelible mark on Hyderabad cricket's history.
Debutant Deepak Chahar, son of an air force employee, was given the new ball. Chahar, a right-arm seamer, charged in to carve through the Hyderabad batting and finish with figures of 7.3-2-10-8, forcing Hyderabad to capitulate for 21. It was a tournament record for the lowest team total and matched the Indian first-class record. Seventy-eight minutes. That was how long Hyderabad's first innings lasted.
"We were just sitting in the dressing-room and we did not know what to do. It happened so quickly," Syed Quadri, one of Hyderabad's senior players, says. Ibrahim Khaleel, the Hyderabad keeper, describes the sequence of events: "For the first few overs we were fine. Then we lost a wicket. Nothing extraordinary. Then Akshath [Reddy], Anirudh [Singh], Ravi Teja, and Arjun [Yadav] got out in succession. Suddenly I realised I was walking out to bat. It was the craziest dream; from 10 for no loss or something [it was 7 for 0] we were 21 all out."
Though there was some talk of picking themselves up, Quadri admits Hyderabad were "mentally down" going in to bat for the second time after Rajasthan had scored 403 in their first innings. "It is very tough to recover from such a situation," Khaleel says. With such a fragile mindset it was no surprise that Hyderabad were shot out for 126 on their second attempt, to give Rajasthan an innings victory and a bonus point that began a wonderful journey for them, which would culminate in them lifting the Ranji Trophy crown for the first time.
The repercussions for Hyderabad were immediate. Venkatapahy Raju, the coach, and Vivek Jaisimha, the batting coach, stepped down. Under pressure from the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA), the selectors dropped four players for the rest of the season: Arjun Yadav, Anirudh Singh, MP Arjun and Anoop Pai. These men were good friends with the other squad members. Suddenly no player was sure about his place in the side.
MV Sridhar was appointed interim coach and a wounded Hyderabad recovered enough to pick up three points for the first-innings lead in their next match, against Jharkhand, and then score an outright victory against Tripura. But in a crucial match against Goa, they failed to take the first-innings lead, which would have kept them in the reckoning for the Plate semi-finals. Their final group match, against Madhya Pradesh, was curtailed by rain and both teams shared a point each as Hyderabad finished fourth in the group standings.
For the 2011-12 season, the HCA looked for a full-time coach. Fortuitously, Sunil Joshi, the former India and Karnataka left-arm spinner, had decided to move into coaching and chose Hyderabad ahead of Andhra Pradesh and Baroda, the two other states who wanted to hire him. One reason Joshi preferred Hyderabad was because he had gone through the grind of slipping from the Elite group and then bouncing back from Plate when he played for Karnataka. It was a good challenge.
At the outset Joshi made it clear to the HCA and the selectors that they should not change the team throughout the season. "The players were not sure about their place in the team and that added extra pressure on them," Joshi says. The fear was each player would start playing for himself and not the team if he was insecure.
"The best thing about Hyderabad this year is that we have barely changed our team through all the games," Khaleel says. "That was crucial as everybody had the confidence that the team management was backing them and the team would stay together for the six matches. As a player, if I know I am going to play all games regardless of if I perform or not it makes a difference."
The best example of security leading to confidence is Arjun Yadav, whose match-turning century against Vidarbha in the Plate semi-finals helped Hyderabad qualify for the Elite group. Arjun, son of the former India offspinner Shivlal Yadav, returned this season after being dropped following the Jaipur debacle. In the five matches before the semi-final, he had scores of 43, 0, 1, 17, 3, 21 and 0 not out. Hyderabad needed someone to score a big hundred if they had to overhaul Vidarbha's 531 in around 170 overs at the VCA cricket ground. At 84 for 3, they looked vulnerable. By stumps on the third day they were 216 for 3 with Arjun unbeaten on 91 and Bavanaka Sandeep on 60.
The only day Hyderabad had a meeting was after the third day's play. The team sat on the ground after stumps, and Joshi told them to keep their spirits high, especially after their games against Assam and Goa in the previous two rounds, which Hyderabad had won with bonus points.
The plan for the final morning was to not look for runs, just preserve wickets. The idea was to play for the first fifteen overs without losing wickets. Yadav and Sandeep scored 35 more runs before Sandeep was caught behind. Yadav, too, departed before lunch. But Khaleel and Quadri walked in, determined to bat till the end. "We knew if we stayed at the wicket we could get the runs. Every over we got two or three runs with one big over once in a while and we were reaching the target," Khaleel said of an eventful fourth afternoon.
About fifteen overs before the finish, Quadri was run out on 99, thus ending a valuable 130-run sixth-wicket partnership. Khaleel, too, departed with nine overs to go. "We were on the back foot for a moment," Khaleel says. But the lower-order pair of Pagadala Naidu and Lalith Mohan batted with tenacity to carry Hyderabad through to safety in the end, and though they did not go past Vidarbha's score they qualified by virtue of a better run-rate in their innings. Quadri, who missed out on what would have been his third century of the season, says the team's mindset had seen a sea change because of their confident coach.
On the third evening, Joshi kept walking in and out of the room shared by Arjun and Quadri at the team hotel. "Karna hi hain, karna hi hain (you have to do it)" Joshi kept telling both men. Quadri says it had a positive effect on Arjun. "He did not get any scores in the first five matches, but the coach supported him and he got the crucial hundred in the semi-finals. You need to support a player during his bad times," Quadri says.
Joshi was surprised at the pitch in Nagpur, describing it as a "beauty" because Vidarbha's tail managed to score nearly 200 runs including a century by their No. 9 Amol Jungade and a 72 by Akshay Wakhare, the No. 10. "If we bat sensibly, (make use of the) shorter boundaries and fast outfield, we should be able to pull this off," Joshi told his team.
Another interesting thing Joshi did was to get the team to speak via Skype to Rajesh Venkatadri, a Bangalore-based mental conditioning coach, who Joshi had worked with closely for the last few years of his career. "It was a good distraction at least. Rajesh helped me to overcome certain things in the last three or four years of my career when he had worked with the Karnataka team," Joshi says.
The best example of Joshi's positivity came during the embarrassing innings defeat at home against Maharashtra in Hyderabad's second game this season. Hyderabad had elected to bat on what turned out to be a pitch with unpredictable bounce. They were duly shot out for 124. Maharashtra then took a 60-run lead. Akshya Darekar, the leading wicket-taker from the Plate group, took 8 for 20 as Hyderabad were bundled out for 54 in their second innings.
"We were all silent," Quadri says, describing the dressing-room after that game. "Joshi Sir came in and said 'come on, guys. It is time to laugh'. We were shocked. We have lost the match and he is telling us to laugh."
Joshi remembers the incident well. "Team Hyderabad had lost and it was my responsibility. I told them we can only laugh. We can't change the course of the result now. If you laugh you come out of it and start preparing for the next game. If you sulk you cannot do that."
Joshi's consoling words gave the team a boost. "After his speech we were confident that we can't play worse now. We could only get better," Quadri says.
On January 2, Hyderabad will once again confront Rajasthan, this time in the Elite quarterfinals at Uppal. It could be a case of life coming full circle for Hyderabad. "We will always remember 21," Khaleel says.
Joshi, though, is not bothered about revenge. "In my talks to the team I always tell them: the first stage is we can do it, the second is we shall do it, the third is we will do it," Joshi says. "We are still in the first stage."