Rajasthan, India's largest state, occupies a tenth of the country's land mass, but cricketers from the land of havelis and sand dunes haven't exactly stormed the national team over the years. They did reach the Ranji Trophy final eight times in the 13 years between 1960-61 and 1973-74, but fell at the last hurdle on each occasion. Those sides had some fine players, such as Hanumant Singh, Salim Durani, Raj Singh Dungarpur, and professionals such as Vijay Manjrekar and Vinoo Mankad, but the tag of domestic champions eluded them.
For almost 40 years thereafter they failed to get back to the summit. It was not until 2010-11 that Rajasthan made the final again, and this time, under the captaincy of Hrishikesh Kanitkar, originally from Maharashtra, they finally won their maiden title. Aakash Chopra, originally from Delhi, was the reliable opener, and Rashmi Parida, originally from Orissa, held the middle order together. Over the years, numerous professionals have turned out for Rajasthan, but at no time have they come together like these three domestic stalwarts did this year.
What makes the achievement even more remarkable is that Rajasthan finished at the bottom of their Plate League group last season. At a review meeting of the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA), the decision was taken in to bring in the professionals this year. "It wasn't a very difficult decision. We did an in-depth analysis, and concluded that it is the batting that has let us down, even in the glorious days when we made the finals eight times," Sanjay Dixit, the RCA secretary, said. "We had a fairly competent bowling attack. That's why we were looking for three batting professionals, with the understanding that one of them had to take up the captaincy as well.
"Hrishi suited us fine; he not only has a good record as a batsman, but also as captain of Air India, a team that has so many Test players. Someone who can handle players of that calibre could do it for us as well. We didn't have a dependable opener to partner Vineet Saxena, and Aakash fit the bill perfectly. Parida was already with us, but could not play last year due to some issues within the association."
It meant sacrificing three places in the batting order to non-local players, but Rajiv Pratapsingh Rathore, the former Rajasthan player and now selector, said they wanted to maximise the team's chances of success, and if that happened, the local players would get the visibility as well. "Eight of our players will play Irani Trophy next year. Now which approach is sensible, don't bring in any professional, and come last in the Ranji Trophy, or the path that we have taken? At least eight of our boys will be under the eyes of the selectors. People get sentimental that only home-grown players should play. But next year if some overseas team comes, our boys will get to play them. Maybe Ashok Menaria or Deepak Chahar might get a huge break."
There are six cricketers from Rajasthan in the Central Zone squad for the Duleep Trophy, and four of them are local players. "Hrishi is the captain, I am the manager, even the physio is from Rajasthan," Rathore said. "And why has all this been possible? Because we have been able to produce the results."
While the Ranji championship has given Rajasthan national mileage, the association is also going about revamping the structure of the game in the state. Tarak Sinha - the illustrious coach whose wards include Manoj Prabhakar, Ashish Nehra and Aakash Chopra - was brought in from Delhi. It was Sinha who saw Chahar in Hanumangarh, and brought him back after he had been deemed unfit for top-level cricket by Greg Chappell at the Rajasthan Cricket Academy. "We gave Tarak charge of the scene. We also started introducing proper formats for junior and senior cricket, across all forms of the game," Dixit said. "We have got three divisions now, with proper rules for relegation and promotion. In some districts the quality is very poor, so we didn't want people to play only for their averages."
Intentions need to be allied with money, and Dixit says that RCA has invested the highest proportion of the money it receives from BCCI on the players, facilities and tournaments. "We are the only state to have match referees for every game. We have a full umpiring course and gradation system. All the selectors have to watch the matches; otherwise, they are not called to the meeting. You can't have substandard facilities and hope to win. We ultimately want to have balanced teams across districts. We are investing so much, and if the matches are not competitive, it is all a waste."
The game is already spread wide beyond the traditional centres like Jaipur and Udaipur, and the depth is evident from the results of the past few years, Dixit said. "Jaipur did not reach a single final in the last four years. They lost to Kota by an innings in the semis. Udaipur did not reach the Under-19 semis. In fact, Barmer has reached one final and two semis."
The Ranji triumph is not the only first for Rajasthan. "Our Under-16 has qualified for the all-India semis for the first time. Our Under-19 team became Central Zone champions for the first time," Dixit said. "It will be a huge challenge to maintain this. My dream is to emulate the structure of Mumbai cricket, because it is the structure that has given them the ability to win so many times."