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'A big win for their confidence' - how Uttar Pradesh pulled off a heist to reach Ranji semi-finals

Coach Dahiya attributes success to defining roles, backing players and communicating clearly to team; also heaps praise on 'maturing' Karan

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
The Uttar Pradesh team after their quarter-final win  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The Uttar Pradesh team after their quarter-final win  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

You have to be a legend in your own mind, before you can be a legend in your own time.
Karan Sharma, 23, has these words tattooed on his right wrist. The 'legend' status may take a while coming, but in his debut season for Uttar Pradesh, he has already scripted two back-to-the-wall epics. The most recent, an unbeaten 93 in the fourth-innings, helped UP seal a place in the Ranji Trophy semi-finals by knocking out pre-tournament favourites Karnataka.
It was a special moment for the team. Even more so for Karan, who was handed the captaincy even though he hadn't played a single first-class game prior to the season. Noteworthy performances in the Under-25s for UP had convinced the association that he was the right fit. When his team needed him to step up, he did.
The win was even more spectacular because UP had conceded a 98-run lead after being bundled out for 115 in the first innings. Yet, they weren't defeated against a seasoned batting line-up.
Mayank Agarwal was beaten in the air and off the pitch by Saurabh Kumar. Manish Pandey was brilliantly run out by a Karan direct hit. Karun Nair was set up and shut out in the slips by Ankit Rajpoot. Yash Dayal expertly dismantled the tail. Then, with their top order wobbling again, Priyam Garg launched a scathing counterattack and made a half-century.
And then there is Prince Yadav , who wasn't supposed to be playing this game. A late decision to include him, ahead of in-form Sameer Choudhary, fresh off twin hundreds at the same venue in the Under-25 tournament, paid rich dividends. Prince showed no nerves on debut and whittled down the chase and remained unbeaten on 33 when the winning runs were hit.
This was as 'team effort' as team effort could get.


Vijay Dahiya, the former India wicketkeeper and UP coach, exuded calm all through the match as he continued doing laps of brisk walks around the ground. He hasn't missed a single day of running for 1500 days now. He could see the same level of commitment from his team on the field. It was so easy to be beaten in the mind after the first innings. But they weren't.
"It's a big win for their confidence," Dahiya tells ESPNcricinfo. "There was no fear, because we have not seen it all [this stage of the competition, regularly]."
To get to this stage, they had to script another heist. On the final day of the league stages, UP were in a three-way race with Maharashtra and Vidarbha. Maharashtra had hoped that setting a target of 360 in 70 overs was a reasonable enough shout for them to push for an outright win which would've sealed their quarterfinals spot. A draw would've seen Vidarbha through. But UP had other ideas.
"As a leader he's maturing, he's gaining his confidence on the ground and respect off the ground. This is what you need for a new captain."
Dahiya on Karan
Karan made 116, and Rinku Singh blasted an unbeaten 60-ball 78 in fading light in the final session as UP clinched a thriller to squeeze into the quarterfinals.
"The win against Maharashtra was out of nowhere, to be very honest," Dahiya recalls. "Everybody was thinking that Vidarbha will qualify from that group; they were sitting very pretty. The moment Maharashtra declared; they were looking for an outright win as well. Actually, they gave us an opportunity to come back in the game."
As special as the win was, Dahiya saw the victory give Karan an identity. The signs were promising, going into the knockouts.
"For a new captain, it's very important to earn that respect, by performing and standing tall. Karan has done that," Dahiya says. "He didn't have a very good outing in the first innings [against Karnataka], but it didn't affect him personally. Because he led the team well and we bundled out Karnataka for 115 in the second innings. That shows he wasn't thinking about his batting.
"As a captain, it happens that sometimes you're thinking there's a lot at stake. As a leader he's maturing, he's gaining his confidence on the ground and respect off the ground. This is what you need for a new captain to start like that."
"Sometimes in a knockout, it's a mental sort of a thing," he continues. "You look at the opposition and tend to get overawed, looking at the names, looking at the team. What I'm thrilled about is this team didn't show a single sign of that. They played the ball, not the bowler. They bowled to the batter, not the name. These are great signs.
"I'm not jumping the gun, I'm not looking too far ahead, but wins like this can start something in the dressing room. That something is self-belief, self-confidence. We always said the potential is there, but whenever there has been an opportunity to cover it into a performance, we have been able to do that, which is a big plus for this side."


Dahiya only joined the team in September last year. He came with no magic wand, but the talent he saw around him convinced him he had something to work with. He needed to establish a bond, a connection, and he set that up as his top priority even as the board worked out the modalities of the new season.
"When I came here, I was like 'man, the amount of talent that is there is phenomenal'. Especially the fast bowlers," he says. "If you look around, some have played in the IPL, and there are a few more coming. It was more for me to be part of a set-up like that, so I was very happy. The challenge was to create a sort of atmosphere where they can give their best, feel confident and have a lot of conversations, one-on-one, rather than having big team meetings.
"My first target was to make Rinku Singh talk regularly off the ground. We had a couple of practice games, and I said 'Rinku, you're going to captain', and he was like 'no, no don't make me captain'. Yash Dayal - he's a completely different individual now after the IPL win, and I'm just naming a few. Karan Sharma, I was damn impressed.
"The day I saw him in the nets, I was just waiting for him to convert it into the games, you saw glimpses in white-ball cricket, but come the big games, come the big format, he's got two hundreds, nearly - one hundred and one 90-odd.
"When you talk about somebody's runs, you talk about where and when, what sort of an attack, what situations. Second-inning runs in a winning cause to me stand out, in pressure games, honestly. We talked of that game against Maharashtra, if they have given us an opportunity to stay alive in the competition, 'if you don't win that game, the season would've ended there'. Same here, this knock is very much keeping us alive. That's where your knock matters more."
Another of Dahiya's priorities were to define roles, back players and communicate clearly to the players about where they stood. Even if it meant having "tough conversations."
"I believe, when somebody comes from the outside, it's very important you take a season's time - which sounds almost like a year - to have that sort of a trust that if I am saying it's for your benefit," he explains. "Couple of games go in just developing that kind of trust. Rather than involving anyone else [former players or current India stars who play for the state] and making that circle even bigger, it's more like we've tried to stay together.
"When we started off the white-ball season, we weren't sure of Ankit Rajpoot being part of the T20 setup, so I told him honestly that I don't see him part of the current side. He told me, 'if you don't see me being part of the XI, keep me on the bench.' I said, 'but you're such a senior player, let's speak one-on-one'."
"I told him, 'if you want to be home if you think you want to get ready that way [go for it]; he said, 'I don't mind, but I will sit on the bench, I will be here and I will fight for my place.' There was a crucial game against Haryana in Mohali that we needed to win. In the north, at the time, it was like you bowl first and you win. In that crucial game, he bowled a very, very important spell, got four wickets and we qualified.
"If this set stays the same, [it] doesn't matter who the coach is, this is something, they're going to be a force to reckon with."
Dahiya, head coach of UP
"That's the kind of trust you want to build. Have a one-on-one with the most senior player, tell him you're not in the scheme of things, where you can ask him if he would like to go home rather than sit on the bench. After that game in the huddle, he said 'I like that people are given that respect'.
"We wanted someone like Priyam Garg to understand he is a phenomenal talent, give Rinku the backing and confidence that I haven't seen a talent like him. With someone like Karan in his first season - the kind of talent he's got - the only thing he needs is that self-belief. In the bowling unit, Mohsin Khan, Yash - it was more about telling them it's about you, and no one else. This whole season was about that."
Dahiya stresses a lot about having one-on-one communication. That isn't to say he isn't one for team activities. While they have held the usual team dinners and get-togethers, his style of man-management is different, in the sense, that he has chosen to take a tougher route.
"What happens is, sometimes when you're new in an environment, it's difficult for people to speak in a bigger group, so what you try and do is have individual sort of a thing, try and figure out what kind of person you are, are you comfortable in front of 15, or in front of a smaller group," he explains.
"You talk to people, and you gauge so many things. We did have a couple of activities when we weren't allowed to go out during quarantine. We had a get-together and I said everyone will speak about themselves, family, friends, what they like, and if they play instruments. And people opened up; some got emotional. That's how you want to connect."
Dahiya also wants the players to take lessons out of this journey, and learn on their own, too. "We never talk about anyone else; we just say this is just the half of you," he says, of his message to the players. "There's much more to you, whether you're a bowler or batter. As individuals, as team players, there's so much to offer.
"They need to open up, be more active. Get out there, speak to the other guys. Make their circles bigger, where you talk to more players and try to figure out, what works, and what you need. It was more of a conversation than coaching. I always believe if people open up, coaching will happen. Yes, it's a place that requires a lot of coaching as well, but man-management, knowing the guys, and trying to press the right buttons at the right time, can get a lot out of them.
"We need to understand the culture, where you come from. If this set stays the same, [it] doesn't matter who the coach is, this is something, they're going to be a force to reckon with. There's so much talent, and self-belief this year, it was me trying to say you're as good as anyone else in the country, which they are. The only thing is, they need to play these big games more consistently, and only when they can do so, it is when they perform well in the league stages. Winning something like this will do a lot of good to their confidence and self-belief."
Up next is Mumbai, a team that crushed their hopes of claiming their maiden Ranji Trophy 14 seasons ago. If UP continue to play the way they have, they would believe they can beat the 41-time champions.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo