From Patna to Nadiad: how Bihar won the Ranji Plate title
Despite winning only one of their league matches, Bihar rallied to make it to the Elite Group next season
Bihar head coach Pawan Kumar's joy currently has no bounds.
Having overseen the team's victory in the Ranji Trophy Plate final, and thus qualifying for the Elite Group next season, Pawan dedicated the 220-run win against Manipur to "the whole of Bihar".
Despite winning only one of their five group matches, Bihar were able to make the final. The bonus point against Arunachal Pradesh helped, and so did their first-innings leads in two out of three drawn games. The format was also lenient: in the first Ranji Trophy season with separate Plate and Elite winners, the Plate group had only six teams, of which four made the semi-finals.
"The current format provided us with the ideal opportunity to make the Elite Group," Bihar's captain Ashutosh Aman said. "All this while, we had been trying very hard to push [for qualification], but somehow it never happened."
In their debut season in 2018-19, Bihar fell short of making the quarter-finals by five points, despite winning six of their eight group games. The next year wasn't as impressive: three wins out of nine wasn't enough. Even in 2021-22 - when the Ranji Trophy resumed after the pandemic - they finished fifth out of six teams in the Plate Group.
Pawan had one steadfast goal when he was appointed Bihar's head coach at the beginning of this season. "From the day when I became head coach, I had decided something which I never shared with anyone: that anyhow we had to reach the Elite Group," he said. But why didn't he make his ambition clear to his players? To avoid putting pressure on an inexperienced bunch of boys, he said.
"During team meetings, I only kept trying to convince the players that there is no reason we can't make it to the Elite Group. I feel that freed themselves to play, which in turn helped us perform well."
During the group stages, Bihar had to overcome not just their inexperience, but also playing in extremely different conditions. They went from a relatively cool Patna to an extremely hot Ahmedabad, followed by a trip to cold, mountainous Shillong before returning to Patna. Their see-saw journey finally ended in Nadiad, another sweltering town.
Bihar's only loss of the season came against Meghalaya in the cold of Shillong, but they managed points for a first-innings lead in that contest.
"I think the weather played a role in that match, as it was extremely cold," Pawan said. "I believe our boys struggled since they are not used to it.
"At times even the pitches didn't help: like those in Ahmedabad and Nadiad were absolutely dead tracks, where taking wickets was very difficult. But I feel we were very effective when it mattered most."
Bihar entered the semi-finals on the back of a loss and three draws, but delivered as a unit in the knockout: wicketkeeper Bipin Saurabh smashed 177 off 183 balls, Sachin Kumar Singh hit 75 in quick time, and left-arm spinner Aman led with figures of 4 for 21 and 4 for 35.
"I try to balance my duties as bowler and captain - when I'm bowling, my only thought is to contribute with wickets," Aman said. "But when I'm not, that's when I try to motivate and push others to perform."
Aman also rated Saurabh, whose big hitting reminded Pawan of Virender Sehwag, extremely highly. "He is most exciting. You might even see him in the IPL soon," Aman said. "He can hit sixes like no one else can in our side."
Pawan also had high praise for Sakibul Gani, who scored 205 in the final after throwing away numerous starts this season. Pawan said Gani's patience and application had helped Bihar "hold one end up"; he was Bihar's top-scorer with 585 runs, and also contributed scores of 43 and 39 in the semi-final.
Sachin contributed 562 runs and 20 wickets to Bihar's campaign; Saurabh hit three centuries; and all three of Gani, Sachin and Saurabh averaged at least 47 with the bat. There was also the medium-pacer Veer Pratap Singh, who migrated from Bengal to Chattisgarh and then Bihar ahead of this season.
With 82 wickets from 32 first-class games before this season, Veer Pratap had been convinced by Aman to join Bihar. Aman said his "old friend" brought a sense of calmness to the dressing room.
"Veer had spoken to me before coming [to Bihar]," he said. "I had encouraged him to take the step forward, because I knew that his experience with Bengal and in the IPL would have benefitted us. He always informs us how to react in different situations."
Pawan said Veer Pratap's presence becomes more "crucial" with Bihar having made it to the Elite Group, where both of them used to play. "They say you need an elderly person at home to keep things tight, and that is exactly who Veer was, bringing with him a lot of experience, which helped shape our players' mindset.
"He kept chatting to them about what he learnt with time, and I feel Sachin's game was particularly impacted by his company, as he kept contributing with bat and ball. Sachin learnt to improve and he hit a century in the final too."
While Veer Pratap took 16 wickets this season, Aman was Bihar's top wicket-taker with 28 scalps at 21.25 - the captain making the most of his opportunities after not getting enough with Services in the previous chapter of his career.
When asked how he felt on making it back to the Elite Group, Aman said: "It's like returning home for me." With the Plate title in the bag, the road ahead for Bihar is tougher next season, and potentially far more rewarding.
Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo