Moments after clinching the Vijay Hazare Trophy, India's premier 50-over title, Himachal Pradesh captain Rishi Dhawan and wicketkeeper-batter Shubham Arora look to collect the stumps as souvenirs. Dhawan is the first to grab one, but as Arora is about to pick one up for himself, Dhawan gestures to him not to take the middle stump.
"I thought the middle stump had the camera embedded in it," Dhawan laughs. "So I told him to take the other one and not the middle stump, as they [the television crew] will take it back. But later I came to know that in domestic cricket there are no stump cams, that's only in the IPL!"
For Himachal it was the first title of any kind in domestic cricket - a huge achievement for a team that made its Ranji Trophy debut in 1985-86 and played in the Plate league as recently as 2011-12. They did it with a home-grown squad drawn from a small player pool. The mountainous state accounts for only 0.5% of India's population, and unlike the bigger teams with international experience in their ranks, Dhawan is the only cricketer from Himachal Pradesh to have represented India.
Last season Himachal managed a solitary win from five games in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. When asked what changed this time, the first thing Dhawan mentions is coach Anuj Dass joining the side.
Dass is a former Himachal cricketer who played a first-class match and two List A games in 1999. From 2006 to 2016 he was involved with the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) as a coach, mainly looking after the age-group teams. He spent the next two years as Tripura's head coach before the BCCI assigned him to the Arunachal Pradesh Under-23 side. Last year, Arun Dhumal, the HPCA president and BCCI treasurer, asked Dass to return to Himachal. Dass too wanted to give something back to his state. Thus began his "quest for the title".
"He has been my coach since U-15 days," Dhawan says. "My tuning with him has always been great, so our communication and planning were good, and with me as captain, we could execute whatever we planned."
Not just Dhawan, Dass has coached most of the players in the current Himachal squad during their age-group days, so he knew first-hand what they were capable of.
"During the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he said that he felt we were underachievers," says Prashant Chopra, who was one of Himachal's batting mainstays in the tournament. "He would say that when he was coaching us in U-19 cricket, we used to beat Karnataka, Mumbai. And all these guys, be it Shardul [Thakur] for Mumbai, [Jasprit] Bumrah for Gujarat, Sanju [Samson] for Kerala, used to be in the opposition and we were beating them convincingly. He said, 'You were beating them at that point of time, what's happening now? You must have faltered in your mental process. You guys must have been playing safe. You shouldn't be playing safe. Just go out there and express yourself. You have a lot more ability than you think you have.'"
The players were desperate to win a breakthrough title, but the team faltered in the pre-quarterfinals of the T20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
"I said, 'If we are thinking of becoming champions, we need to walk like champions, we need to behave like champions. Right now, I don't think we are'"
Prashant Chopra on what he told the under-pressure team ahead of their match against Gujarat
Next came the Vijay Hazare Trophy, and Dass and Dhawan chalked out specific roles. Chopra was supposed to anchor the innings. Amit Kumar, who plays spin well, was to keep the scoreboard ticking over in the middle overs. Vinay Galetiya was to keep things in control with the new ball. Dhawan was to take care of the death overs.
"We broke down 50 overs into ten, 15, 15 and ten," Dass says. "Looking at abilities of all the individuals, we made something like a flow chart, saying where we needed to be at the end of every stage. So it was not like, an individual goes in, takes his time to get set and then moves on. You needed to ensure the team met certain parameters. If the surface or conditions are not good, you may come up with less number of runs. But once you are in flow, you can make up those runs."
They lost their first game to Vidarbha by seven wickets. That led to a tweak in their approach. They had been planning for a title win but now they narrowed their focus to winning the next game at hand. That meant monitoring what their opponents were doing, paying more attention to the conditions they were to play in, and devising plans match by match. At times that even meant making changes to winning combinations.
Himachal comfortably won their next match, against Jammu and Kashmir, but Chopra felt "the fire in the belly" was still missing. Leading up to the game after that, against Gujarat, there was a team meeting.
"I never speak too much in team meetings," Chopra says. "That day, Anuj sir saw my face and asked if I wanted to say something. I said, 'I feel we are playing under some kind of pressure. Our shoulders are down, and it's not only about the other 19 guys, it includes me as well. If we are thinking of becoming champions, we need to walk like champions, we need to behave like champions. Right now, I don't think we are.'"
Chopra's words lit a spark. Himachal beat Gujarat by 97 runs and Chopra top-scored with 73. It started his streak of five consecutive 50-plus scores, which included 99 against Uttar Pradesh in the quarter-final. He made 456 runs in the competition at an average 57.00.
This was in complete contrast to his performance in the last edition of the tournament, when he managed only 55 runs in five games. How did he turn it around?
"Not a lot of people would believe but I was actually seeing the ball really, really well last season, even better than this season," says Chopra. "In the first game, I got out early. In the second, I was batting well at around 39 and I got out on the pull. Suddenly, you are left with only three games, and you had planned before the season that you would be scoring two hundreds and a fifty and have an average of 50-plus. I started rushing for runs. I was not focusing on the process, I was just focused on 'I want to get runs, I want to get runs.' I was still batting well, but I had lost confidence in myself and I was actually feeling very, very low. After the season, I was really depressed when I came back home. I was not able to talk to anyone."
Chopra's sister helped him get over this phase. She and her husband took him to Goa. It was the first time in 12 years he had gone on a vacation. That helped him take his mind off the game.
When Dass joined Himachal at the start of the current season, Chopra had a word with him. They figured out he was focusing more on the result than the process. Once that became clear to Chopra, he found his way back among the runs.
The win against Gujarat galvanised the squad. Everyone's belief in themselves got a boost. They began to back each other more. Those on the bench started putting in more effort at practice. Himachal were to reap the rewards of this soon.
"We broke down 50 overs into ten, 15, 15 and ten. We made a flow chart, saying where we needed to be at the end of every stage. You needed to ensure the team met certain parameters"
Coach Anuj Dass on bringing focus to each player's role
Their next game was against Andhra. At one stage it looked like Himachal would restrict them to around 300, but in the 48th over Pankaj Jaswal was taken for five sixes and 32 runs. Jaswal, playing his first game of the tournament, finished with figures of 9-0-87-0 and Andhra on 322; Himachal lost by 30 runs.
"Pankaj is very emotional about his cricket," says Chopra. "So everyone was around him after the game, the coach, the support staff, all the players. Sidharth [Sharma], who is also a fast bowler and a competitor [for a place in the XI], was also around Pankaj, saying, 'No worries, Pankaj. It happens. You are the best, you are a champion bowler.' That gave Pankaj the confidence, and the way he bowled in the final, I would say, if not for him, Tamil Nadu might have reached somewhere around 340-345."
In the final, Jaswal bowled 2.4 overs at the death, picking up 3 for 15. Tamil Nadu were bowled out for 314 in 49.4 overs.
Similarly, when Arpit Guleria, one of Himachal's first-choice fast bowlers, got injured before the quarter-final, Sidharth Sharma was handed his List A debut. Having put in the hard yards in training, Sharma was match-ready and picked up 2 for 27 from his ten overs against Uttar Pradesh.
In March 2021, Dhawan took the BCCI's Level 2 coaching course, designed for those who have played 75 or more first-class games. He used those learnings to extract the best out of his players.
"I learned how to handle a player mentally and physically," he says. "How to keep everyone motivated, how to communicate with everyone, to keep everyone together, to create an atmosphere where there is no senior-junior divide and players don't hesitate to talk to each other."
In the semi-final, Himachal sauntered to a 77-run win against Services. It was Dhawan who took the final wicket, one of four for him in the match, steering Himachal into their maiden domestic final in any format.
"Everyone came and hugged me," Dhawan says. "We all got emotional, especially the senior players. Amit came to me and said, 'It took us so many years.' That was an emotional moment for me, I had tears in my eyes."
In his playing days, Dass used to dream of practising on turf pitches. Now, with around eight cricket grounds available across Himachal, players no longer have to travel far in search of good facilities.
For that, Dass credits the "will and zeal" of administrators, especially Dhumal and his brother Anurag Thakur, who was the HPCA president till 2017. "The major turnaround happened around 2000, when Anurag ji took over the reins of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association," he says. "Earlier, we had just two turf wickets, one in Una and one in Mandi. The grounds were also very few. Anurag ji took initiatives for building grounds and infrastructure. He gave us the vision to build the beautiful stadium we have in Dharamsala. Dreams can be unlimited, you can dream to any extent, but such a stadium was not even in our dreams."
Himachal Pradesh still doesn't have its own league, nor does it have a club-cricket culture, given the limited number of players in the state. There is an inter-district tournament but, in Chopra's words, it doesn't offer enough "variety" and "exposure".
To overcome this hurdle, the HPCA took the initiative in 2011-12 to participate in exchange matches.
"I learned how to handle a player mentally and physically, how to keep everyone motivated, to create an atmosphere where there is no senior-junior divide"
Rishi Dhawan on putting his Level 2 coaching course to use
"Now we regularly play practice games with Karnataka, we participate in the tournaments like the KSCA Trophy and JP Atray Trophy," Chopra says. "Before the T20s [Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy], we went to Bengal and played four-five practice games against them.
"Those exchange games mean we constantly get into crunch situations. Earlier, when those situations used to come during a [BCCI] tournament, we had never faced them, so how would you expect us to do well in those situations? Now there might be a situation we get in a game that we have also faced in a practice match. Immediately it clicks in our mind that this was the same scenario in that game and what we did there to win. Or, if we lost, what wrong we did that we should not do."
Tamil Nadu are the most decorated side in the history of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, with five titles in 20 editions. And just a month before, they had won the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. On the surface, Himachal Pradesh's match-up against them felt like David against Goliath.
Dhawan opted to bowl on a gloomy winter morning in Jaipur, expecting his seamers to make use of the moisture in the surface. Himachal struck early, twice, but Tamil Nadu had tricks up their sleeve, promoting lower-order batters R Sai Kishore and M Ashwin to Nos. 3 and 4.
"We were not surprised at Sai Kishore's promotion because if we were batting first, we would have also done something similar," Dhawan says. "But when Murugan Ashwin came in, I felt they really shielded their main batsmen."
Kishore and Ashwin batted out the difficult phase, allowing Dinesh Karthik and Baba Indrajith to make hay when the sun came out. Karthik scored 116, Indrajith 80, and Tamil Nadu got to 314. "DK [Karthik] bhai played an extraordinary knock, otherwise they wouldn't have scored this many," Dhawan says. "But even then they could score only 300 . If we hadn't restricted them in the first 15-20 overs, this total could have been 350."
And the pitch eased out. "In Jaipur, on an afternoon wicket where the ball is not going to turn, it was a belter of a track," Chopra says. "We knew their bowling line-up wasn't that strong. They were mostly dependent on Sandeep Warrier initially, and Washington Sundar or maybe Sai Kishore a bit. So the target was not that big when you have two bowlers you can target."
Arora, who made his List A debut earlier in the season, struck an unbeaten 136. His 148-run fourth-wicket stand with Amit took Himachal closer, before Dhawan's cameo - 42 not out from 23 balls - ensured that, when bad light forced the umpires to call off the game, Himachal were 299 for 4 in 47.3 overs, 11 ahead of the VJD target.
"When Amit and Shubham were batting, we were at par and as they took the innings deep, we were eight to ten runs ahead," says Dhawan. "Our only aim was we didn't want to be behind the VJD target because we knew as soon as that would happen, Tamil Nadu would bowl fast bowlers and umpires would call bad light because light wouldn't have permitted fast bowlers."
After the win, the players and the support staff didn't know how to treat this imposter. They had never met it before.
"We had no idea how to celebrate," Chopra says. "It was mixed feelings - we were emotional and happy. There were smiles in the dressing room; there were a few tears as well. Even the support staff guys were in tears. They have been with us for ten to 12 years now, be it the trainers or the physio."
At Himachal's pre-tournament camp in Bilaspur, Chopra was asked by Hindi daily Amar Ujala what his dream was. He mentioned two. "One dream is, I want to see Himachal win a domestic title, be it in white-ball cricket or red-ball, and the second dream is to play for the country," Chopra recalls answering. Through the tournament Chopra carried that newspaper cutting with him.
"I don't think anyone else in the country thought that we could pull this off but all the 26 people involved - 20 players and six support staff - felt we are a team who could win this trophy. We didn't think about what people thought of us. We've been preparing really well for the last many years, we've been performing really well. But it takes a title to actually get you recognised."