Aakash Chopra: 'What exactly has the DDCA done to improve the game?'

In an exclusive chat with Sportstar, Chopra—now also a noted television commentator—walks down memory lane and also explains why it took 10 years for Delhi to reach another Ranji Trophy final.

Aakash Chopra: "I feel Delhi holds the edge and they have the upper hand (in the Ranji Trophy final)."   -  TWITTER: @cricketaakash

Aakash Chopra clearly remembers the moments when Delhi won its last Ranji Trophy title, beating Uttar Pradesh. That wintry morning at the Wankhede Stadium saw Gautam Gambhir-led Delhi overcome the odds to lift the coveted trophy.

That was in January 2008.

Now as Delhi gears up for another Ranji Trophy final — after ten years — former India batsman and erstwhile Delhi skipper, Chopra — who played a key role in the team’s victory that season — feels that with Gambhir in the side, Delhi has the edge over Vidarbha in the final, which begins at the Holkar Stadium here on Friday.

In an exclusive chat with Sportstar, Chopra — now also a noted television commentator — walks down memory lane and also explains why it took 10 years for Delhi to reach another Ranji Trophy final.

READ: Ranji Trophy Final: Delhi’s road to title clash

The excerpts…

It has been ten long years since Delhi won its last Ranji Trophy title. Having played a stellar role in that win—being the highest run-getter of that season—does the fact that Delhi has again reached the Ranji final open floodgates of memories for you?

(Laughs) That season (2007-2008) was special for Delhi, and also for me as I became the leading run scorer that time. The final was at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, and I have always been a big fan of neutral venue and I believe that we ended up winning the game for the only fact that it was happening away from home. If it was Uttar Pradesh’s home match, there was no way we could have competed because their spin was far too superior to what we had to offer.

The Wankhede curator created a pitch that didn’t suit anybody in particular. It had a lot of grass. Uttar Pradesh batted alright but then we were shot down. At one stage, we were struggling at 36-4.

… And that’s where you and Rajat Bhatia came in, both scoring centuries…

Rajat and I had a long 200-plus run partnership. Both of us got centuries and took the team to 290. That was when Praveen Kumar bowled beautifully — scalping eight wickets.

But UP lost the plot from there. They were over-confident and they believed that the game was over as they had some 50-run lead in the first innings. In the second innings, UP had become a one-man bowling attack and Praveen lost the sting for the number of overs he bowled in the first innings and it looked like, he was also disappointed. All the hard work had gone down the drain because of some lack of application from the batsmen.

Their batting was good with players like (Mohammed) Kaif, (Suresh) Raina around, even Tanmay Srivastava scored a century in the first innings—but they failed in the second innings. They could not bat us out and we won the game easily, with Gautam (Gambhir) scoring a century.

In that game, we had requested the BCCI to release the U-19 players, but Virat (Kohli) was not released. He was in South Africa for some preparatory tour ahead of the U-19 World Cup in 2008. We got back Pradeep Sangwan for the final, but not Virat.

It was, of course, a once in a lifetime experience and at the personal level, I was the highest run-getter that season and was maintaining a diary, which later turned into a book. It could not have had a more fairytale ending with Delhi starting the tournament and then winning the Ranji Trophy.

Who knew this would end this way? I never thought of it. The team was doing well; we won the Duleep Trophy as well. It was an exceptional season for Delhi cricket.

That year, we had people coming in and going out. We had Viru (Virender Sehwag) as the captain initially, then Mithun (Manhas) came in. Gautam, who was not with the Indian team then, started leading the side towards the end. Shikhar (Dhawan) played a few games, dropped a few times; Virat played a few games. In the end, a lot of things need to come together for you to win the title.

READ: Rishabh Pant: Need to play good cricket in the final

But then, why did it take a decade to reach another final?

It is slightly shameful that we did not qualify for the finals in the last ten years. Delhi, ideally, should be reaching the final every second or third year because of the kind of talent we have. So, the following year (2009-2010), I was the captain and we could not even qualify because towards the end we had to dismiss Rajasthan for some 500-runs. We could not make it, even though the season was not that bad.

I did not play for Delhi after that so I did not know what went wrong, but ideally when you look at Delhi and the resources, and the talents, there is no reason for us to not win the Ranji Trophy more often. We should at least qualify for the finals. In 2009, we went to the semifinals.

READ: Fazal: Vidarbha ready to do anything for maiden Ranji title

You said that in Delhi cricket, there is no dearth of talent. Then, what has gone wrong?

It will always come down to the players you have. That starts with your selection process. I remember one small incident and it would tell you the story. So, this happened after we won the Ranji Trophy. There was a party to celebrate our victory and some of the influential officials at the DDCA said, “How does it matter?”

The official had told this to a player, who replied the Ranji Trophy title always counts. The official said, “So, even if you had lost the Ranji Trophy, you would have still played the tournament, no? If not in Elite division, you would play in the Plate division, but you would still play the Ranji Trophy, so how is it a big deal?”

Even now the DDCA cannot stake a claim on Delhi team’s success because as an association what exactly have they done to improve the game? Do we have an academy? Do we have a facility that’s operational for all 12 months? The answer is no.

Then what exactly are we doing for age-group cricket? Are we conducting camps throughout the year? Are we scouting or nurturing talents? The DDCA has been doing nothing, and I don’t think they have done anything for a while now. That’s where a state like Karnataka—which has six grounds and an academy—scores.

The boys from different age groups are coming from these academies, even look at Kerala or Vidarbha. Now Vidarbha can claim that we have invested a lot of time and money and thought to improve our cricket. But can Delhi actually stake a claim? Conducting matches is nothing because every association is obliged to do it—so, how does it make Delhi cricket a better place?

READ: Ranji Trophy final: Key players to watch out for

So are you trying to say that the association has failed to bring out younger talents because of its faulty policies?

Look, Delhi will always produce talents because they have got a thousand academies, (there are) so many hot weather tournaments, so many private leagues, so the talent will always be there. Talent is not a problem, now what you do with the talent is very important. Now that Delhi has done well in the Ranji Trophy, at the U-19 or U-23 level, the only thing DDCA can do is selecting the teams properly.

If you select the teams properly, then talent will always be there. I don’t know what has happened and who is promising and who isn’t, I am no one to talk about it. But that can be DDCA’s only input and contribution. Otherwise, how can you stake claims? How many kids have come out of DDCA academy? How many kids have you been nurturing for the last 10 years? None!

So, once the Ranji Trophy season gets over, the guy is on his own, and then when you come back, you may be a better player or a worse who knows. That explains why it took another 10 years to reach the final despite having such talents.

Coming back to this year’s final, which side, do you think, has the edge?

I feel Delhi holds the edge and they have the upper hand. Gautam is there and in these matches, experience matters and that’s where Delhi has the advantage. I’m actually backing Delhi to win it, one for the emotional reason and one for purely cricketing reasons. Delhi is a better side in terms of overall experience and in terms of handling pressure, Delhi should hold the key in the five-day game.

This time, towards the end, the team has picked up quite well so I think Delhi is primed to win this one. In all fairness, Vidarbha has been absolutely sensational this season. Beating Karnataka in the semifinal was a huge thing, they will fancy their chances in the final but I will go for Delhi.

You are someone who has always backed young guns. This time, who are the ones to have caught your eye?

Well, Navdeep Saini is one. Ashish Nehra has been talking about him for quite a while. Then there is another youngster, Kunal Chandela. The Delhi batsman has been quite good and has even opened innings with Gautam this time. Vidarbha’s Rajneesh Gurbani has had phenomenal success. The way Mayank Agarwal scored runs was amazing and then there is Prithvi Shaw. Having seen him closely, I believe even Prashant Chopra has that talent, but he needs temperament. He’s got the shots but he needs to upgrade. Hopefully, some of these will make it to the next level.