'A far more fulfilling victory'

Hrishikesh Kanitkar…‘ a cool and experienced skipper'.-R.V. MOORTHY

Rajasthan's second consecutive Ranji Trophy victory — only four other sides have managed similar encores — has at once silenced the naysayers and provided enhanced perspective on the team's character.

Winning its maiden championship last year after starting in the Plate division, Rajasthan's odyssey had the inexpungible imprint of a Grimm brothers' tale. It came at a price though: “A one-off success, a fluke,” was the cynic's refrain.

This year's triumph, then, has greater significance. To begin with, Rajasthan kicked off its title defence as the first among equals — in the Elite division. With just five points from as many matches, it didn't look like it would last the distance. But then, the team rallied from the precipice and how!

Rajasthan's coach Amit Asawa termed it a “greater journey”.

“This has been far more fulfilling (than last year). We faced a lot of odds this year. We missed some opportunities in every game. But it was mind over matter. There was no finger-pointing. My job was to ensure there was no pressure on the team. We just took the positives out of each game.”

Veteran batsman Aakash Chopra, who scored a pivotal 94 in the final against Tamil Nadu, felt the pressure of being defending champion had evaporated quickly. “We had a bumpy ride initially so the focus was entirely on the present. Things changed rapidly when we reached the quarterfinals. Winning three away games is never easy.”

Rajasthan's performance away from home coupled with stupendous displays from youngsters Robin Bist (1034 runs) and Rituraj Singh (26 wickets from four matches). Having unearthed Deepak Chahar last year and Rituraj now, Rajasthan has had a way with rookie fast bowlers.

“It's no coincidence,” Asawa said of the team's policy of blooding youngsters. “It's about rewarding good performance. Rituraj did very well at the under-22 level. It's not just about what you see on the scorecard. Whether someone has the character to play at this level can be judged by what you see at practice and matches.” Rajasthan has also seamlessly coalesced youth and experience in its pursuit of continuous excellence. Skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Chopra, and R. R. Parida have been the nerve centre of the team's ascent. Pankaj Singh, Rajasthan's highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 34 scalps, lauded Kanitkar's relaxed demeanour. “He is a very cool person, very experienced. Each stage of the tournament was a struggle but he and other senior players motivated us.”

Rajasthan, it appears, has also benefitted from a supportive administration. According to Asawa, the controversies surrounding the Rajasthan Cricket Association had no bearing on the team. “We had the best possible facilities. The selection was very fair. Everyone concerned had the best interests of Rajasthan cricket in mind. We are very grateful to the RCA for that.”

C. P. Joshi, Central Minister and President of the Association, incidentally announced a cash award of Rs. 1.3 crore after the win.

When the players revelled in celebrations at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, they weren't alone. Parents, wives, and children soaked in the heady moments too. Chopra summed it appropriately: “In most cases we play before empty stands. So it's good to have your loved ones cheering for you. Such things were ignored before but I am glad the team management and association have been supportive of the idea.”

Arun Venugopal