A minnow turns champion

Victory at last... Plate champion Himachal Pradesh.-

Until last season, Himachal Pradesh was just another team to be pushed over, but not any more. The team, which won the trophy in the Plate Division, is all set to take on stiffer challenges in the Elite next season. Vijay Lokapally reports.

The signs were evident last year when Himachal Pradesh won the zonal under-22 title; and again when Rishi Dhawan slammed a triple century in the under-17 tournament. Diligence was beginning to pay and Anurag Thakur, a former junior cricketer with a lot of promise, was beginning to believe that success was not beyond reach. He had faith in Sandeep Sharma and his team.

After languishing in the lower reaches of the Plate Division, Himachal Pradesh crowned itself with distinction by winning the trophy with an emphatic performance in the Plate final against Orissa.

Thakur, the young administrator with a vision to make his state association a model unit, has just one goal — to take cricket to the remote corners of Himachal Pradesh. "I want no less than 10 grounds of top standard in this beautiful state. Here there is plenty of talent, only it needs to be tapped," he said.

The current pool of gifted players may not be large, but Thakur said: "We have 60-odd to pick from but we have made a beginning. When we started we hardly had two grounds worthy of staging matches but today we can proudly say we have a ground in each of the 12 districts. Some of these districts (Kinnaur, Lahaul Spiti, Sirmour) are very backward in terms of cricket infrastructure but we are committed to giving our best."

Himachal, indeed, has come a long way from the time when its players were lodged in dingy hotels. "We get the best facilities now and the players have no complexes at all," informed Sandeep Sharma.

Thakur took a major step to promote the game in the state by investing in the cricket stadium at Dharamsala. Opposition came from the previous administrators and some political forces but eventually the stadium was built and it stood as a symbol of victory for Thakur's dedication.

The infrastructure helped prepare the youngsters for the bigger challenges, and the team led by Sandeep wrote a glowing chapter in the history of Himachal cricket.

It all began when former Test and Punjab opener Vikram Rathore decided to play for Himachal Pradesh along with Sandeep Sharma. The team worked hard and overcame internecine squabbles to become worthy of a place in the Elite group.

In 20 years Himachal Pradesh had not won more than two first-class matches, and it was even more embarrassing when two teams reported for a match last season. "Poor planning by the previous administrators," Thakur explained.

Once the players discovered their confidence, Himachal Pradesh rose in stature and things brightened as Sandeep Sharma roped in M. S. Bisla from Haryana and Sarandeep Singh from Delhi to form an effective combination. Also, a young star emerged in Paras Dogra, who too shifted from Delhi.

"My son was not even allowed a decent trial in Delhi," recalled Paras's father, Kultar, a decent cricketer himself. Paras aggregated 528 runs in 11 innings and stood fifth in the Plate list with two centuries and two fifties and an average of 52.80. Then there was Ajay Mannu, a talented batsman from Chamba. He aggregated 351 runs.

Sandeep had 506 runs from 12 innings. His epic knock of 161 helped Himachal Pradesh halt the Railways in the semifinal.

"He was unstoppable," was how the Railways and India left-arm spinner Murali Kartik described Sandeep's effort.

Left-arm spinner Vishal Bhatia (38 wickets at 15.52), off-spinner Sarandeep Singh (28 wickets at 22.28), medium-pacer Vikramjeet Malik (26 wickets at 25.26) and seamer Ashok Thakur (21 wickets at 24.47) performed consistently for Himachal Pradesh.

For Sarandeep, it was a case of rediscovering his confidence. "HP needed a spinner and I thought it was the right time to move from Delhi. The responsibility brought the best out of me. I banked on variety, used the crease and cross-seam more. I enjoyed my cricket more than ever. It is a good team and I must say that collective effort was our strong point. Our unity was an asset as we all played for each other," said Sarandeep.

The unsung hero of Himachal Pradesh was coach Rajdeep Kalsi, a former Punjab batsman who was once tipped to play for India. He spent time not just with the Ranji team, but concentrated on spotting local talent too. "You can find him always working at the nets," said Sandeep Sharma of Kalsi.

For four years Kalsi motivated the youngsters and he was obviously the happiest man at Cuttack when Himachal Pradesh routed Orissa to win the Plate final.

Himachal Pradesh was once considered a minnow, often losing to Delhi, Punjab and Haryana with at least a day to spare, but not anymore. "We were a good side for three years but somehow could not perform at crucial stages. Our self-belief grew with Kalsi's confidence after we beat Saurashtra last season. We conceded a lead of 150-plus but came back to win. That was the turning point for Himachal cricket. Kalsi, in my opinion, has played the most crucial role. He never adds to the pressure," noted Sandeep.

Himachal Pradesh now faces greater challenges as it prepares to compete in the Elite group next season.

Inspiring the youngsters

Having a cricketer at the helm helped Orissa immensely. After Ranjib Biswal, former India under-19 captain, took over the administration of the Orissa Cricket Association, he ensured that the players and their needs became the top priority.

The onus was on the senior players, Shib Sundar Das and Debasish Mohanty, to carry the team into the Elite group. The two former India players gave their best when the team needed it. The loss in the final at home may rankle Orissa, but there was the joy of having earned promotion to the Elite group. "Honestly, motivation was missing once we made it to the Elite. I am not trying to take away any credit from Himachal Pradesh. It played better cricket than us," said Mohanty.

Das, who hit his maiden triple century, observed it was a "splendid team effort" with contributions coming from various quarters. "We were determined to come out of the Plate division and the motivation was there right through the season. I think we deserved to be in the Elite group," he said.

Biswal gave credit to the players who had worked hard. Once Mohanty and Das decided to carry the team on their shoulders, the Orissa players began to believe in themselves. It worked wonders.