Delhi’s glorious hour

The triumphant Delhi team.-PTI

Winning the final inside four days, after conceding a first innings lead to rival UP, demanded high commitment levels. The Delhi captain Gautam Gambhir said he did not have to say much to spark a fightback except provoke pride. Nandakumar Marar reports.

The turnaround for Delhi in Ranji Trophy, from the brink of relegation a couple of seasons ago to a podium finish in the 2007-08 Elite group as India’s champion side, is a little difficult to explain. Damage control in place of chaos was the operative word here, with administrators reviewing their approach regarding team selection. The senior players took a step forward by gaining a voice in the choice of coach. Vijay Dahiya came on as team coach and Manoj Prabhakar as bowling coach. A feeling of commitment seeped in with players, coaches and administrators trying to move in the same direction despite differences.

As skipper Gautam Gambhir put it after Delhi’s nine-wicket win over Uttar Pradesh at the Wankhede Stadium, self-belief and hunger for success overcame negative thoughts and cynicism as the team remained a step ahead of the opposition. “I do not think about matters not in my control,” replied Gambhir, evading tricky queries about Delhi cricket politics spilling over to cricket. When the moment of reckoning arrived, the captain was there to goad his players into action. “I wanted Delhi to feel the hurt when they start losing. We have experienced all kinds of lows earlier, it was important for the players to feel the highs also.”

The India opener had deeds to back his words, back-to-back tons in the second innings in the semifinals (versus Baroda) and final (versus UP) when Delhi chased targets, projecting him as a natural leader whose batting did not get bogged down due to responsibility. “The team was gelling well, peaking at the right time this season. I urged the players to make the most of it. We don’t know what will happen next time,” said Gambhir, toughened by the personal experience of being asked to prove his batting ability in the longer version of the game.

Winning the final inside four days, after conceding a first innings lead to rival UP, demanded high commitment levels. The captain said he did not have to say much to spark a fightback except provoke pride. “It is important to experience that feeling of winning the Ranji Trophy. I told the boys that there is no use playing first-class cricket for a long time and not experience that feeling.” Gambhir’s personal example, bettering a zero in the first innings with an unbeaten 130 in the second (17 fours, 155 balls) in Delhi’s charge for victory, was critical.

Gautam Gambhir... a splendid hundred in the second innings.-VIVEK BENDRE

Pradeep Sangwan, the young pace bowler, had bowled a fiery spell of 5-3-5-3 earlier to give UP, riding a 175-run first innings lead, the second innings blues. The urgency to seize the moment separated the champion from the challenger as Aakash Chopra and Shikhar Dhawan ensured against any shocks. Virender Sehwag, known to speak his mind without fear of consequences, telephoned from Perth to inquire about his state side’s progress. The presentation ceremony was on, so the senior spoke to Gambhir later and conveyed his greetings to the team.

If Sehwag’s interest in the Ranji final was proof of the bonding within, there were others showing exceptional commitment. Rajat Bhatia’s all-round display in the final (139 not out, two wickets and two catches) was an example of a quiet achiever working in the background. Prabhakar worked on the pace bowlers, convincing Sangwan, Sumeet Narwal, Amit Bhandari, Bhatia and even Ishant Sharma (prior to the Australia tour) on the merits of putting the ball in the right areas depending on the wicket behaviour and match situation.

“Delhi did not have a specialist spinner, so the fast bowlers got the job done. I tried to pass on my knowledge and experience of Indian wickets, worked on Ishant’s approach to the bowling crease and showed Sangwan the benefit of bowling with a high-arm action,” said one of India’s best known exponents of swing bowling, Manoj Prabhakar. He also stressed how important sporting wickets were in the development of first-class cricket and appreciated the BCCI’s decision to play the Ranji final at the Wankhede Stadium, a neutral venue.

“I have not come across such a sporting wicket in Mumbai in my entire career,” said the Delhi bowling coach, referring to curator Sudhir Naik’s handiwork. “The bowlers got help from the wicket, the batsmen were tested even on the fourth day, centuries were scored. India needs such types of wickets at all centres hosting first-class matches. Centres should be given help in preparing sporting tracks, with the threat of punishment or fines to associations making wickets to suit the home team’s strengths.”

Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman of selectors and witness to Indian batsmen’s difficulties against the moving ball, too appreciated the neutral venue policy. “Next time, even the Ranji Trophy semifinals should be played at neutral venues, so that the contest between batsmen and bowlers takes place on sporting wickets,” observed the ex-India Test and former Mumbai Ranji captain, after handing over the trophy to Gambhir. He was present along with Sanjay Jagdale and Bhupinder Singh for the Elite final.

Praveen Kumar with skipper Md. Kaif. The UP medium pacer bagged eight wickets in the first innings.-VIVEK BENDRE

The three selectors watched UP pace sensation Praveen Kumar rattle the Delhi batsmen in the first innings with a rich haul of 8-68 (amidst centuries by Aakash Chopra and Bhatia). Prabhakar emphasised that this was the right time to expose Praveen to international cricket. “He is young, hungry for recognition and so will be eager to learn quickly about the adjustments needed. You have to keep improving at a constant rate,” said the Delhi coach, pointing to Ishant’s growing reputation as a young tearaway in Australia.

Gujarat overcame the embarrassment of relegation from the Elite group with a collective, conscious effort to climb out of the hole and were rewarded with the Plate group title at the Railways’ expense. “The players were upset when the relegation happened. We were told that the standard in the Plate division was low and that performances don’t count,” explained captain Parthiv Patel, putting Gujarat’s fall and rise in perspective. “We, the players, took a collective decision that qualification for the Elite group would be our first priority. I’m happy we ended up winning the Plate championship.”

The Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) chipped in with cash incentives for team and individual efforts. “The GCA announced Rs. 1 lakh for reaching the semifinals, Rs. 3 lakh for winning the Plate final and Rs. 2000 each for players scoring 100, taking five wickets or five catches,” said Parthiv, for whom the prospect of competing in the Plate group after tasting the popularity of being an international cricketer can be imagined.

He excelled in batting and wicket-keeping roles and also kept the players focussed on the task at hand.

Niraj Patel in the middle-order, fast bowlers Ashraf Makda, Siddharth Trivedi and off-spinner Mohnish Parmar offered timely support. Newcomers Amit Singh and Jay Mehta held their nerve in tense situations. Gujarat chased a victory target of 150 set by the Railways at the Brabourne Stadium, sneaking home by one wicket and in the process creating a unique record of three teams from one state (Gujarat, Baroda and Saurashtra) in the Ranji Elite league in 2008. Parthiv felt that the craze for cricket in the region and development efforts taken up by state associations like the GCA at the junior levels were instrumental for this happy state of affairs.

Saurashtra’s phenomenal performance in 2007-08 drew everyone’s attention. Parthiv pointed out the reasons: “Cheteshwar Pujara had an outstanding run with the bat, Sandeep Jobanputra’s bowling helped Saurashtra and Sitanshu Kotak is known for getting runs under pressure. Any team with two or three such standout performers will go far, so you know why the side progressed to the Elite semifinals.”

Rebuilding, and doing it well, too

Uttar Pradesh and Indian Railways, the Elite and Plate runners-up, are going through a rebuilding phase. Thus their progress to the final ahead of established sides is creditable. UP’s flow of natural talent and Railways’ move to induct youth will help the two former Ranji champions to emerge stronger. It will be a big bonus, too, if they can get training facilities on a par with organised set-ups like Karnataka or Mumbai.

UP lost the gifted Shalabh Srivastava to the Indian Cricket League, while veterans Ashish Zaidi and Gyanendra Pandey have opted for coaching. A raw talent from the U-22 ranks, fast bowler Sudeep Tyagi, has made a big impact. The depth of cricketing talent in the state can be gauged from the fact that the youngster, overlooked by the state U-22 selectors, caught captain Mohd. Kaif’s attention and Kaif along with Ranji coach Pandey drafted Tyagi into the senior ranks.

Fast bowlers hunt in pairs, so Tyagi and India one-day bowler Praveen Kumar formed a lethal new ball combination under Zaidi’s guiding hand. Praveen’s eight-wicket burst in the final was a stunning exhibition of controlled swing bowling.

Tanmay Srivastava, an India U-19 player, but already making a name in Ranji Trophy, played a polished knock for UP in the first innings against Delhi.

Railways are back where they belong, the Elite division, after qualifying for the Plate final at the Brabourne Stadium. Ranji Trophy winners at one time, the horror of relegation to the Plate league was compounded by the loss of all-rounder J. P. Yadav, batsman Shreyas Khanolkar and T. P. Singh to the ICL. These three are good players capable of turning a match around.

The team management kept faith in Abhay Sharma’s player-management ability and the ex-Ranji skipper and current coach drafted in the young Harshad Rawle and Karan Sharma. Mahesh Rawat, a gifted wicket-keeper from Haryana, joined the squad and as the season progressed, the pieces fell into place. Sharma already had a core group of internationals in Murali Kartik, Sanjay Bangar, Harvinder Singh and the experienced spinner Kulamani Parida.

A motivated Railways side almost snatched the Plate title, losing by just one wicket after a stunning show of swing bowling by Sanjay Bangar reduced Gujarat to 78-4 and then 143-9 in the second innings. Eventually, the Gujarat tailenders survived tense moments before the unflappable Jay Desai took the team home. Railways and Gujarat can give any Elite group team a tough time, Saurashtra came within one match away from the final.

So, apart from a new Elite champion in Delhi, the struggle faced by last year’s champion Mumbai and the partial eclipse of two-time finalist Bengal, relegated to the Plate category, shows how the Ranji Trophy has become a tough competition.

No spectators

Sporting wickets, but virtually empty stands greeted the Ranji Trophy Elite finalists at the Wankhede Stadium and the Plate finalists at the Brabourne Stadium. The players, coaches and selectors relished the contest between bat and ball on neutral tracks, which made for engrossing cricket. At the same time, the absence of spectators for India’s premier domestic competition can be attributed to home team Mumbai’s absence from either final. Should the BCCI continue with the policy of hosting Ranji finals at neutral venues, even if it means risking the possibility of India’s best first-class teams performing in front of only a few die-hard fans?

Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman of selectors, argues strongly in favour of neutral venues. “Mumbai played a few Ranji league games against other teams at the Wankhede this season, the stands were still empty except for a few cricket followers. So instead of focussing on attracting spectators, let us have good cricket on sporting wickets, so that the Ranji finals result in a test of players’ skills.”

The last time Wankhede Stadium buzzed with noise and excitement from the stands with crowds coming to watch cricket was during the 2006-07 final between Mumbai and Bengal. Vengsarkar points out that the presence of stars in both the teams brought in fans. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly were among the crowd-pullers in the five-day final.

“People came to see Sachin and Ganguly. The number of fans coming to cheer the home team were few in comparison,” Vengsarkar said.

Apart from the big two, the Mumbai-Bengal contest saw other India players — Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Ramesh Powar and Rohit Sharma — in the home team and Rohan Gavaskar and Ranadeb Bose in the opposition.

So Ranji finalists at full strength, competing on sporting wickets at neutral venues is of more value to Indian cricket than home advantage. The BCCI’s scheduling becomes more critical, to avoid an overlapping of dates between Ranji finals and India’s overseas tours.

Delhi missed captain Virender Sehwag and pace ace Ishant Sharma in the Elite final, Uttar Pradesh did not have R. P. Singh to open the attack.

Team India’s tour of Australia clashed with the final dates.To complicate matters, the India U-19 tour of South Africa was also on, forcing the Board to release Delhi’s Pradeep Sangwan and UP’s Tanmay Srivastava for the Mumbai match-up. But it declined Delhi’s request for India U-19 captain Virat Kohli.

Two India players can’t play, nor can the national junior skipper join his state team in a five-day game to decide India’s champion side. Delhi still won, but need future Ranji champions suffer for want of match-winners, because India needs them more?

Prize money list: Ranji Elite champion Rs. 50 lakh (Delhi), runner-up Rs. 25 lakh (Uttar Pradesh). Losing semifinalists: Rs. 10 lakh each (Baroda and Saurashtra). Ranji Plate champion Rs. 25 lakh (Gujarat), runner-up: Rs. 15 lakh (Indian Railways). Losing semifinalists: Rs. 7.5 lakh each (Kerala and Madhya Pradesh).

The Scores

Elite final: Uttar Pradesh 342 (Tanmay Srivastava 105, Ravikant Shukla 96, Pradeep Sangwan four for 80, Sumit Narwal four for 81) and 177 (Suresh Raina 85, Sangwan five for 46) lost to Delhi 290 (Aakash Chopra 102, Rajat Bhatia 139 not out, Praveen Kumar eight for 68) and 230 for one (Gautam Gambhir 130 not out, Chopra 33, Shikhar Dhawan 54).

Plate final: Railways 260 (Harshad Rawle 110, Mohnish Parmar four for 63) and 169 (Raja Ali 46, Rawle 45, A. Singh three for 22) lost to Gujarat 280 (Nilesh Modi 107, Parthiv Patel 52, Sanjay Bangar five for 54) and 152 for seven (Parmar 41, Bangar six for 53).