Anurag Thakur set some lofty targets when he took over the reins of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association in 2000. “I will change the cricket scenario in the state,” he had told this writer in early 2005 when HPCA hosted the North Zone one-day league.
The stadium in Dharamsala was a season old and it was already making waves as one of the most scenic cricket venues in the world. The stadium was a dream which Thakur had crafted on a piece of rocky land. He was criticised for taking up the project. “I will prove them wrong,” was his resolve. And he did prove his critics wrong by investing in a stadium that now showcases the state’s progress in cricket.
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September 13, 1985 was a momentous day for cricket in Himachal. The state made its first-class debut with a Ranji Trophy match against Jammu and Kashmir in Srinagar. “We were so thrilled,” recalls Praveen Sen, who played for HP in its inaugural first-class season. “We lost the first match but there was a sense of pride in qualifying to play Ranji Trophy. For us, it was akin to playing Test cricket,” says Sen.
The main challenge, according to Sen, was a lack of facilities. “We had the talent but not the infrastructure for the game to blossom. I remember playing those affiliation matches in Mandi and Sujanpur. We fielded a team against the North Zone (under-22) team led by Navjot Singh Sidhu. We did well to earn the right to play first-class cricket,” says Sen, who played his last match in 1990.
To compete with the best in the zone, Himachal Pradesh realised that it had to improve the basic infrastructure in the state. The plans were laid out and the HPCA identified Bilaspur, Nadaun and Dharamsala as the venues to add to Mandi and Una. “Those were the most exciting times for cricket in HP,” remembers Sen.
The 2004-05 season saw HPCA emerge as a wonderful host. Matches were played at small venues amidst stunningly natural environs. “You have to play at such venues to make the most of the natural playing conditions,” Delhi coach Madan Lal had remarked. The pitches were challenging and with time the stadium in Dharamsala, thanks to curator Sunil Chauhan, produced a surface that was loved by the bowlers for the bounce it offered. “I believe in a fair contest,” was Chauhan’s argument for crafting pitches that asked questions of the batting techniques of the best.
The HPCA Centre of Excellence, a brainchild of Thakur and former India opener Vikram Rathour, was a game-changer for the youngsters in the state. It offered state of the art training facilities, hosted BCCI zonal camps, and came up with a quality indoor training hall. “It was our dream to give the best to the homegrown talent,’ Rathour had said during the launch of the Centre.
Once the facilities were organised, HPCA looked to encourage young talent and the responsibility was entrusted to Anuj Pal Dass, a qualified coach, and a first-class cricketer. “I was confident that Himachal had the strength to make an impact. We have worked hard to be counted among the best teams in the country,” said Dass, who has now coached the team to its first-ever cricket title — the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
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“It’s been a long journey with a collective effort from the team. It started with Anurag Thakur providing us with the best of facilities and the title this year is just the reward for all the hard work the players have put in. It is such a change from the time when I played. There was not a single turf pitch for us. Turf pitch was a luxury but gradually we were given the infrastructure to improve, and we grabbed the opportunities,” says Dass.
According to Dass, the state has identified 70 sub-centres for spotting talent. “Being a hilly state, travelling becomes a great constraint. Now we have 44 out of the 70 places identified to promote talent. These are like coaching academies with cement pitches at most places,” adds Dass. The efforts of the last 10 years have yielded results with a bunch of confident players now raising their standards to match those from established backgrounds.
“Trust has come to be accepted as an integral part of the preparation,” says Dass. “The parameters have been restructured. We set small targets with a challenging flow chart where the players are confronted with varying equations. It worked splendidly this season. We organised exposure tours for the team. Hosted some strong teams. Our players don’t get nervous on seeing strong teams.”
The Vijay Hazare triumph was led by Rishi Dhawan, who enjoyed a terrific season with the bat and the ball, making stellar contributions at critical stages. “I can say this is the best phase of cricket in Himachal. The title win has come as a great boost. For a long time, we had been making it to the knockout stages, but this was our first final and we played like champions,” says Dhawan, who began his association with the state team as an under-15 player in 2004, growing to play three ODIs and one T20I for India.
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“We had been beating strong teams but somehow the big break was not coming through. We backed ourselves and each player took on the responsibility to chip in at the right time. We have come a long way from struggling for grounds to play on to a world-class stadium in the state. Today we have seven grounds where we can play first-class cricket,” says Dhawan.
Reflecting on the journey, Dhawan gave credit to the HPCA. “The credit should largely go to Anurag sir. He had faith in our abilities. He sowed the seeds for us to believe in ourselves. We gave our best knowing the significance of how much we can achieve collectively. The bonding the team boasts of is the greatest quality we have,” he says.
The turning point for the season was the match against Andhra in Mumbai. HP lost the match but gained the confidence to look ahead. “It was a critical match for us. We were chasing 323 and recovered to reach 292 from a desperate 141 for five. We learnt a lot from that defeat. The match convinced us that we had the strength to go all the way,” says Dhawan.
The victories against Uttar Pradesh (quarterfinal) and Services (semifinal) set up the grand contest against a strong Tamil Nadu. “For me, winning the semifinal was emotional. I remember Amit Kumar coming and hugging me. We had waited for a long time to make a final,” says Dhawan.
The best was reserved for the final. Tamil Nadu presented a stiff target of 315. “We allowed them to recover from 40 for four,” recalls Dhawan. TN was rescued by a 202-run partnership between Dinesh Karthik (116) and Baba Indrajith (80). The counter for HP came from a sensational knock by opener Shubham Arora (136 not out), Amit Kumar (74) and Dhawan (42 not out). HP was 299 for four in 47.3 overs. According to the VJD method, it needed 289 to win when the match was stopped due to light.
“We are now confident of beating any team on the circuit,” avers Dhawan. This confidence is the best reward for the team has finally won a tournament in its 37th year in the first-class circuit.