By Sidhanta Patnaik
Till October 2010 Rajasthan was never a point of larger discussion among the followers of Indian domestic cricket. But in the first plate group match of 2010-2011 when debutant Deepak Chahar bundled out Hyderabad in less than a session for 21 runs, heads turned. After that an eye remained on their progress and it has never gone off since then. When they won the title in the last season – the first time in 77 years - some termed it as a fluke, but now that they have their names etched on the trophy for twice in successive seasons it becomes important to know what they have done right to rise from where they were in 2009-2010 to where they are today.
As much credit goes to the players for this magical run that much deserving honour is for the administrators of Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) who, despite heavy political weather, got their priorities right and set up a structure that has now become a national talking point.
Sanjay Dixit - former RCA President & its present Hon. Secretary - is credited with drafting the first-ever Sports Law in India. He is considered as the chief architect of this configuration, but due to infighting in RCA he has not been active in the association for the past four months.
In an exclusive interview with Cricketcountry.com he gave his take on RCA’s colossal leap from nowhere:
Cricketcountry (CC): In 2009-2010, Rajasthan ended the season at the bottom of the Plate Division. Prior to that, too, the team was among the number filler in the domestic tournaments. How did the revival begin?
Sanjay Dixit (SD): The contours of change had been drafted in 2009 itself when I came in as President. We revamped the tournament structure for seniors and juniors and introduced multi-day tournaments at every level. We encouraged to lay more turf wickets at outlying districts and offered incentives for introduction of best practices at district level.
CC: Transparency has been the key in building trust. RCA’s website is one of the rare, well- informed sport websites in India. It has details of all its district matches result. Plus there seems to be a clear demarcation of responsibilities between the playing and business side of the game. How has this balance been maintained and cricket’s interest protected despite RCA being synonymous of political turmoil?
SD: Being into software, I’m fully aware of the power of Internet in enforcing transparency. It was, therefore, one of the first things introduced. I introduced the score-keeping and bought the analysis software which you see on the rcastats website attached to the main website. I have seen the games selectors play at very close quarters. I, therefore, made it compulsory for the selectors to come with all the details downloaded from the site and in all the meetings of selection committee, the stats website would always be open to make ready references. This also made sure that performances did not go unnoticed. A very good example is Puneet Yadav who was not thought of much by the selectors. However, we had made a rule that the best performances in the tournaments had to be rewarded in order to maintain the integrity of the tournament. That’s how he made his debut last year. It was not a very happy one, but he has now consolidated his position.
CC: When you signed Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Aakash Chopra and Rashmi Ranjan Parida as professionals, certain factions must have objected as it automatically blocked three slots for home-grown talents in the playing XI. How did you convince the members about the benefits of the move?
SD: The decision for hiring three batting professionals was taken by me based on the inputs of Tarak Sinha, the Academy Director, and Rajeev Rathore, a selection committee member, and Harish Joshi, Manger of cricket operations. I had personally analysed the performance of the Rajasthan team over the last 50 years and was amazed to discover that in the entire history of Rajasthan, the late Hanumant Singh was the only batsman with a batting average above 40. Our bowling was always decent. We decided that this weakness had to be plugged. So we decided to hire three batting professionals. Kanitkar was Rajeev Rathore’s idea. Parida was selected even earlier, and Aakash Chopra was contacted and brought in by Tarak Sinha, his coach and mentor. Harish Joshi facilitated the entire process by staying in communication with these professionals.
There was great opposition within the Association to this move. Even in the previous year, I had hired Manoj Prabhakar as the coach, and Parida, Hemang Badani and IS Reddy as professionals. The Association went through one of its periodical turmoil and the three were not allowed to play, despite being contracted. This sons-of-the-soil theory is the bugbear of many an association. I put forward a very simple logic before my committee: Which one would you prefer? Eleven home-grown players languishing at the bottom of the heap, or eight home-grown players near the top. The logic was so clear that all hostility evaporated instantly. I was lucky, of course, that my foreboding came true in such a telling manner.
CC: Though the current administrators have played down his role, yet Tarak Sinha’s place in this dream run cannot be undermined. Every player has spoken about his influence. What made you to sign him up?
SD: There is no current administration. It is just an ad-hoc arrangement with some people given the task of fire-fighting more with an eye on politics than cricket. Tarak Sinha has been an inspiration ever since my own cricket playing days. Not many people know that in 1994 and 1995, I personally led Barmer district team to two State championships. We used to consult Tarak Sinha even then. I know from my knowledge of cricket the number of International players he has produced through his Sonnet Club. It is probably the highest in the world. He is a phenomenon, an institution. I pity the mental level of those who have the gall to mistreat him.
CC: In these two seasons, Rajasthan has managed to promote a unique brand of cricket which revolves around grinding out the opposition. While it has been criticised, it reflects a defensive mindset yet that has fetched you two titles. Does not this self-protective approach from the title holders degrade the level of cricket all round the country?
SD: Test cricket and multi-day cricket success depends on grinding out the opposition. When the first innings lead is given such exaggerated importance, this is bound to happen. Moreover, you cannot expect attractive stroke play on slow and low pitches of the kind that was provided in Chennai. Ask Saurashtra. They were blitzed out by the very same Vineet Saxena and Puneet Yadav on a hard and pacy SMS Stadium pitch in Jaipur, scoring at nearly four runs an over. We also missed Ashok Menaria, a natural stroke player. However, even his 230 on a Karnail Singh wicket was grafted. Give us Australia-like wickets before you expect blazing innings from batsmen. You saw what happened to (Abhinav) Mukund, (Murali) Vijay and (Subramaniam) Badrinath when they tried to play strokes on the MAC wicket at Chepauk. On that wicket, Chopra and Saxena’s approach to batting was the only approach that could succeed.
CC: If you say it is within the rules of the competition and point your finger towards BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), then what changes would you like to see in India’s domestic cricket to be more aggressive, attractive and result-oriented?
SD: I do not have to make a prescription. It is already introduced in the RCA domestic set- up. All three-day, four-day and five-day matches have a system of batting and bowling points, besides points for outright wins and leads. Theoretically, it is possible to score higher points, even if you fall behind on the first innings. The result is there to see. Interest is maintained right till the end as sides try and get every single bowling and batting point.
CC: How is the vision of Rajasthan cricket backwardly integrated with its grassroots at district levels?
SD: I introduced tournaments right down to the U-14 level, all in the multi-day tournament, banned T20 for the Juniors and introduced a Corporate T30 tournament to facilitate employment opportunities for players. An inter-school tournament was to be introduced, but fell prey to one of the frequent wrangles in the Association. Match referees were introduced to keep a tab on umpires and ground conditions. Physios were allocated to every venue and every district team in the Elite team was provided with a NCA qualified coach at RCA’s expense. Unfortunately, some of these initiatives have been diluted in the past few weeks, but I will run a campaign to correct them.
CC: What stands out for you in the leadership of Hrishikesh Kanitkar and in the experience of Aakash Chopra and Rashmi Ranjan Parida?
SD: Hrishikesh is a seasoned campaigner. His leadership style is very comforting for the younger player. Bona fide errors are tolerated in his scheme of things. This is a great recipe for building confidence among the younger players. Aakash is a thinker and a strategist. Besides being a very accomplished opener, he one of the all time great close-in catchers. His influence in improving the catching standards of the team is immeasurable. The 2011 triumph was in a large part attributable to the unbelievable catching by the team. In nine games, they did not drop more than half a dozen catches. This year, it was a bit down initially. Rohit Jhalani, the wicket-keeper, was badly off form and the initial struggle was largely due to bad catching. After he was replaced by Dishant Yagnik, the scenario changed and you can see them it the results. Rashmi Ranjan Parida is a highly-underrated cricketer. He is at his best in tight situations. Last year’s final was won by us only because of him. It was very close, unlike this one.
CC: This team consists of youngsters who come from nowhere to seal vantage points at critical matches. Last year Deepak Chahar was one and this year Rituraj Singh has been able to do that. How robust is the talent pipeline of Rajasthan and how has it been nurtured?
SD: We have a whole assembly line of pacers, including some really quick ones. An 18-year old boy, who is presently victim of dirty politics, was clocked at 144 kmph last year. We imported speed guns to keep track of our pacers.
Spinners are a weak link, but we do have a number of left arm spinners at U-19 level. One boy took more than 100 wickets in the Junior and Senior championship combined. I hope he does not become victim of dirty politics. There are several left-armers giving him competition. What we lack is an off spinner.
Batsmanship is a difficult art, but we have seen Vineet and Robin Bist move up a notch. Compared to 300-350 runs they used to score in a season, they moved up to 400-500 level last year in the company of pros and have gone to 900-1000 level this year. Other youngsters knocking at the doors now know what they are up against and we now see a different level of application and intensity even in the District matches.
CC: A lot of criticisms have been made about pitches for domestic cricket in India. As champions what responsibility has RCA shown towards this particularly bothering point?
SD: SMS Stadium pitch in Jaipur is one of the best ones in the country. We have both soft and hard surfaces and it is always well grassed. Spinners, though, do not like this wicket.
CC: It is strange that tough RCA has been domestic champions for two years now yet there have been not a single representation in the national team during this period. Where is the disconnect?
SD: It is strange. BCCI must make sure that integrity of Ranji Trophy is maintained and it can be done only by rewarding performances. IPL hype is not a substitute for judging cricketers. Just see what happened to Paul Valthaty and Rahul Sharma in Ranji Trophy.
CC: You were the first association to go against your home franchisee (Rajasthan Royals) in IPL when in the last season the pitch you provided for one of the home games did not earn appreciation from Shane Warne. When most of the state associations have become an extended wing of the IPL franchisees, what made you go against the tide?
SD: I stand completely vindicated as BCCI has clarified to the franchises this year that pitch is the business of IPL and State Association and franchisee will have no say in it. The guidelines provide for a sporting pitch and that’s what every association must endeavour to provide.
CC: At a time sports administrators in India are been looked down upon for their apparently wrong intentions, Rajasthan’s backroom office was able to create a vision and deliver on it. Is it that difficult for sport bodies to show the right intent and prioritise team result as their central focus?
SD: It is difficult. It is obvious in the power mongering going on in the RCA right now. We have a President who does not understand cricket and thinks IPL to be the only form of cricket. It is difficult to get everyone around to think of development of the game rather than just enjoying the goodies. It is difficult but not impossible, as our results would show.
CC: You were born in 1960, the season Rajasthan made it to the Ranji Trophy final for the first time. That was the case eight times in 13 years. In your 50th year, Rajasthan became the champions for the first time and now they have retained the title. Life has come full circle for you, isn’t it? How do you associate the force that Rajasthan cricket was between 1960 to 1973 and that it is now?
SD: Between 1960 and 1973, the cricket in Rajasthan was practically being run from Bombay. Out of 11, hardly two or three local players used to be there. The fielding used to be awful, as they would mostly get ageing players or members of royalty to represent the team. They were very big names on paper, but were no match for a battle-hardened Bombay team. There was no depth in the domestic structure. Cricket was played only in Jaipur and Udaipur. So the team repeatedly made the finals but were defeated every time.
Cricket in the state is now so much broader based. Jaipur did not qualify for the semi-final of the Colvin Shield, the senior championship. Tonk and Barmer did, along with Udaipur and Bikaner. In the junior championship for the Dungarpur Shield, Udaipur did not qualify for the semi-final. Tonk and Barmer fought the final, with Barmer winning comfortably. This is the depth domestic cricket now has. The current administration is too biased with an Udaipur tilt as the politician President finds it a priority to appease his constituency even at the cost of cricket.
CC: It is a known fact that under your leadership even the Rajasthan Under-16 and Under-19 recorded their best-ever performances. So it is appropriate to end the interview asking for your views on the way forward for Rajasthan cricket and how strong is the foundation of this revival to turn into a long term consistent run?
SD: If the reforms introduced over the last two or three years are persisted with, it would certainly be a platform for grooming potential world beaters. It also depends a great deal on the sagacity of the people involved in running the association. When the latest round of fracas broke out, I could foresee a situation where two teams would be fielded by my rivals. For them, cricket was not a priority. I, therefore, voluntarily took a back seat as I did not want the season to be spoilt. I knew the foundations were strong and they would not be able to do too much damage. I’m proved right by the repeat Ranji Trophy triumph. Of course, the age group events were a bit disappointing, but that’s where politics played a greater part as public focus on them was not so great.
(Sidhanta Patnaik is a sport marketing professional, public speaker and writes for Cricketcountry.com. His Twitter ID is @sidhpat)