By Navneet Mundhra
Vineet Saxena is the toast of the town. He amassed 897 runs in the 2011-12 Ranji Trophy season - second only to team-mate Robin Bist’s 1035 runs - and was instrumental in Rajasthan winning the National Championship for Cricket for the second time in a row. Saxena carved out 32 and 58 in the semis against Haryana, on a treacherous pitch where no other batsman scored a half-century. The two innings which propelled Rajasthan into the final are hailed as among the finest innings in last few Ranji seasons. Then came his record-breaking 257 in the final against Tamil Nadu, which is the third-longest innings in the history of first-class cricket. This is also the highest score by a Rajasthan batsman in the Ranji Trophy final. The marathon innings ensured Saxena a place in the history books.
But life hasn’t been always rosy for Saxena. He made his first-class debut a decade ago, and despite some fine performances, never quite reached the heights he set out for himself when he started playing cricket. Rajasthan’s unremarkable performance in Ranji Trophy in the last decade didn’t help the matters, and he remained a light under the bushel.
His life hit rock bottom a couple of years ago. His opening partner Aakash Chopra wrote in his book 'Out of the Blue’ how Saxena lost his father, baby daughter, and his job, all in the space of three months. “Cricket was no longer about scoring runs; it was the only way to keep his family going. Failure was no longer an option,” writes Chopra.
Like a Phoenix, he sallied back, and scored 566 runs in the last Ranji season at an average of above 50. This season, he went a step further and notched up 897 runs. What adds lustre to his superlative show is the fact that Rajasthan won the Ranji Trophy on both the occasions.
Saxena has become a force to reckon with. He is finally getting the recognition and plaudit from all quarters after toiling relentlessly for Rajasthan over a decade. Sunil Gavaskar has praised his refulgent tour de force and asked the selectors to have a look at him. He is tipped as one of the contenders to play for India at an international level in the near future.
In an exclusive interview with CricketCountry, Saxena talks about his life, team-mates, his shimmering performance, and his sentiments on being a part of the team which has won Ranji Trophy two times in a row.
Excerpts from an interview:
CricketCountry (CC): You have been an integral part of the Rajasthan’s team for quite some time. Your performance was fair, not superb, and Rajasthan didn’t put up a good show in last decade. What are the factors which, in your opinion, led to Rajasthan’s astonishing rise and improvement in your own personal performance in last two years?
Vineet Saxena (VS): To be honest, the inclusion of three professionals has done a world of good to Rajasthan cricket. Rajasthan always had the talent, but they lacked exposure. In hindsight, I probably didn’t do justice to my talent till two years ago, though I had a couple of good seasons. Hrishi bhaiya (Hrishikesh Kanitkar), Aakash bhaiya (Aakash Chopra) and Rashmi Parida have nurtured the youngsters, and their inputs are immensely valuable for the other players. They’re always willing to help everyone on and off the field, and never throw around the weight. Their professionalism and dynamism have rubbed off on the team.
As far as my batting goes, opening with Aakash bhaiya has made a huge difference to my performance and how I approach my game. Earlier, I used to make good starts, but couldn’t convert them into big scores. The guidance of Aakash bhaiya at crucial junctures helped me immensely. When a batsman is batting and concentrating so hard, he gets disconnected with the outer world and slips into a zone. That’s where the role of your batting partner comes into play. When I make a mistake or play a bad shot, Aakash bhaiya is there to correct me. If there’s a lapse in my concentration, he reminds me of my talent and responsibilities. These small things at crucial moments have helped me go a long way in carving innings of substance.
That’s why we see that a certain set of batsmen excel when they play in the company of each other. All great pairs have enormous understanding, co-ordination and mutual respect for each other. They not only point out each other’s mistakes, but also help each other to concentrate hard since they know each other’s weakness and strengths quite well. That’s why we see when a pair of batsmen is set, it becomes a taxing task to rip them out. They usually go and make huge partnerships.
CC: Rajasthan conceded first innings lead in their first five matches, but came back strongly to secure a berth in knock-outs, and then eventually win the trophy. What brought about such a stunning transformation?
VS: We conceded the first innings lead in the first five matches and were on the verge of being relegated to the Plate Group again. Nevertheless, there were few positives. Our batting was consistently good. We scored over 500 runs a couple of times. Even after facing the follow-on in two matches, we didn’t lose the match and showed resilience. The satisfactory part was that we didn’t lose any of those five matches which kept us in the reckoning.
That’s where the role of captain came to the fore. Hrishi bhaiya told us not to panic and made us feel comfortable. He ensured the atmosphere of the team remained buoyant and no one lost confidence. He personally talked with every player, and took suggestions. He told us we’re batting well and had shown fortitude, and we were just one good match away to turn the tide. The biggest motivating factor was the awareness that if we failed to qualify for the knock-outs or, worse, if we were to be relegated, critics would get an opportunity to lash out at us and tag our last year’s Ranji triumph as mere fluke.
Frankly, I was confident that we would save the relegation, but winning the trophy was tad unrealistic at that point time. Our bowling clicked in the match against Saurashtra, and we won the match. We needed to win with bonus point in our last game against Orissa, which we did. We wanted to deny Punjab the first innings lead. We succeeded in doing that. We wanted to prevent Uttar Pradesh from getting an outright win. We succeeded in that as well. We wanted Saurashtra to win against Railways, but not with a bonus. That, too, became a reality. Somehow, everything happened according to our liking and we qualified for the knock-outs. From there on, we were on the rampage. Our confidence soared. We felt like we could win from any situation. And it reflected in our performances. It was a complete team effort. Every single member contributed.
CC: The semi-final against Haryana was a low-scoring affair. You were the only batsman who batted with éclat. A lot of people think, those two innings were the best innings of this tournament. Then, you scored record-breaking 257 against Tamil Nadu in the final which has inscribed your name in the history books of cricket for posterity. Which innings do you rate better?
VS: It’s an extremely difficult choice to make, but I’ll go with my innings against Haryana in the semi-final. When I went out to bat, I didn’t find anything demonic in the pitch. I made 32 runs, and we was shot out for 89 runs in the first innings. Haryana didn’t do any better and were skittled for 97. The pitch was conducive for seam and swing bowling, and fast bowlers were making merry. That’s when the feeling sank in, that while all the other batsmen were struggling, I was batting with ease. I racked up 58 runs in our second innings, the only half-century of the match, and was unfortunate to get run out. Our team won the low-scoring affair. On a spiteful surface where fast bowlers were spewing venom, that was a special effort, I think.
CC: What was your mindset going into the final? Rajasthan came under fire for their defensive tactics in the final against Tamil Nadu, and many critics lampooned your team for playing to grind out the opposition rather than going for an outright win?
VS: The mindset of the whole team was positive going into the final. We came out of the abyss to qualify for the knock-outs and then reach the final. Our morale was sky high. How could a team with defensive tactics qualify for the final in the first place after conceding the first innings lead in the first five league matches? It showed, we approached every game with a desire to win.
A lot depends on the pitch and conditions. We batted first in the semi-final as well, but the game was over on third day. In the final, we scored 17 runs in the first over – bowled by Laxmipathy Balaji - after winning the important toss. But we soon realised that the pitch wasn’t conducive for shot making. The ball was not coming onto the bat, and the bounce was also uneven. Aakash bhaiya got hit on the eye on the first day. That’s when, we decided that we would not try to do anything flashy and would play each ball according to its merit. If the ball was there to be hit, we would do the needful, else we were glad to pick up singles and twos. And that’s what we did. Isn’t it preposterous to expect us to throw our wickets away playing extravagant shots? We played as per the situation, condition of the pitch and merit of the ball.
The accusation of defensive tactics or stodgy approach doesn’t hold water because no team can bat for more than two days with a defensive mindset. Sooner or later, one good ball would get you out. Look what happened to England in the second innings of the second Test against Pakistan in the current series? Chasing a paltry total, they were rolled over for 72. That’s what happens when a team or a batsman gets defensive. There are plenty of such examples. I reiterate that we played according to the conditions, pitch and merit of the ball. To bat for more than two days, one needs grit, resolve, temperament and character.
As Aakash bhaiya often says, the quality of cricket is directly proportional to the nature of the pitch. If you wish to produce the exciting matches, make quality wickets. Our approach going into the every match was same, whether playing semi-final or final. The pitch and conditions made the difference. A team needs to adapt to the pitch and circumstances to come up trumps.
CC: You went through the wringer in your professional and personal life. What kept you going? How have things changed after the two consecutive Ranji titles?
VS: Well, it was a tough time. I would have been shattered if I didn’t have the support of my family and friends. They kept me motivated. I owe them a lot. You know, if I’m playing a match, my wife and mother don’t even call me if there’s any problem at home. They fear I might get distracted. They want me to focus only on cricket. I am also amazed by the kind of adulation I have received from the media and people. The advent of social media has brought a lot of awareness about the domestic cricket among people. After my innings in the Ranji final, my phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I get as many calls in a day that I used to get in months. The warmth, the love, the appreciation have been overwhelming. I hope to continue to bring laurels for my state.
CC: Who is your favourite batsman, someone you grew up admiring?
VS: Rahul Dravid. He has achieved the great heights by dint of his unwavering dedication, and implacable resolve. He’s the epitome of commitment and humility. His phlegmatic temperament and impeccable conduct on and off the field have always inspired me.
CC: Your name is among the cricketers who are in the reckoning to play for India at an international level.
VS: Every cricketer grows up with a dream to represent his country. I would be thrilled if I get a chance to play for my country. Having said that, I’m just concentrating on my game and striving to improve upon my performances. Selection is not in my hand, all I could do is to perform consistently, and hope selectors will acknowledge my performance.
CC: From being mocked as a minnow, Rajasthan has become a powerhouse of domestic cricket circuit. Apart from three professionals, how much did local talent have contributed? And, how do you look at the future of Rajasthan cricket?
VS: As I said, every member of the team has contributed to team’s dream run in the last two seasons. Deepak Chahar and Ashok Maneria were the find of previous season. Chahar sliced through the Hyderabad side on his debut and snared 12 scalps. Maneria scored centuries in quarter-final, semi-final and final. This year also, he scored a double century in a league match before he was injured. Rituraj Singh was sensational this season. Dishant Yagnik bailed the team out along with Aakash bhaiya in the quarter-final this season. Talent is in abundance for Rajasthan. We just need to groom and tap them. Even our under-19 and under-15 teams are doing well. I hope our title triumph in successive Ranji season will inspire a lot of youngsters to warm up to cricket. This decade has augured exceptionally well for us, and I’m sure there are a lot of milestones waiting in the years ahead. This is definitely the golden period for Rajasthan cricket.
(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)