Rajasthan celebrate their chase of 357 against Services in Jaipur.
Ranji Trophy 2018-19: Rajasthan the team to beat in Group C, says Robin Bist after remarkable turnaround
Rajasthan celebrate their chase of 357 against Services in Jaipur.

Rajasthan’s start to the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy has gotten off to an unprecedented start, with two wins in a row to put them at second place on the Elite Group C standings with 12 points, behind Uttar Pradesh with 14.

In their first match at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur, Rajasthan beat Jammu & Kashmir by 75 runs and on Thursday, the hosts completed a remarkable win over Services. Bowled out for 135 in reply to Services’ first innings of 228, Rajasthan were then set a target of 357 after Services made 264. A five-wicket win completed the third-highest chase in Ranji Trophy history.

For a team that discarded the vastly experienced pair of pace bowler Pankaj Singh and opener Vineet Saxena during the off-season and was without the pace pair of Deepak Chahar and Khaleel Ahmed – on India A and India duty respectively – and weighed down by perennial political infighting against the backdrop of substandard infrastructure, these two wins underline Rajasthan’s determination and have raised hopes of a return to the knockouts.

The win over Services was indeed a remarkable turnaround from having conceded a first-innings lead of 93 to an outright win. The openers Arun Gautam and Chetan Bist went into stumps on day four having put on 96 in 45 overs, and on Friday extended their alliance to 170 in 77 overs before the latter was out for 78 from 229 balls. Rajasthan captain Mahipal Lomror fell for 4 but the senior pair of Robin Bist (30 off 59) and Ashok Menaria (36 off 38) played clutch cameos to help the score move along at a faster rate.

Gautam was last out for 159 from 344 balls, having hit 13 fours and six sixes, and the remaining 25 runs were knocked off by Rajesh Bishnoi and Tajinder Singh.

“It was a great win, the third-highest I am told, and that speaks volumes of how we are approaching our cricket this season,” Robin Bist told CricketCountry from Jaipur. “We are the dangerous team in our pool, after Jharkhand. We have good batsmen and our bowling has done well, but how it is all coming together and the mood in the camp is what leads me to believe we are the biggest threat in our pool. Everyone is determined to put all the negatives on the back shelf and win matches. The intensity is fantastic. Hopefully myself, Menaria and Mahipal start scoring runs soon. A long way to go in the tournament and there will be low points, but at this stage we are very confident.”

Set a target of 357 was a daunting challenge, but having nearly a day and a half to get them gave Rajasthan belief. The plan, said Robin, was to do anything reckless and see where they were at lunch on the last day.

“Batting out 140, 150 overs is huge. That is a long time. We knew their fast bowlers would tire,” he said. “Credit to Services, who bowled really well in both innings. Their control was amazing. They didn’t give up. Their first-innings total of 228 was made to look like 350 when they bowled us out for 135. They really fought well, but having so many overs to chase 357 gave us confidence.”

Robin Bist is nearing the milestone of 100 first-class matches
Robin Bist is nearing the milestone of 100 first-class matches. @PTI

Robin, a member of the Rajasthan team that won the Ranji Trophy in successive seasons (2010-11 and 2011-12), believes this current squad is the best in terms of youngster and seniors that he has seen in a decade.

“It is really a great blend, with the youngsters hungry do well and importantly willing to listen to the inputs from myself, Menaria and Bishnoi. We aren’t seniors in the mid to late-30 age bracket, but in this current setup we are the experienced players and we’ve seen this fantastic intensity in this squad,” said Robin, who has been a pillar for Rajasthan cricket since making his shift from Delhi in his teenage years. “In the eight-nine years that I have played with Rajasthan, it is the best mix. We had great seniors before when we won the title back to back, but now the younger players are better placed to adapt and put our inputs into practice.”

Robin also feels that former India Under-19 World Cup finalist Lomror, aged 18, has shown a spark as captain even with his batting – he has got scores of 24, 24, 28 and 4 so far – has not clicked. “He is alert, asks us seniors for our inputs, speaks to the younger players, is aware of field changes. I can be a good captain. His batting hasn’t clicked yet, but we have a lot of games to play and I think with results his batting will turn around. If Mahipal starts scoring, we will be a much better team.”

Robin’s younger brother Chetan has had big role in the team’s promising start, with scores of 159 and 23 against J&K and now 46 – the highest score of the first innings – and 78. A word between the siblings, revealed Robin, has helped Chetan channel his talent and managed the workload of opening and keeping wickets.

“I was with Himachal Pradesh and noticed how Ankush Bains, as opener and wicketkeeper, had such a heavy workload but managed himself well on and off the field,” said Robin. “It is very important to maintain yourself and make sure you take care of your body. When I realised last year that Chetan was going to play for Rajasthan as an opener and keep wickets, I called him and gave him Ankush Bains’ example. How important it is to rehydrate, take ice baths, sleep on time … Chetan is doing this and his batting is coming along well this season.”

Top two teams from Group C that qualify for the quarter-finals will be promoted to Group A and Group B in the next season. Rajasthan next play Jharkhand in Ranchi from November 20, followed by a clash wth Uttar Pradesh in Kanpur on November 28.