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No fluke

Ranji: Here today, gone tomorrow?

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CAN'T BEAR TO WATCH: Tamil Nadu skipper L Balaji (foreground) is a picture of despair as a caught behind appeal against Rajasthan's Aakash Chopra is turned down in the final

Flukes happen once in a blue moon, not twice in succession. By reaching the final of Ranji Trophy a year after they won the title, Rajasthan have proved that the success of 2011 was no fluke. "I am sure no one will call our performance a fluke now, " said coach Amit Asawa as his team prepared to take on Tamil Nadu, eyeing their second title in a row.

Asawa is hardly a known name outside Rajasthan. Having played Ranji Trophy for the state, he doesn't really have much claim to fame. In fact, the only time he came to limelight was last year, when he guided this bunch of no-hopers to the title. But then, what claim to fame does John Buchanan have, if his role in the all-conquering Australian team is taken away?

Rajasthan's fairytale journey in cricket started right at the bottom, when they finished among the lowest rungs of the Plate Division in early 2010. "We had to do serious soul-searching, " Sanjay Dixit, the then Rajasthan Cricket Association secretary says. "We had to get the team back on track fast. "

Jaipur had some of the best facilities for cricket - a world class stadium and one of the best academies in the country - but somehow, lacked direction. The controversial tenure of Lalit Modi saw Sawai Mansingh Stadium completely revamped and the Rajasthan Cricket Academy with state-of-the-art facilities coming up on what till then was waste land. Greg Chappell was brought in as the director of this academy for a brief period.

With the Modi regime being toppled, Chappell too was on his way out. The Australian did make his contributions to Rajasthan cricket, but ironically, he is more remembered for his rejection of Deepak Chahar, a young fast bowler who set the ball rolling for Rajasthan's climb to the top. "Chappell sir did not think I had the qualities in me to become a fast bowler, " Chahar recollects. The youngster, who learned his skills under difficult conditions in Hanumangarh, a district bordering Punjab, went back to the basics. He returned a better bowler who could swing the ball both ways.

This swing was his surprise element, when he scripted history by grabbing eight wickets for 10 runs against Hyderabad. That was the team's first match of the 2010-2011 season. Hyderabad were humiliated and Rajasthan's fairytale journey had started. That this journey would culminate with the title was beyond everyone's dreams. "We had prepared a road map where we expected Rajasthan to be ready for the title after three years, " Dixit says. "We never expected them to do it in the first year, " he chuckles.

Among Rajasthan heroes were three professionals, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Aakash Chopra and Rashmi Ranjan Parida. "When we were analysing Rajasthan's drawbacks, we realised that we needed to strengthen our batting, " Dixit informs. The three veterans have been batting mainstays in India's domestic cricket for quite a few seasons.

There was Ashok Menaria too, who joined the team from the quarterfinal stage following a surgery and slammed three centuries from then on. Pankaj Singh, a workhorse, ended as the second highest wicket-taker of the season, closely followed by Chahar. "I am happy that I was consistent and hopefully I will get my opportunities now, " Pankaj said then. And when Pankaj did not get the opportunities - far from it, he isn't even considered India material - he was understandably demotivated.

It was evident that even the BCCI and the national selectors considered Rajasthan's title nothing more than a fluke. As for rewards, only Menaria was given a berth in the India Emerging side. "Most of the players I was being bracketed with have already played for India. I am the odd man out, " Menaria rued recently, before leaving for Germany to be treated for sports hernia, a condition that has plagued him for the past two years. Incidentally, it was with this pain (and having taken steroid shots to relieve it) that he went on to blast a double ton against Railways in November last year, one of the early matches of this season.

However, the hero this time has been Robin Bist, a 24-year-old unassuming batsman who has amassed 885 runs so far with four centuries. "My job is to stay at the wicket as long as I can, " Bist says. "I have been successful in doing that. " But then, would that be enough to make him a contender for a Team India spot? "I don't know. I am keeping my fingers crossed. "

Will the BCCI finally take Rajasthan seriously? The team has shown a lot of character, particularly after the turmoil it went through a couple of months before the Ranji season. With ego tussles, which eventually saw Dixit getting sidelined, almost derailing the defending champions' campaign, the team showed a lot of character to rise from there. Making the finals again was another miracle. "Not for us, " Asawa says. "We knew we had it in us to be there once more. " Pankaj is again the thick of action, having grabbed 32 wickets till the semifinal stages, third on the list of wicket-takers for the season. Will the selectors now start considering Rajasthan players as candidates for Team India? Chandrakant Pandit, who recently took over as Rajasthan's director of cricket operations, says there is little to differentiate between players from Mumbai and Rajasthan as far as skills are concerned. "It is just the cricketing culture that needs to be developed. "

Former South African fast bowler Meyrick Pringle, who was briefly associated with this team, has seen talent in bowling. It just has to be fine tuned. Rajasthan has joined the country's big league, but they will come of age only when they manage to put a player into Team India. They have done their job, now it's over to the BCCI.

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