Saturday, September 15, 2012

Out of the Blue - Aakash Chopra

I had been meaning to get my hands on this book by Test cricketer-writer, Aakash Chopra ever since I first heard about it. It is the tale of Rajasthan's unlikely road to winning the Ranji Trophy in the 2010-11 season (since repeated last year). Rajasthan is Aakash's adopted state as he played for them as a professional after Delhi dropped him (I did not know that he was dropped - and how!) and it was a fairy tale all the way for the determined Aakash who I felt, always got a raw end. He was in fact one of the most compact openers India had ever had and he did a wonderful job against the Aussie quicks when he toured Australia back then.

Anyway such books always interest me because there is much to learn form them. Did they win by some design or by default? How did they cope with doubt and fear? What was going through their minds as they went about their jobs? What did they actually do? Rajasthan after all were, till they won the Ranji Tropy, last in the Plate division (the bottom of the pile), never won the title and never even came close to a final in three decades. Like the blurb says ' don't play for honour, you play to save what you can of yours.'

The Ranji Trophy is India's national cricket championship and a bigger brand in India than most, even bigger than the IPL. There is something solid, something secure and long lasting about it that one cannot take away the feeling of awe that registers on people's faces when they hear the name 'Ranji Trophy'. Winning this Trophy ever since it has been instituted has been every cricket playing states dream - though Mumbai won about half the times. Delhi is the next strongest contender and the others pitch in every once in a while. But in against all logic, Rajasthan, a minnow if there was one in domestic cricketing circles, made a serious bid, got its planning and preparation right and got its hands tightly on the trophy for the first time in 2010-11. Rajasthan incredibly, defended its title the next year as well and are the current holders.

What does it take to win the Ranji Trophy? Many things. Players who are willing to play for pride and who are passionate, big hearted and who are 'men'. An association that is willing to back the players full on. Preparation that is well planned and carefully executed. Passions that rise above mere words and transform into achievements. Efforts that dance all over the humiliation and rejection that many players experienced. It takes a lot to go with a half-baked team at best and then back itself fully to take on the very best. It is a wonderful story.

Aakash, who was named captain for Delhi that season, starts with the deeply distressing and surely traumatic period when he got dropped from the Delhi team without as much as an indication. It is a sinking feeling and every sportsman and cricketer knows it in his bones how it feels to be out of the dressing room - more so for someone who has contributed so much for that state as a player and a captain. One day you belong and one day you don't. Life is so fickle.

But how you choose to treat the situation is what makes you what you are - a champion or a loser. And that is what this story is about. Aakash dwells on his feelings, the insensitivity with which cricketers are treated by the management most times. One moment you are in and the other you are a pariah. He writes - " professionals, could you not have put an arm around my shoulder, sat me down and told me the worst?" Anyway Aakash handled this depressing situation  and was looking ahead - coaching assignments etc when the offer to play for Rajasthan came from none other than the Director of RCA, Mr. Tarak Sinha.

Rajasthan played three professionals that year (2010-11) - Hrishikesh Kanitkar of India and Maharashtra as captain, Aakash Chopra and Rashmi Ranjan Parida from Orissa. As Aakash unfolds his player introductions before he gets down to the meat of the action, one gets the feeling that almost every single one of them went through much hardship and rejection, had so many hard luck stories to tell, that it was a wonder that they were still playing. If  they were, they all had a point to prove and that is one question one should certainly ask of one's players who are playing for any state. Why are you playing? What do you want to prove and to whom and why and how? One needs that fire or else one is merely going through the motions.

Hrishikesh Kantikar also faced the frustration of being dropped by his home side Maharashtra after performing so admirably for them for many years - but he quickly got into his stride by playing for Madhya Pradesh and then Rajasthan. These days senior players still have a role to play in first class cricket as the BCCI allows three professionals to play for other states thus giving players a chance to play and prove their worth while mentoring young and inexperienced players in smaller states that have far less exposure than the bigger ones. Come to think of it even Pankaj Singh is not from Rajasthan, he being from UP originally, and who, in pursuit of the game went from his home town to Lucknow to Allahabad to Kolkata to Bangalore and then finally at the NCA where he was offered a chance to play for Rajasthan by Parthasarathy Sharma the former Rajasthan player. Pankaj had in his short life, made up his mind to give up the game, by fate it appears had and has other plans for him. Several in that team went through that phase I am sure.

Deepak Chahar, one of their leading wicket takers and stars for the season, was told by Greg Chappell that that he was "...good for nothing". He made his debut that season and his story is as interesting as any - as he fought rejection and failure and kept practising harder and harder with each rejection - until rejction and failure got tired of him. He practiced twice as hard says Aakash, working almost sixteen hours a day at the  game before he got picked by the person who replaced Greg Chappell, Tarak Sinha, who sent Deepak on RCA's tour of Australia where he performed well. Ashok Menaira, the superbly taented left hander, and captain of the india U-19 side who dealt with doubt (after losing to Pakistan Under 19 side) and injury before coming good that season. Robin Bist who was originally from Delhi but who moved to Rajasthan and played himself throuhg the grind of district matches and so on until he got picked.  Madhur Khatri, Vineet Saxena, Vivek Yadav, Sumit Mathur, Vaibhav Deshpandey, Gajendra Singh, Rohit Jhalani - almost all of them coming out of humble backgrounds, with stories of hurt, injury and rejection, of uncertainty - are among those that are profiled. No power house talent yet, if you look at that team, and one can see that it is a mix of senior players, over-the-hill (or so their Associations thought in their hurry to retire older players and play youngsters) professionals and some rookie juniors. Bits and pieces at best - but something did take over them. Perhaps their desire to prove a point. I'd like to believe it all happened because of the player-centric and process-centric processes that the RCA adopted as much as player application. Given the right atmosphere, everyone starts performing to their potential. RCA seems to have found that.

Aakash writes of the influence of the calm and composed Kanitkar who never shows his emotions nor shouts at his players. Aakash cites an incident when he played for Delhi against Rajasthan when the senior players abused the junior players in front of the opposition (a common thing in Ranji Trophy circles) - the season that they were relegated to plate and Aakash believes lack of compassion and mentoring was one of the chief causes for that disastrous performance. It always is!

There is a brief note of how the team planned well ahead and played the Buchi Babu tournament with a full two week preparation, with the full team, and the Moin-Ud-Dowla tournament in Hyderabad before they headed back to prepare for the Ranji season, which speaks of how seriously they take their preparation. Their own internal games and the T 20 games (not the ideal way to prepare for teh Ranji Trophy) were played on return. In the countdown to the Ranji Trophy Aakash mentions wisely that one cannot improve one's skills at the eleventh hour - you have to trust what you have and go with it. And completely believe that it is enough. (He cites the hummingbird's example - that the bird is aerodynamically not suited for flying but since the bird does not know it, it believes it can fly and does!) So it is with cricketers who must believe that they are good enough to go all the way.

The uncertain and bits and pieces team was batting-heavy with three professionals, an Under-19 India captain and some seasoned pros like Vineet Saxena, Jhalani bolstering the top and lower middle. Rajasthan's main worry was its bowling. Pankaj was a seasoned campagner. Deepak Chahar was a rookie who had not yet made his debut. Sumit Mathur was an experienced medium pacer who was steady. The spinners were just about there. The bowling was bare with little support, so Rajasthan had to bat itself out of the woods. Rajasthan went in that year believing that their bowling was weak.

The season opener was against Hyderabad. It was in that match when the record for the lowest score in a Ranji Trophy game was made - 21. Hyderabad was at the receiving end with debutant Deepak Chahar making the most of a normal surface with 8 for 12 bowling his in and out swingers. (Check that out on youtube). Writes Aakash - "Hyderabad was a strong opposition, even if they got relegated from the Elite division...teams like Hyderabad are more likely to do well under pressure and win important phases". And he writes of the continued collapse that baffled him - "Deepak and Pankaj were bowling well but the Hyderabad batsmen were also playing a little too loose." And when he played on that pitch an hour or from the toss, Aakash writes "There were no demons in the track."

And to me this was interesting when he talks of "From thinking about how we'd get through the ninety overs in a day without too much damage, we'd reached a stage where bowlers didn't get to bowl" (in context of their bowling being weak). Aakash also talks of how he noticed a healthy rivalry developing between the two fast bowlers - Pankaj and Deepak and how important it is for a team to have that. Your resources are only as good as you believe them to be.You expect them to do well, support them and they will deliver.

Aakash writes of how Hyderabad was still reeling from the shock after that game was over and done with. "New stories emerging out of the Hyderabad board became the talking point. Several senior players had been handed pink slips, while the coach had resigned on moral grounds. It seemed the season had come to a grinding halt, with at least half the side sacked." He comments on it and says "...a knee jerk reaction and ,like all such reactions, was bereft of good sense. What logic can there be for throwing out seasoned campaigners with a long history of good work behind them? How could they suspect players they had invested years in? How could they dismiss players after just one bad show?" In sharp contrast he mentions how the Rajasthan team which was last on the Plate division had kept the existing combination in place despite hiring three professionals. Interesting to see his point of view.

Rajasthan's successful campaign continued with good performances against Goa (Pankaj Singh got 5 and Vineet Saxena 133, Kanitkar 73), Madhya Pradesh (Vaibhav Deshpandey 144, Bist 91 and Parida 74), Tripura (bowled out for 95 and 55 with Pankaj Singh getting 14 wickets while Rajasthan was bowled out for 150), Jharkhand (on first innings lead Aakash Chopra 107 and Parida 190) and Maharashtra (Aakash got 301). Rajasthan got out of the Plate division with that game and entered the Elite division.

Then came the big match against Mumbai in the quarter finals. Aakash says they were far from sure before that game and looked for inspiration. Mumbai apparently did inspire them by treating Rajasthan as a practice match for the semis. Aakash mentions how Mumbai's Rahane and Rohit Sharma, despite the loss of early wickets, were treating the game like a practice game - "way too reckless for the quarter finals of the Ranji Trophy". Against Mumbai's highly gettable first innings score of 252 Rajasthan scored 589 with Vineet Saxena, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Ashok Menaria scoring hundreds. That effort by the hardworking and unglamourous Rajasthan shut out the star studded Mumbai.

Tamil Nadu in the semi finals looked over confident writes Aakash. Dinesk Kartik won the toss and opted to field on a surafce that Aakash feels had something for the bowlers. With four fast bowlers in the playing XI and one back up seamer, Tamil Nadu, started bowling defensively in the first hour. Dinesh Kartik supposedly said to the media that he had read the track wrongly and wanted to restrict damage. Hearing the opposition captain give away his game plan fires up any team (especially when they knew the surface still had some juice) and Rajasthan got aggressive knowing the mindset of the Tamil Nadu players. Rajasthan wound up with 552 with Aakash Chopra 139, Kanitkar 100 and Menaria 106. Tamil Nadi fought gallantly but ended up with 385. Rajasthan was in the finals.

The finals was against Vadodara. Rajasthan got 394 with no three figure contirbutions but the top seven batsmen got double figures which is interesting and which shows application (the least being 27) and made 394. Baroda fought hard and made 361 in the first innings handing a slender lead. Chahar got four wickets though Aakash mentions the superhuman effort the bowlers put in as they struggled to keep Baroda under control. With such a slender lead and enough time on their hands Rajasthan was still not out of the woods and its worst nightmares came true as it started its second innings disastrosusly losing the top three wickets for 12, Aakash, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Vineet. But were saved by Parida's 91, Menaria's 101 and good rear guard bating by Pankaj with 24 and Rhot Jhalani with 43 at number 11. Baroda was 28 for 4 in 14 overs in a match that was by now over. Rajasthan was the champions, the deserving winners of the Ranji Trophy 2010-11.

By all means a fantastic tale and one with many lessons for teams aspiring for the big honour. As Aakash observes - it is always about the fight in the dog. Believe in yourself. Believe in the team. Trust and support it fully. Give them administrative and preparatory support. Spend on players, on cricket. There is the heart warming incident of the team manager Mahendra Singh Khadgawat indicating he would resign if action was taken against Rohit Jhalani who got into a scrap with the coach in one of the matches. That is the kind of camaraderie that the team displayed and the support that players and teams need. And of administrative support, planning and preparation, RCA is way ahead of most. From systems to infrastructure (the RCA has facilities where players can stay the whole day with a restaurant as well) so they do not need to go home ad return in the ecening. From player allowances to finalising hotels only with pool and gym as a prerequisite, from insisting on playing the Buchi Babu even when they did not get an invitation and giving the team a two week conditioning camp with the full side as preparation for the season, Rajsthan did many things perfectly right. The support staff was retained throughout, including their manager, which was wonderful. It is important that even the manager remains constant so the team develops a bond. Most Associations send different people as Managers to appease the voting class. And then there is much more.

Aakash Chopra should write his sequel certainly (I hope this book sold well - it should be a guide book for most Associations and Ranji Trophy players). Once could be a fluke but twice is not. How Rajasthan shut out Tamil Nadu this year in the final by batting out two days is stuff of the folklore. Rajasthan certainly won on the back of process, of picking the right players, of  a system that worked, of players who wanted to prove and achieve and of stout hearts and big dreams from ordinary men (no longer). Certainly there was much honesty and integrity as players played above their class and kept up churning performances that required great concentration and effort. Reading the cricketing parts were fanstatsic and you could feel the tension building as the team played the final. I only wish the player profiles had more depth or were handled differently - something about them was lacking a critical dimension. (It was as if I knew the player but only some parts of him.) The support of families was evident as in the support that Aakash's wife provided by being on the road with him.

Great job RCA, great job Team Rajasthan and well written Aakash Chopra. This is perhaps the first of its kind - a players account of the journey to the final (not many can do that - either they have not won or if they have, cannot write). Here's wishing that you write many more. As an ex-first class cricketer who writes (there are not many in the field in India) I fully endorse Aakash's writing and the book.

I must say that I found the excerpts from the reviews on the book disappointing and downright mediocre - to say it was honest (you'd expect writers to be honest, at least good writers) or that it was rare (come on boss, it is a first) or about how tough it is to be a ordinary cricketer (Aakash and ordinary with 10,000 first class runs and a Test career?) or how it is about dressing room gossip or field tactics (ordinary fan-on-the-road stuff) is to miss the point completely. 'Out of the Blue' is much more than that - it is about human endeavour to find its potential, to best itself against all odds. The least we can do is to recognise it for what it was worth when we review it.

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