There's nothing like winning the Ranji Trophy
They say one should dream with their eyes open. Every cricketer worth his salt playing first-class cricket in India dreams of winning a Ranji Trophy. History tells us that Mumbai have been Ranji champions 39 times in the 77 years that this competition has been held. The team to have won the most number of times after Mumbai has won it less than a handful of times.
In the 13 years that I played for Maharashtra, I dreamt of what it would feel like to win the Ranji Trophy countless times. Most of my contemporaries from the Mumbai team had been part of Ranji-winning sides. On tours, I heard them speak of the times they played closely-fought games in the Ranji semi-finals or finals and of the excitement that these matches bring. I used to yearn to be in those situations where if we played to the best of our abilities and gave it our all we could win the trophy. In the 13 seasons with Maharashtra we reached the semis once. That was against Delhi in the 1996-97 in Pune, where we lost.
Though I played for India soon after this memorable season, I always hoped that I would one day play a Ranji final and come out of the match as champions. Being Ranji champions brings you the one commodity you have to earn and never get cheap - respect. Not unlike winning an Oscar award. After that you are looked upon differently. This is more than personal achievement. This is a prize that you win only when you play as a team. You win trophies when you take on challenges and never give up.
You might be very lucky to have been a part of a champion team but it certainly doesn't mean that you won because you were lucky. Luck comes in the mix only when you are busy doing what you are meant to do with dedication and sincerity. Through the years I have played on some seriously strong Maharashtra teams and we managed to come close just once. This just goes to show how tough this achievement is.
After leaving the comfort of home and playing two seasons for Madhya Pradesh, I found myself as the captain and professional for Rajasthan. I had played against them once before in a Ranji league game and I was bewildered as to why they consistently played below their abilities. As captain, I felt very relaxed because I was well aware of their abilities. I knew we had a potent mix of youth and experience. I realized that my job was to get the team moving as one in the right direction. If we managed to do this then anything was possible.
At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Rajasthan was the last ranked team in India - 27 out of 27. Our challenge going forward was to play as a closely knit team. As captain, I was very keen to create an atmosphere of trust in which each player would be accepted and respected as an individual. So this is what we focused on.
We encouraged the boys to be natural, to develop their own unique personalities, and to be the best that they could be. There was no reason to measure ourselves to someone else's yardstick. We encouraged the belief that all would be accepted so long as we were committed to being the best that we could be and were willing to lay it all on the line for the team.
The road to the first victory was pretty straightforward. We focused on the basics and we won most of the important sessions. The highlight of that Ranji campaign was that someone or the other stepped up to the plate when our backs were against the wall. Someone would play bravely and inspire the whole team to keep fighting. In my book this ability to raise your game is not taught. It is learnt by trusting your instincts and having faith in your abilities when it matters. By showing ourselves that we did possess this ability, we were able to play like a champion team.
The 2011-12 season was a completely different story. After being very excited to play the Irani Trophy as Ranji champions we found ourselves outplayed by a strong Rest of India Team. That wasn't as bad as it at first seemed because we chose to treat this defeat as a wake up call rather than a setback. In the first five out of the seven league games we conceded the first-innings lead five times, thereby only managing to score five points. The positive thing we took out of these results was that we had played hard and had fought to gain that one point per game by forcing a draw. These five points helped to later on qualify for the knock-out stage of the tournament. This time we had the confidence of having been there before. The team had a 'nothing to lose' attitude. We took nothing for granted and prepared and executed well. This time we beat a very strong Tamil Nadu side in Chennai. Both our finals were away victories and we as a team are proud of that achievement.
No matter what setbacks you face or how many times you are knocked down, what matters is that you get up and keep fighting. At the end our job is not just to win but to be the best that we can be, for our team and towards this glorious game that so closely mirrors life. Cricket teaches you to learn from your mistakes and move on.
We were underdogs at the beginning of the 2010-11 season. It gave us time to stay under the radar and quietly build up our skills, abilities and self belief. If you don't have your opponent's strength then it's imperative that you are able to lure him into a false sense of complacency and strike when the moment is right. Plus being the underdog gives you the freeness of having nothing to lose.
Finally, I would like to say that I have never been a part of a more united team than this Rajasthan side. These two seasons have been absolutely fantastic and I am proud to say that it's been an honor playing alongside the Rajasthan boys who made me feel loved and wanted from the first day that we shared the same dressing room.
More about Hrishikesh Kanitkar
Hrishikesh Kanitkar is a former Test and ODI player for India, and a veteran batsman on the domestic cricket circuit. He captained Rajasthan to consecutive Ranji Trophy titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
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