Defending champions Rajasthan conceded the first-innings lead in five consecutive matches at the beginning of the 2011-12 Ranji Trophy season. From having just five points after five matches, they rallied to make the knock-out phase and then knocked off Hyderabad, Haryana and Tamil Nadu to defend their title.
The reason behind their success owed to a few central figures. Robin Bist's four consistency helped stave off outright defeats; Aakash Chopra's 98 against Saurashtra and 142 and Hyderabad delivered the first-innings lead in make-or-break scenarios; Vineet Saxena's 86-ball 32 and 119-ball 58 in the low-scoring semi-final were hard-fought innings and worth more than other three-figure knocks; veteran seamer Sumit Mathur's six wickets against Saurashtra inspired a turnaround in events; rookie Rituraj Singh's 6 for 75 bowled Rajasthan to victory Orissa and a match haul of 12 for 82 downed Haryana in the semi-finals; Pankaj Singh's four wickets in the second innings of the same match were as valuable. Such performances were immense in Rajasthan reaching the final. Here, we pick out the men who contributed significantly to Rajasthan's campaign.
Rajasthan's most solid and dependable batsman this season, Bist finished as the highest run-scorer of the competition with 1034 runs at an average of 86.16. It was the first time a Rajasthan batsman had crossed 1,000 in a season and underlined just how important his form was to Rajasthan retaining their title.
Displaying an outstanding temperament allied with maturity, the 24-year-old was the stand-out batsman even as Rajasthan struggled in the first half of the season. He started the tournament with scores of 47 and 20 against Karnataka, 82 not out against Mumbai, 76 and 100* against Uttar Pradesh and 176 against Punjab. While none of these innings helped fashion a win or deny the opposition a first-innings lead, Bist's success was influential in the team not falling flat. At least someone was fighting.
A blip (22 and 12) followed in the must-win match against Saurashtra, but Bist's unbeaten 127 helped set up the win over Orissa. He failed in the one chance he got against Hyderabad in the quarter-final, and after 0 in the first innings his 44 in the semi-final against Haryana was worth much more as Rajasthan took a lead. Then came the final, and scores of 57 and 92. It was Bist's watershed season, and signs that he is on the verge of scripting a memorable career.
Matches: 10, Runs: 1034, 100s: 4, 50s: 4, Average: 86.16
After 12 years on the domestic circuit, the opener left an indelible mark. His 897 runs were second to Bist, with 257 of those coming in the final against Tamil Nadu. That marathon innings was the third-longest in all first-class cricket (in terms of minutes), spanning 907 minutes and 665 balls.
Batting long periods for stoic, unaggressive runs has been Saxena's forte and this was in ample display this year. In the season opener, his 99 off 283 balls helped Rajasthan avert defeat to Karnataka. Having been forced to follow on, the team was indebted to Saxena's stonewalling effort in a century opening stand.
Fifties against Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh followed, but Saxena's ability to carry on left Rajasthan on the defensive. Then, during the win over Saurashtra in Jaipur, he scored his first century of the season and added 215 for the fifth wicket with Puneet Yadav. An innings of 74 followed against Orissa as Rajasthan booked a spot in the knock-outs, and top-scores of 32 and 58 in the low-scoring semi-final in Lahli were worth their weight in gold.
This run of form culminated in a mind-boggling double-century at the summit as Rajasthan out-batted Tamil Nadu. At the age of 31, after much trial and tribulation, Saxena had made a lasting impact on his team's fortunes. For a man who had once contemplated giving up cricket, it was sweet success.
Matches: 10, Runs: 897, 100s: 2, 50s: 5, Average: 52.76.
After five innings, Chopra was averaging 15.00 with a highest score of 31. His poor form had played a role in Rajasthan's predicament because platforms were not being laid at the top. The revival came with a century against Uttar Pradesh, which came after Rajasthan had been forced to follow on. Finally, Chopra converted a start into a 28th century on the final day to help Rajasthan earn a draw. In the process, he crossed 10,000 first-class runs.
Next came a 36 against Punjab, followed by 5 and 98 in the win over Saurashtra. That last innings was crucial in setting up the team's first victory of the season, but it was Chopra's century in the quarter-final that was the most decisive.
His 142 in Hyderabad was an innings of great concentration that helped Rajasthan recover from a vulnerable position. From 8 for 2, and then 30 for 3, Chopra displayed his worth to the team with a 450-ball 142, forging three important partnerships in an innings he cherished as one of his best. In keeping with his fluency, a century was followed by two poor scores in the semi-final, but come the most important match and Chopra was in his element, scoring 94 in a 236-run opening partnership that set in motion Rajasthan's defense at the summit.
Matches: 9, Runs: 615, 100s: 2, 50s: 2, Average: 43.92.
It is no coincidence that Rajasthan's campaign took a dramatic upturn with the arrival of young Rituraj Singh. Handed a first-class debut for Rajasthan's sixth match, against Saurashtra in Jaipur, the 21-year-old took four wickets – three of them top-order batsmen - in what turned out to be their first win of the season. Then, in his second match, he took 6 for 75 to bowl Rajasthan to victory by an innings and 56 runs against Orissa in Jaipur, a result which significantly boosted the defending champions' chances of making the knock-outs.
Rituraj – a product of the MRF academy and who can bowl accurate medium pace while swinging the ball - did not take part in the quarter-final in Hyderabad, but drafted back into the side for the semi-final against Haryana in chilly Lahli, he produced a fantastic performance. After Rajasthan were skittled for just 89, Rituraj took 5 for 36 to reduce the hosts to 82 for 8 by stump on day one. Haryana's tail eked out an eight-run lead, but not before Rituraj added two more wickets to capture a career-best 7 for 45. Rajasthan did better in the second innings to set Haryana a target of 185, which was easily defended as Rituraj grabbed 5 for 37 to complete a 64-run win and a place in the final. In just his third match, Rituraj had match figures of 12 for 82.
In the final, after Tamil Nadu took two wickets in two days while conceding 402 runs, critics were dubbing the Chennai surface a road. Rituraj helped snub such notions with four wickets as Rajasthan were bowled out for 295 in 102. overs. His biggest scalp was that of Abhinav Mukund for 0, out lbw in the second over. Rituraj added Murali Vijay before stumps, and on the fourth day picked up the wickets of K Vasudevadas and skipper L Balaji to finish with 4 for 76.
Matches: 4, Wickets:26, 5WI:3, 10WM:1.
The leader of Rajasthan's attack had been bowling with determination but little reward for the first half of the season. He was the stand-out bowler in the first two matches against Karnataka and Mumbai, taking 3 for 108 from 35 overs out of a total of 623 for 6 and 5 for 111 from 39 overs out of 625 respectively. Then came three poor matches from which Pankaj managed just four wickets. With Rajasthan languishing in the lower rung of their pool, something was amiss.
After working extensively with former South African pace bowler Meyrck Pringle, Pankaj burst back in the home fixture against Saurashtra, a match Rajasthan needed to win to stay alive. His first five-wicket haul of the season was instrumental in bowling out Saurashtra for 265 and with it securing a first-innings lead of 131, and a couple wickets in the second boosted his confidence. Five wickets against Orissa followed, helping Rajasthan make it to the knock-outs.
A wicket in each innings against Hyderabad was followed by six in the semi-final win over Haryana, including 4 for 48 as victory was achieved inside three days. Without ever overpowering the opposition, Pankaj ran in all season and bowled his heart out.
Matches: 10, Wickets: 34, 5WI:2, 10WM: 0.
Mathur more than made up for an indifferent start – six wickets in three matches – by picking up eight wickets in the win over Saurashtra. In Chopra's view, it was a bowling performance that changed the team's fortunes and inspired Pankaj and Rituraj immeasurably. On a fourth-day surface, Mathur bowled aggressively and on a testing length to take 6 for 33, including the prized wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara. That spell put Rajasthan back in the tournament, and they were helped into the quarter-final by Mathur's five-wicket haul against Orissa.
Bist's unbeaten 127 and Yadav's 63 were significant in Rajasthan getting to an imposing score, but it was Mathur who was instrumental on the second day in Jaipur. His first spell included three wickets in five overs to leave Orissa in trouble, and he added two more to bowl them out for 134 thereby ensuring a first-innings lead.
While Rituraj and Pankaj hogged the headlines in the semi-final, Mathur quietly took two wickets in each innings before taking two in the final, including Dinesh Karthik for 150. His performance this season, as Chopra pointed out, were more about supporting and inspiring his team-mates consistently than flashy displays. His haul against Orissa truly did change the storyline for Rajasthan.
Matches: 8, Wickets: 25, 5WI:2, 10WM: 0.