In early August last year, with the Jammu & Kashmir cricket team’s pre-season camp gathering momentum, Irfan Pathan, the team mentor, had to leave because a political upheaval was on the cards. On August 5, 2019, the Government of India revoked Article 370 and curfew had been imposed in the valley. Cricket became absolutely peripheral and nobody outside the J&K team and its cricket administration were concerned about a pre-season going disarray.
Six months down the line, J&K are in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals, braving the odds and showing consistency that saw them win six matches outright in Elite, Group C. They lost their final group league fixture against Haryana by two wickets on Saturday, but the team had already secured a place in the knockouts — after six seasons — with 39 points. J&K will play against Karnataka in the quarterfinals.
It has been a fascinating tale, given the political uncertainty back home. The players showed character, but it wasn’t easy. “When (it happened), we couldn’t communicate with the boys. For 25 days, we didn’t have any practice. I was there for two weeks and then I had to leave. And when the squad assembled again, their (players) mindset wasn’t up to the mark, their body wasn’t up to the mark and I knew that I needed to get them a little bit of time to prepare,” Pathan told The Sunday Express.
It was his decision to take the team to Baroda for a camp, where the focus was on having one-on-one sessions with the players. “What I, and also coach Milap (Mewada), told them during those sessions will always remain between us, but it was important to have those sessions in terms of mental preparation. I always believe that the majority of cricket is played mentally. If you are mentally OK, your feet will move. So many things were happening in the media and our job was to help the players focus on doing the right thing, playing good cricket. Credit to the boys that they played very good cricket and I’m proud of them,” Pathan said.
J&K’s upsurge, however, hasn’t happened overnight. A process that started a couple of seasons ago, when Pathan took charge, is gradually coming to fruition. The team mentor spoke about putting emphasis on changing the team culture.
“The biggest challenge was that we needed to play as a unit. In a region like J&K that has so many districts (22), and the diversity and history, we needed to have the right balance of making the team come together. That was our aim. That was my focus, captain Parvez Rasool’s focus and the entire team’s focus. This team has no senior, junior. Everybody is equal. In the past, some of the players had played 40 games with the average of 20, some of the players had played 50 games with the average of 18 as a batsman. You can’t play cricket like that.
“We backed the players who are going to give everything to the team even if they are not performing. In the last two years, some of the guys got dropped from the XI for playing selfish cricket and we told them, ‘if you play selfish cricket you would be dropped, doesn’t matter if you score a half-century’. If a bowler was needed to bowl away from the stumps as per the match situation, he got the backing even if he didn’t pick wickets. It was important to make them understand that it’s a team game.”
Captain Parvez Rasool talks about the positive changes that took place recently.
“The last two years, cricket was taken to all the districts. Also earlier, the whole set-up used to be unprofessional. Players used to assemble just 10-15 days before the start of the tournament and we were always under-prepared, going into competitive matches. This has changed over the past two years. We have had proper camps and right facilities now. Also, Irfan Pathan came and brought in his international experience,” Rasool told this paper.
Rasool ended the group stage with 403 runs and 25 wickets. “I’m trying my best to get back to the Indian team. Am working hard on improving my game.”
Against Karnataka, J&K would be the underdogs. “We are going to play one of the strongest teams in domestic cricket. But if we can play good cricket for the entire duration of the game, I think we can beat any side. The boys now have belief,” Pathan said.
Rasool is aiming even higher. “We will give a very tough fight to Karnataka. And definitely, if we can beat Karnataka, we can go the distance.”
Brief Scores: J&K 340 and 174 lost to Haryana 291 and 224/8 (R.P Sharma 75 not out) by two wickets.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines