“Bhaiyya, idhar aa jao, please.” Rishabh Pant’s sheepish voice beamed from the stump microphone, almost pleading one of his fielders to change positions. It was Day Three of the Ranji Trophy final and Vidarbha had run away with a comprehensive first-innings lead, and Delhi’s 20-year-old wicketkeeper-captain was looking around for inspiration. He would not find any. Not from his bowling unit, certainly not from his fielders. The only crumb of support came from the most experienced player in his side — Gautam Gambhir. The 36-year-old, who stepped down from captaincy after Delhi’s horrific last season, would chip in occasionally with advice. But Pant evidently looked out of depth as the leader in the summit clash. Perhaps, the enormity of the occasion weighed him down.
It’s difficult to say if his form impacted his captaincy, or vice-versa. But this much is clear: he was underwhleming with bat, too. After a breakout 2016 where he scored more than 900 runs in the Ranji Trophy, expectations had hit the roof this season. However, he would end the season on a tepid note, scoring 315 runs and registering a solitary fifty in ten innings. It was not as if he was completely out of sorts. He got starts, scoring 20s and 30s almost effortlessly, before throwing his wicket away. The final was no different. In the first innings, Pant, having made 21, needlessly wafted outside off to a Rajneesh Gurbani delivery and was caught behind. Not surprisingly, as the Delhi team management reflects on the season, Pant’s shot-selection has come under the scanner.
“He cannot keep playing like the way he’s doing now. He got away with it last year, but this time, the opposition bowlers and fielders have managed to figure him out. I think, he needs to be a bit more judicious in his shot selection,” explains Delhi coach KP Bhaskar. But Bhaskar too isn’t sure if it’s the pressure of captaincy that’s affecting Pant, who till six months ago was seen as the successor to MS Dhoni. “I am not really sure about that. We need to sit down and talk to him in the days to come,” Bhaskar adds.
Delhi’s chief selector Atul Wassan reckons inexperience is a factor with Pant. “He’s only 20 and you cannot expect to get a Mike Brearley in your first season itself,” he says.
Barring Ishant and Gambhir, Delhi did not have another senior player, and therefore had little choice but to shoehorn Pant into the hot seat. “I would love to have someone like Rajat Bhatia and Virender Sehwag in my team. But this is a young team at our disposal and we are looking to create a pool of 25-30 players,” Bhaskar adds. This was a far cry from Vidarbha, who had Faiz Fazal and the sagacious Wasim Jaffer to fall back on for the entire stretch. Unlike Gambhir, Jaffer was far more pro-active, engaging constantly with the team. This eased the burden on Fazal, and proved the difference between the two sides in the final.
Perhaps Bhaskar’s comments sum up Delhi’s season the best. “After last season’s horror run, we have done commendably to reach the final. But we were playing against a more organised team who had the hunger to win,” he says.
Indeed, while it can be suggested that Delhi missed out on a great chance to add to their 7 titles, there’s a compelling case to look at the season gone by as a glass more than half full. After all, reaching their first Ranji final in 10 years in no mean feat. Not to forget the fact that the state’s U-23 side has won the CK Nayudu Trophy beating Mumbai in Mumbai last month.
There was an inherent clarity of thought that spurred Wassan and the selection panel at the start of the Ranji season. Players had gone into their comfort zone and had taken their place in the team for granted. Delhi couldn’t afford another season where their team would not qualify to the knock-outs. The selection panel did away with lobbying, which was prevalent among different age groups.
“In the past, you would have a system of lobbying by the Sports Committee and there would be too much interference in team selections across age groups. This created a culture of favoritism. Teams were rarely picked on merit. We changed all that. If anyone is good enough, we go by our gut feel and give them the chance to play,” Wassan says.
They were vindicated by some of the out-of-the box picks this time around. Players like left-arm pacer Kulwant Khejroliya, wicket-keeper Anuj Rawat, left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra and opening batsman Kunal Chandela were selected, and played their parts in Delhi’s run to the final.
“Some of the players such as Kulwant and Kunal were inspired picks. Kulwant had no experience of playing four-day cricket. We saw him during the trials last year and were impressed. So, we let him travel with the team, and used him only in the limited overs leg during last season. He made his first-class debut this season, but has a long way to go. We picked Vikas after he spent four seasons in the wilderness. Kunal, who was in stunning form in the Vizzy Trophy, came in to replace an out-of-form Unmukt, and got runs for us,” Wassan explains further.
Seamer Navdeep Saini’s performance, however, was the biggest takeaway for Delhi. “Navdeep has been our stand-out performer. The way he has led our attack in the absence of Ishant shows his growth as a bowler. He has improved his pace and also worked on his fitness levels. He has repaid the faith we had shown in him over the last three seasons.”
The selectors also ensured there was more synergy between age-group teams and the first-class side. For instance, Himmat Singh, was inducted into the senior team this season, based on his performances at the junior age groups last year. After playing a game, he would return to the U-23 level and scored a match-winning 148 against Andhra. This paved the way for Delhi’s U-23 triumph. Similarly, Rawat was jettisoned from the U-19 squad early in the season. Despite the issues that came to the fore in the final against Vidarbha, Wassan and his team would be mighty proud of the achievements of their senior and the U-23 squad. The abundance of talent in Delhi bodes well for the future. A second finish in the Ranji Trophy is a good start.