Rajasthan Royals proving to be the ideal finishing school

The Indian Premier League franchise has given talented players, such as Ravindra Jadeja and Ajinkya Rahane, the stage to become stars, writes Shashank Kishore.

Rajasthan Royals may not have many huge stars, but they are a close-knit side. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Almost every year, Rajasthan Royals go into the Indian Premier League with the ‘underdogs’ tag. They have not gone out of their way to ask for it, but have walked with it proudly nonetheless.

As a result, irrespective of how they have fared, they have always managed to gladden the hearts of people and won a lot of accolades for their policy of giving young cricketers, who may have struggled elsewhere, an opportunity to express themselves. And almost as a direct sign of acknowledgment, the players have welcomed the responsibility and not been overawed by the big stage.

Seven years is good time, in fact a long time in sport, and a good sample size to consider. In their title-winning run in the inaugural edition in 2008, Rajasthan unearthed Swapnil Asnodkar, Yusuf Pathan and Ravindra Jadeja.

Yusuf and Jadeja had come along different paths. Of course, Yusuf was a part of the World Twenty20 winning side in 2007, but his habit of scoring big runs for Baroda and the manner in which he did so, got people to sit up and take notice.

Meanwhile, Jadeja was signed on after India’s Under 19 World Cup triumph in Malaysia a month prior to the inaugural edition. He soon found himself in a cauldron where the world’s best ply their trade. Whether a wiry young man from Saurashtra, who was not yet sure if he was a batting or bowling all-rounder, had it in him to go all the way was foremost on everyone’s minds. There was no instant recognition and even the ‘Sir Jadeja’ salutations were a few years away. He was persisted with, nurtured, given the confidence to face the world and today, he is one of the best left-arm spinners in limited-overs cricket.

“When I came in to the Rajasthan Royals dressing room for the first time, I was completely star struck,” Jadeja said. “I was thinking how I would communicate with Shane Warne. Obviously he was a legend, I was a small-town boy straight out of the Under 19s. While I could understand what he was telling me, I couldn’t express myself clearly. But it did not matter.

“He was a very positive person and I was lucky to have his influence early on in my career. I’m definitely what I am today because of the time spent there. When I then got selected for Indian team and didn’t have a successful run early in my career, I saw the same captaincy traits in MS Dhoni. No matter what the world thinks, you knew these guys were there for you.”

The following year, Kamran Khan, an unknown left-arm seamer from Uttar Pradesh who moved to Mumbai to play cricket, caught the fancy of the team. A slinging action and ability to bowl at a good pace earned him a contract. It was then that the talk of Rajasthan backing and nurturing players with potential started to surface. To their credit, it is a tradition that has not been lost in the multi-million dollar advertising industry, where companies associate with teams purely on the basis of involving ‘star players’ to endorse their brand.

In 2011, much before Ajinkya Rahane broke in to the Indian team, he was opening the batting with Rahul Dravid, and two years later, Sanju Samson and Pravin Tambe came as a whiff of fresh air. The only difference being the two had an age gap of over 20 years. Did it matter? No.

Samson, an 18 year old from Kerala who aspires to be an Indian Administrative Services officer one day, had spent time with Kolkata Knight Riders without getting a game, while Tambe was taking wickets for his club in Mumbai after pleading for permission from his employers to take leave. It is a job he eventually quit to play cricket. Their common bond was their passion for the game and if not for the Royals, it could have been very likely that such stories could have escaped us all.

The very fact that they are recognised today as proven performers can be put down to the confidence instilled in them.

The Rajasthan engine room is a close-knit one. Dravid and Paddy Upton complement each other superbly. Their camaraderie has rubbed off on to the team. Whether at a training session, team outing or even while walking out onto the field, there is a strong sense of belonging in each and every member of the squad – young or old.

Every member of the side has his role defined before a game. Not many would have expected Karun Nair to make the starting XI so early, let alone win a match single-handedly. But Karun, a soft-spoken 23 year old who is coming off a victorious debut season with Karnataka, put twin failures behind him to guide the team home against Delhi Daredevils with a calm unbeaten 73 on Saturday.

“That is what the Royals are about, each of us is given a role and our goals are underlined clearly,” Karun said. “And we’re backed. Even after not getting runs in the first two games, I still had the belief and confidence to go out there and express myself. They believe in my ability and I can’t ask for more. The support staff and captain have encouraged each and every player in the squad and it is a wonderful dressing room to be a part of.”

And it is easy to take Karun’s words at face value, for the team is indeed a close-knit one. Maybe the unfortunate events of last year, with three of the players under the spot-fixing scanner, brought them even closer. And the team spirit is visible in every aspect of their game.

In Saturday’s game against Delhi Daredevils, there was an instance where Tambe dived to stop the ball and fired a rocket throw to the bowler’s end. After the over, all members of the team went up to him and slapped a high five. Tambe giggled and walked away quietly. As he went back to the ropes, the giant screen flashes a congratulatory message as the crowd went up in applause. Tambe gently raised his hand up, almost out of compulsion. The cameras captured all members having a hearty laugh after watching that on the giant screen.

Later, when he was called on to bowl, he was hit for a crunching cover drive and a fierce cut. The batsmen had made their intentions clear. During the strategic time-out, he was involved in an animated discussion with Dravid. No amount of lip reading would have given away what was being discussed, but the Tambe who came out after the break clearly looked like he had a different mindset.

His took two wickets, adding the scalp of Kevin Pietersen in a kitty that already boasts big victims like Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Jacques Kallis. His strikes decelerated Delhi’s innings and helped restrict them, eventually letting Rajasthan canter home.

In a tournament that moves at a furious pace, it is moments like these that stand out. At times when you struggle to remember when two sides last met or who top-scored in any given match, Rajasthan have given plenty of such moments.


Shashank Kishore is a sub-editor at Wisden India. Visit www.wisdenindia.com or follow them on Twitter @WisdenIndia.

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