Jammu and Kashmir are currently sitting at top of the table in Ranji Trophy Elite Group C. They beat rose to the top with a 329-run win over Tripura.
Jammu & Kashmir is not quite used to the feeling of being table-toppers in first-class cricket (they currently sit four points clear in Elite Group C of the ongoing Ranji Trophy season), so it is rather understandable that coach Milap Mewada allowed his players to prolong their celebrations on Thursday evening.
During the day, J&K had crushed Tripura by 329 runs in Agartala to register their sixth outright win in eight games of this Ranji season, which all but put Parvez Rasool’s side in the quarterfinals with a round of cricket to spare.
The last-eight is a stage that J&K hadn’t reached since the 2013-14 season. And, hence, the turnaround for the team has been a remarkable one, also given that they had only a solitary victory to show in the last couple of seasons. While the comeback may seem miraculous, those in charge of the team will tell you that the 39 points they currently command has been no fluke.
“This just shows that all J&K cricket needed was a proper system, facilities, some professionalism and guidance. We got all that in the last two years after having had nothing for 50 years. And the result is for all to see,” says Rasool, speaking from Agartala.
This system that Rasool speaks of was first put in place a couple of years ago, once former India cricketer Irfan Pathan, now a player-mentor with J&K, and Mewada took over the responsibility of scouting for talent.
“In my role as player and mentor, I also participated in the selection committee meetings. What I found was that the Jammu selectors were only taking about Jammu players and Kashmir selectors were talking only about Kashmir players,” says Pathan. “We had to change the perspective of the selectors and the players. For us, it was no longer ‘Jammu & Kashmir’. For us, it was ‘Jammu-Kashmir’— as one.”
“We must have attended to almost 800-900 boys from all the districts,” says Mewada. “We identified them, promoted the talented ones to their respective age groups, and even fast-tracked some into the state team.”
In the team that took the field against Tripura, eight out of the 11 were aged below 25 years. The team’s top-scorer this season, with 529 runs in eight matches (including two hundreds and three fifties), is Abdul Samad, an 18-year-old from Kala Kot, who is playing his maiden first-class season.
“Earlier, only players from Jammu and Srinagar would get into the team. That is not the case since the last two years. Any boy who is in the team now is on merit. The mantra is: perform and play,” says Rasool.
Once the talented kids were fast-tracked into the first-class team, the players from Jammu and Kashmir were made to feel equal. Pathan explains how he managed to pull that off. “Unity exercises. That’s what we called it,” says Pathan. “In the team bonding sessions, among other things, two Jammu players and two Kashmir boys were made to have dinner together.”
Investing in youngsters is one thing; getting them up to the task is quite another. That’s where there was a change too. Before the start of the domestic season, a pre-season camp was organised in Srinagar, which had to be cancelled soon after it began due to the abrogation of Article 370 in the Valley. But Pathan wasn’t one to give up.
“When there was a curfew in the state before the start of the season, I told (Rtd) Justice CS Prasad (member of CoA) and Ashiq Bukhari (CEO of JKCA) that we needed to have a preparatory camp outside the state and they readily agreed,” says Pathan, who saw to it that the camp was held in his home town of Vadodara.
The various members of J&K’s think-tank all have their own key reason for the side’s newfound winning mentality. Captain Rasool believes it was their pre-season focus on skills beyond batting and bowling. “Our focus during these camps was on fitness and fielding, which wasn’t given importance before,” he says.
Mewada, on the other hand, believes the instinct to win was honed with a simple questionnaire. “Last year, I prepared a list of 15-20 questions for the players. One question was: ‘Since how many years has the team been playing Ranji Trophy, and how many times have we won it?’ All the players wrote—45 times, zero victories. That is when it started pinching them, that we need to start winning,” he says.
The change in collective mindset was evident right from the start of the domestic season, beginning with the T20 competition — the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy. There, J&K won four matches on the trot. “All the things that we were working on over the last two years were starting to produce results,” says Rasool. “We took that momentum into this Ranji Trophy.”
Pathan won’t say it, but his presence in the set-up has made a massive difference as well. First as a player-mentor, then just as a mentor (having announced his retirement from cricket), who went out of his way to bring the team to Vadodara and then helped them adjust into the new surroundings. The captain has nothing but praise for the former India all-rounder.
“When an international player sits and talks to boys from Jammu & Kashmir, they feel inspired,” says Rasool, who too has played international cricket in the form of one ODI and one T20I. “He (Pathan) played under me last season, but even I learnt so much from him with his international exposure and experience. So imagine the impact it has had on the youngsters.”
Coach Mewada echoes Rasool’s sentiments. “When process-oriented people like Irfan take charge of a team, the team is set on the right path. That is what is happening with cricket in Jammu & Kashmir,” says the coach. “But we are still a developing team, and we are hoping to do much bigger things in the future.” And, possibly, in this Ranji Trophy itself.