Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s biopic M.S.Dhoni: The Untold Story, which released earlier this year, shows a young Yuvraj Singh’s triple hundred for Punjab annihilating Bihar (Jharkhand was not a separate state then) in the final of the Cooch Behar Trophy in 1999-2000, a premier Under-19 domestic tournament .
In the film, Sushant Singh Rajput, playing Dhoni, explains to his friends that his team lost the match not on the field, but a day earlier on the basketball court, when everyone from his side was overawed by Yuvraj Singh’s swagger and confidence as he walked past them.
This underlines the diffident attitude of lesser teams on the domestic circuit. That was Dhoni and his state team in the early 1990s too. A lot has changed since then—Dhoni’s legend has been built around narratives from the Indian team of how he remained unaffected by the star power of his teammates, some of them among the greatest names in Indian cricket.
Perhaps it was only natural that sooner or later Dhoni’s characteristic confidence would be seen in his state team too. Regardless of the result of the Ranji Trophy final, it is undeniable that Jharkhand’s ascent (it’s the first time they have made it to the semi-final, defeating Haryana on Monday) is the story of the season.
Events over the last decade have played their part in making Jharkhand a competitive team from the East Zone. Former India spinner Maninder Singh recalls being invited by Amitabh Choudhary, the Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) president, for a camp for budding spinners in Dhanbad in 2010. He was impressed by two off-spinners, Sunny Gupta and Atul Anand, but found Samar Quadri, the leg-spinner, the most talented. “They are not star performers, but it told me that Jharkhand was not short of talent,” he says.
In the 2012-13 season, former Delhi and Rajasthan coach Tarak Sinha became director of the JSCA, and had the added responsibility of chief coach at the start of the season. Under Sinha’s tutelage, Jharkhand, languishing in the plate division, successfully entered the knockout stage for the first time in Ranji Trophy.
“When I was with Jharkhand, Dhoni had almost no involvement with his state side due to his hectic schedule,” says Sinha. “His stories were a regular feature of the dressing room but to make an impact, his presence was needed, which has now started to happen since his Test retirement.”
Subroto Banerjee, a former Bihar player who took over from Sinha as head coach in 2014, believes that during the off-season, playing in the Karnataka League organized by the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA), other leagues and Buchi Babu Memorial All-India Invitational Cricket Tournaments has also helped Jharkhand players enormously in terms of exposure.
It has also helped that current coach Rajiv Kumar, who took over from Banerjee after one season, graduated from the responsibility of the Under-19 team to the state team. “Rajiv is a committed man and we have known each other for years. Even though I am formally not part of the set-up, he never hesitates in taking suggestions from us if he feels that’s going to help the team,” says Banerjee.
In 2015-16, Jharkhand made it to the quarter-finals in all three formats (four-day, 50 overs and Twenty20) in domestic cricket. Dhoni himself played for his state after eight years, in the 2015-16 Vijay Hazare Trophy.
“More than anything else, Dhoni bhaiya’s stress on the importance of fitness was the most influencing aspect of our interactions with him,” says Ishan Kishan, who incidentally is being seen as the next big hope from Jharkhand.
The India Under-19 captain during the 2016 World Cup in Bangladesh, Kishan played an innings of 273 against Delhi in the Ranji Trophy last month—the highest in Jharkhand’s first-class history. Like Dhoni, he too loves to hit sixes and has so far hit 32 sixes (Delhi’s Rishabh Pant has more, with 49).
“He spoke about simple things, like to score big hundreds one has to be supremely fit; to bowl longer spells on unresponsive wickets, fitness is your friend,” remembers Kishan.
As Dhoni’s stature in international cricket grew, his hometown Ranchi started basking in its prodigal son’s limelight. Its emergence as the state’s cricket capital was also a significant factor. For a long time, Jamshedpur’s Keenan stadium was synonymous with Jharkhand cricket but in January 2013, Ranchi hosted its first One Day International at a newly-built stadium just a few days after Jharkhand’s maiden Ranji Trophy quarter-final appearance.
Since then, it has hosted many IPL and Champions League matches. Hosting a Test match against Australia in March will be another milestone. “We are frequently getting exposure from watching international players’ net practice and fitness methods closely when they come here (Ranchi),” says Kishan.
The overall structure of inter-district matches has also changed for the better. A decade ago, there used to be a limited number of matches in a season, but now there are almost 50 tournaments for different age groups that have helped in harnessing talent.
One of Maninder Singh’s suggestions, which was implemented, was on infrastructure, and organizing more matches of the longer version so that batsmen could get used to playing longer innings, so necessary in a four-day Ranji match.
Almost half of the team’s total wins in the Ranji Trophy (10 out of 22 including the quarter-final win over Haryana) have come since October 2015; they have won an unprecedented six matches in this season alone—they had never won more than three in one season.
Apart from topping Group B with 39 points (pushing formidable Karnataka to second place), this is Jharkhand’s second consecutive appearance in the knockout stages and their third in the last five seasons. Jharkhand also topped Group D of the 2016-17 Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy.
If Jharkhand’s batting has revolved around Ishank Jaggi (over 750 runs), Ishan Kishan (over 700 runs) and Saurabh Tiwary (over 500 runs), its bowling has been led by the spin-pace duo of Shahbaz Nadeem (50 wickets) and Ashish Kumar (over 30 wickets).
Remarkably, this team is neither dependent on Dhoni (who has retired from first-class cricket) nor captain Varun Aaron (another India player), who has missed more matches than he has played due to injury.
“They have come a long way since I saw them as a bunch of players who wanted to be seen as individuals,” says Sinha. “The IPL players would come for net sessions wearing franchise kits, showing off to others.”
Sinha had introduced Jharkhand caps and uniform team tracksuits. His philosophy—valuing the state cap will eventually result in getting the India cap—seems to be working.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.