Seasons in the sun
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Last season, Karnataka wicketkeeper CM Gautam averaged just 23.70, a big drop from 44 over his first three seasons. But Gautam knew where he had been going wrong – he had been LBW seven times. "My head was falling over, and my front foot was going too far across," Gautam says. "Before this season, I worked hard on staying still."
Gautam started 2012-13 scoring 21 as Karnataka failed to grab the lead against Baroda. They seemed destined for the same fate in their next game when Gautam walked in. Tamil Nadu had made 538; Karnataka were 289/5. Gautam scored an unbeaten 130; Karnataka took the lead.
With a number of his teammates out of form, Gautam was soon promoted to number four. "At 100 for five, I had to attack right up," he says. "I enjoyed that, but now I had time to play myself in."
The move paid off spectacularly. Gautam made 257 against Vidarbha, and 264* against Maharashtra, lifting his side into the knock-outs.
Bigger things might be around the corner, but Gautam won't change the mantra that brought him his recent success: "I had no targets. It was just 'put a price tag on your wicket, and enjoy.'"
Patience pays off for three-ton talent
In his first three seasons, Rishi Dhawan had built up a solid all-round resume as an all-rounder, averaging 34 with the bat and 25 with the ball. But playing in the Plate division (now Group C), Dhawan knew he needed an extraordinary season to make the step up. And he achieved this, with 497 Ranji runs at an average of 71.00, including three centuries, and 36 wickets at 26.38, to force his way into the India A squad.
Dhawan hadn't scored a first class century before this season, even though he once made a triple hundred in his U-19 days.
"I was an opener my junior days but since Himachal's batting line-up is so deep, I've only got opportunities lower down. This year, our top order failed a few times and I had to shoulder more responsibility," says Dhawan. "In the nets, I would constantly tell myself that I shouldn't throw my wicket with silly shots."
With the limited-overs season around the corner, Dhawan can revert to his natural slam-bang style with the bat. But he is looking to add a new dimension to his bowling. "With the white ball, you need a different approach," he says. "I'm working hard on my slower ball and yorker." —Siddhartha Sharma
'After U-19 setback, I knew I had to go and perform'
Last August, while Unmukt Chand and Co. celebrated winning the U-19 World Cup, Ankit Bawne sat at home, despondent but determined to prove a point.
Bawne had been stripped of the India U-19 captaincy due to age-related discrepancies. "It played on my mind but I knew I had to go and perform and show the world I was good enough," he says.
And he did. In a desolate season for Maharashtra, who finished bottom of Group B, Bawne was one of the sole bright sparks. He scored one century and six fifties, often making runs in pressure situations. Against Delhi, his twin fifties on a lively Roshanara strip helped Maharashtra to good positions, but the 20-year-old ran out of support as his team crashed to another outright defeat.
The three-figure knock came in his final innings of the season, an unbeaten 155 against Karnataka that almost averted certain defeat. Facing a 477-run deficit, Bawne put on a century stand with Harshad Khadiwale before battling with the tail to gain an 88-run lead.
Bawne says that long pre-season nets in Aurangabad held him in good stead. "I would bat for two hours without any forcing shots," he says. "I didn't allow my mind to wander and it seems to have worked a little."
— Chinmay Brahme
'Worked on my basics, making the batsman play'
Last season, Mohit Sharma sat out most of Haryana's campaign with Joginder Sharma and Harshal Patel shouldering their pace attack. Mohit only played three matches, and took seven wickets. In the Vijay Hazare one-dayers, he only took four wickets in five matches.
But this year, Joginder met with an accident and missed the first five Ranji games. The 24-year-old Mohit spearheaded Haryana's attack and took 37 wickets in eight games. To his natural gift of pace, Mohit allied a greater sense of discipline.
"Last season, I thought I simply had to run in and bowl fast while seniors like Jogi bhaiyya bowled line and length. But I wasn't satisfied with my performance, and realised I was experimenting too much," says Mohit. "Before this season, I worked hard with my coach Vijay Yadav on the basics and making the batsman play."
A pre-season camp held at Jim Corbett heightened Mohit's bowling fitness. "I never felt fatigued all season, despite bowling long spells," he says. Mohit's performance earned him an India A call-up. "I didn't play against England, but learned a lot on the bench," says Mohit. "Especially the line the English bowlers bowled."
Rookie skipper stands tall amidst Hyderabad ruins
Like a few before him, 21-year-old Akshath Reddy, 15 games and two seasons into his first class career, had captaincy thrust on him. Under coach Sunil Joshi, Hyderabad had plumped for youth and Akshath suddenly found himself at the helm of an inexperienced side with as many as three debutants.
The spectacular turnaround remained elusive as Hyderabad were eventually relegated, but Akshath's form remained a constant — he made 690 runs at 57.5 to top their run charts.
"There were several close games that didn't go our way. We could easily have got more against Bengal, Railways and Rajasthan but this is a young side and the experience will surely help us," says Akshath. "I do not know if captaincy affected my batting, but I know that I have to convert my starts better."
Akshath had five 50s to go with his lone hundred, a departure from his usual numbers. In the two previous seasons, he had four hundreds from seven 50-plus scores. Though he doesn't draw the parallel, it is there to see. In the one game this season that the former India under-19 player did get stuck in, he made 196 to help Hyderabad pull off the first-innings lead against Ranji giants Mumbai, in his first match in charge. — Raakesh Natraj
Life after life ban: MP find new pace hero
At 17, Ishwar Pandey walked into a ground in Rewa for a selection trial. He fancied himself as a batsman, but was selected for his bowling, courtesy coach Aril Anthoni, who was impressed with his physique and pace. Anthoni signed him up for Rewa's Vindhya Academy.
But his father, a retired Army man, wanted him to focus on studies. Anthoni convinced him to let his son play, and his displays in an inter-district tournament gained him a place in MP's U-19 squad. In 2009-10, he took 24 wickets for the U-22 side, gaining Ranji selection.
Pandey took 31 wickets in his his first two seasons, but raised his game after becoming the leader of MP's attack, following TP Sudhindra's life ban. The fast man topped the wicket charts with 48 scalps, leading to call-ups from India A and Pune Warriors.
Despite the wickets, Pandey rues one moment with the bat. At number 11, he had struck three sixes in scoring 24 in a tight chase against Mumbai. Attempting another, he holed out. MP fell short by 7 runs. Even a draw might have kept them in contention for the knockouts.
"Had we qualified, things could have been even better," Pandey says. "I wish I had connected better with that one shot."
— Devendra Pandey
After patchy start, Air Force man takes flight
Fast bowler Suraj Yadav was one of the lynchpins behind Services' run to their first Ranji semifinal in 44 years. Yadav finished third on the leading wicket-takers' list. If you had paid attention to his early career, you wouldn't have been surprised.
In his first two seasons, the Air Force man had taken 23 and 18 wickets and was even picked for the North Zone Duleep Trophy squad. The 2012-13 campaign, in fact, didn't begin all that well, with a three-wicket haul against Andhra followed by solitary wickets against HP and Tripura.
"I was getting swing but I wasn't able to control it," he says. "When I bowled inswing, the ball would slip down the leg side. I was also having problems with my run-up."
But after a four-for against Kerala, the wickets kept coming.
Of all his performances, Yadav rates his seven-wicket haul against UP in the quarters as the most important. "The only reason people are noticing me is because I performed against UP and we won," he says. "As long as I took wickets against the Plate or Group C teams, it didn't count as much. Next season, we will play against the top teams so I'm really looking forward to the challenge."
Quiet lad makes a big noise
As Jiwanjot Singh prepared to make his first class debut, Punjab's Ranji Trophy season opener against Hyderabad, national selector Vikram Rathour came to him with a word of advice.
"Here, you will get better pitches but you won't be getting too many loose balls," Rathore told Jiwanjot, who would turn 22 the day after the match. "You have to bide your time."
Jiwanjot did exactly that, and scored 213, staying at the crease for 117.3 overs to set up an innings win for Punjab. And throughout the season, which saw Punjab reach the semifinal stage after eight years, Jiwanjot carried on in the same vein, scoring four more centuries to finish with 995 runs at an average of 66.33. Ahead of the final, he is the top run-getter in the tournament. And he has done this without hitting a single six.
"After a long time here's a player who plays like a copybook opening batsman and hates to lose his wicket," says Punjab coach Arun Sharma. "This is the most impressive thing about him."
Jiwanjot learned this lesson fairly early on, at an academy in Patiala run by former Punjab cricketer Mahesh Inder Singh.
"My dad played inter-university cricket and he wanted me to play the game. My coach taught me the basics and also prepared me for the grind. I learnt to value my wicket, which is something I will never forget," Jiwanjot says.
With both his parents working for the Punjab government – father Kamaljeet Singh in the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) and mother Paramjeet Kaur in the state sports department – Jiwanjot and his brother Jaskaran never had to face any financial hardships growing up.
"They were lucky in that way. They got whatever they wanted. But they never had lofty demands," says Kamaljeet. "Jiwanjot decided to become a cricketer but he's always kept an eye on his studies. He has completed his BA from Mahindra College, and is now pursuing a post graduate diploma in computer applications. Jaskaran, four years younger, always wanted to pursue an academic career and is doing his B. Tech."
Jiwanjot, according to his father, never got into trouble as a child. "His childhood was completely incident-free. At times we found that a bit unusual. He has always been very quiet, in fact a bit aloof," says Kamaljeet.
Coach Sharma concurs. "He is the quietest boy in the dressing room," he says. "He is a very good listener but barely does he utter a word."
Right through his career, Jiwanjot's bat has done all the talking. Within two years of joining the academy, Jiwanjot was in the Punjab U-15 squad. That was 2003. Progression through the age-group levels was smooth and marked by consistent run-scoring. During last year's CK Nayudu U-22 tournament, he scored 570 runs in six matches, including three centuries. He carried this form into the Katwa Shield – a district-level tournament which is watched by the state selectors.
"I was hopeful about my Ranji selection. I never put myself under pressure though. I would have played U-25 if I were not picked for the Ranji team," Jiwanjot says.
Now, only one season into his first class career, bigger things already loom over the horizon. Making the national team would be a dream come true for Jiwanjot, especially if he can get into the side before his idol Sachin Tendulkar retires. Punjab captain Harbhajan Singh wills on Jiwanjot. "It will be good if gets picked for the Indian team," he says. "He has been scoring runs and he is hungry for more." — Shamik Chakrabarty
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