Hilly Himachal climbing up domestic cricket peaks

Published on Nov 07, 2022 08:02 PM IST

Once the outliers, HP are national 50-over champions and finished Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 runners-up at the weekend, making improving facilities count

Himachal Pradesh team(Twitter/@BCCIDomestic) PREMIUM
Himachal Pradesh team(Twitter/@BCCIDomestic)
By, New Delhi

If not for Mumbai’s pedigree and adept handling of pressure at the Eden Gardens on Saturday evening, the Himachal Pradesh players would have laid their hands on a second white-ball trophy within 12 months. Chasing 144, Mumbai eked out a three-wicket victory to win their first Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 title.

Though it ended Himachal’s unblemished run in the competition, there’s plenty to savour for a team that was essentially making up the numbers not too long ago. That changed in December 2021 when they won the Vijay Hazare Trophy national 50-over competition by upsetting Tamil Nadu in the final. It was their maiden title at the senior level. The runners-up finish in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy is another feather in the cap for Himachal.

So, for a hilly state primarily known as a tourist attraction and never really taken seriously in cricket at the national level, what has sparked the sudden upturn?

“All the players are now experienced. Almost all of us have played 30-40 matches. It is about experience in white-ball cricket. The more you are experienced, the better your game will be because you know how to handle and react to different situations,” Himachal skipper Rishi Dhawan said.

The 32-year-old all-rounder is the most experienced of the lot. With 114 T20, 112 List A and 81 first-class games under his belt, Dhawan--he has gone through the rigours of domestic cricket for 15 years--is ensuring that he sets the standard. In their march to the Vijay Hazare title last year, he scored 458 runs at an average of 76.33 and a strike rate of 127.22.

He also took 17 wickets in eight matches, finishing second on the run-scoring as well as wicket-taking charts. In Mushtaq Ali too, he was Himachal’s leading wicket-taker with 13 scalps in seven matches.

Dhawan’s performances are inspiring the youngsters. All-rounder Akash Vasisht has played only a handful of matches, but stepped up brilliantly in the quarter-final victory over Bengal. Chasing 200, Himachal seemed out of the contest at 71/4. The 27-year-old left-hander hit an unbeaten 76 off 42 balls to steer the side to victory.

“The players don’t panic, whatever the situation,” Dhawan said. The Vijay Hazare triumph has fuelled self-belief. “You definitely acquire confidence when you win a tournament. The atmosphere in the team is very good.”

One of the biggest factors for Himachal’s improvement, according to Dhawan, is the scaling up of infrastructure in the region.

Before the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium in Dharamsala–a picturesque international cricket venue since 2013--was established in 2003, domestic matches were held at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Una.

“When I started, there wasn’t much (infrastructure). We have the stadium in Dharamsala now. Himachal also has at least six to seven venues where domestic matches can be held easily,” he said.

The Himachal skipper credited administrators Anurag Thakur and his brother Arun Dhumal for the transformation. Former BCCI president Thakur, now the union sports minister, was HPCA president for four straight terms (2000-2017).

“In the last 4-5 years, HPCA has also opened academies in small districts. More than 100 academies have been opened where young talent is spotted and trained,” Dhawan said. “Because of the facilities, our players are able to perform at the top level and have the confidence that they can compete against every team.”

There’s also a Centre of Excellence in Dharamsala, set up by the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) when Thakur was BCCI secretary in 2015.

“It all started when Anurag ji took over the reins in 2000,” said Dhumal, currently IPL chairman. “We have plans to have around 70-75 sub-centres catering to the talent in rural areas. Currently, we have around 50 sub-centres. We are providing training facilities and a coach at these centres so that young talent from rural areas can also emerge.”

Improving the facilities is rendered difficult due to Himachal’s topography.

“Since Himachal is a hilly state, it takes a lot of effort to build grounds. There is a ceiling on land holdings. Most of the areas are covered by forests. It is very tedious, to initially identify the land and then create the infrastructure by fulfilling all the formalities,” Dhumal said.

Now that the infrastructure is in place, Himachal coach Rajiv Kumar—he took charge in 2022/23 season--is confident their white-ball improvement will translate to first-class cricket.

“If your cricket is improving, the format doesn’t matter. It’s just the mindset. The players are ready to take 20 wickets in a match and score runs. They have to do what they do over 20 or 50 overs for four days. That clarity needs to be given to them. They are good enough to do well in Ranji Trophy also,” Kumar added.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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