There is something humble and remarkable about Himachal Pradesh. Besides captain Rishi Dhawan, they don’t have many big names. Vaibhav Arora, Ankush Bains and Prashant Chopra had experienced IPL, with few or no games to their name. Mayank Dagar's name, if searched on google, will bring up his uncle Virender Sehwag's name in the Related section.
The bigger sides such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Saurashtra and Delhi had star names on their rosters and registered eye-catching wins in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (SMAT) 2022, but ultimately fell. Meanwhile, Himachal went about their business without much fuss and are the only undefeated side in the entire tournament, reaching their second major final in two years.
It is easy to discount Himachal’s undefeated run into the final because of their two abandoned group matches against Gujarat and Andhra. On the contrary, it made their next four games must-win to qualify for the quarterfinals. Adding to that, none of their players are among the top-10 run-scorers or wicket-takers in the competition. Yet, they beat a powerful Saurashtra side in the group stage and came out winners against equally-good Bengal and Punjab in the knock-outs.
Big things seemed inevitable for the hilly state side, when they beat a full-strength Tamil Nadu side in the Vijay Hazare Trophy final last December. Chasing a readjusted 299 from 47.3 overs, they fought their way from 96/3 against the likes of R. Sai Kishore, Washington Sundar and Vijay Shankar.
Aiming for the highest level has been captain Rishi Dhawan's advise to his players and it has become the team's motto for a few years now.
“He’s always asking us to look to play for the national team rather than just stay at the first-class level. He’s motivating us to look at the bigger picture. And that’s important because I personally feel that if you’re just looking to survive at the first-class level, you’ll disappear from here also. And if you’re looking to play for India, only then are you going to maintain a standard,” batter Ankit Kalsi, told Sportstar in December last year.
Dhawan’s advise to his younger teammates also comes from his own pain and determination to get back to where he was. The all-rounder earned his international call-up way back in 2016 where he played two ODIs and a T20I in the span of six months and then, nothing. He was back in the domestic circuit and his numbers dwindled. Punjab Kings (then Kings XI Punjab), for whom he played four consecutive IPL seasons from 2013-16, did not have a place for him for the next five years.
Dhawan had always believed that he belonged at the highest level and if given enough chances, can prove himself. The belief kept growing after his stint with Agrani Bank in the Dhaka Premier League, Bangladesh’s List-A tournament, where he claimed 20 wickets from 14 games, finishing among top-10 wicket-takers in the 2018-19 season.
His numbers gradually improved across formats and the 2021 Vijay Hazare Trophy would be the turning point. A total of 458 runs at an average of 76 and 17 wickets from eight matches – second in batting and bowling charts which lent heavily to the state’s first major title win. He was then rewarded with a call-up to the India A side for the one-day series against New Zealand A this year.
While winning the trophy marked a fresh page of Dhawan’s decade-long professional career, it was a prologue to Himachal’s rise to the top after remaining a footnote in India’s domestic cricket. It had taken them 19 years since their first-class promotion in 1985 to have a proper venue in Dharamsala and 17 more years to go from a team that banked on senior professionals from other states to feature a home grown side capable of winning competitions.
Unlike cricketing pastures like Mumbai, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, club cricket is non-existent in Himachal while the difficulty of traveling in the hilly state had made talent spotting difficult for Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association.
Former HPCA president Anurag Thakur and current IPL chairman Arun Dhumal, played a huge role in improving the infrastructure in the state. Over the past decade, the state saw construction of eight stadiums which solved the logistical part of finding talent while playing invitational tournaments such as the KSCA Trophy and JP Atray Trophy in other states helped the players face crunch situations more often. India team's current batting coach Vikram Rathour came up with the idea of providing world-class facilities for the state players, which led to the HPCA inaugurating it Centre of Excellence in Dharamsala in 2015.
Familiarity is another reason which Himachal players surmise as the reason for their success.
“Many members of our team are the same players who played U-19 together, including myself, Prashant Chopra, Nikhil Gangta and Akash Vasisht. About six-eight players are the same group that played the Cooch Behar Trophy; so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We trust each other and we back each other,” Ankit Kalsi told Sportstar in the chat last year.
While Kalsi has not played in SMAT 2022, Chopra, Gangta, Vasisht have been the backbone of Himachal’s batting while experienced left-arm pacer Kanwar Abhinay Singh alongside young Vaibhav Arora have formed a potent pace attack alongside captain Rishi Dhawan, who continued his sensational form with 11 wickets from six matches and 43 valuable runs in the lower order.
Each one of their players have stepped up in big games. Against Saurashtra, Dhawan claimed the wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara who was batting at 57 off 37 balls, which helped them defend 158. Vasisht and Gangta rescued them from 71/4 to winning the match while chasing 200 against Bengal in the quarterfinal. Against a star-studded Punjab in the semifinal, middle-order batter Sumeet Verma’s 51 proved to be crucial in setting a target of 177 while spin-bowling allrounder Mayank Dagar removed Shubman Gill to ensure his side stayed in the game.
"We have been playing together for the last few years. All of them have played 40-50 games. The boys know how to react in every situation. They know their roles as well," Dhawan said after the semifinal win.
In Saturday’s final, they will be up against a Mumbai side that has Prithvi Shaw, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Yashaswi Jaiswal and Sarfaraz Khan. It might be a big task, but this Himachal side has proved that it is bigger than than the sum of its parts.
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