“Asla (arsenal) toh hai hi” – a determined Deepak Chahar had said when asked why not too many players from Rajasthan have made it to the big stage. The remark on July 24 came following an outstanding Indian Premier League earlier this year in conversation with FinancialExpress.com. Chahar had just made his T20 international debut in England then.
Ironically, only three players from the state: Hanumant Singh, Gagan Khoda and Pankaj Singh had represented India before Chahar, playing 16 Tests and 2 ODIs between them. In last three months, however, not just Chahar but also Khaleel Ahmed, another promising fast-bowler from the state who seems to be a part of selectors’ plans for 2019 ODI World Cup has made his India debut.
With Chahar set to replace an injured Hardik Pandya, the two now find themselves as part of India’s Asia Cup 2018 squad – a reality that seemed distant to cricket lovers in Rajasthan not long ago. Not considered among the fanciest cricket playing states, Rajasthan has struggled for an identity for a long time. Despite producing some quality players like Hanumant Singh, Raj Singh Dungarpur and Kishen Rungta and acquiring the services of others like Salim Durrani, Vijay Manjrekar and Subhash Gupte in the 20th century, the state had to wait till 2011 to win its first-ever Ranji Trophy title which came under the leadership of former Assam and India batsman Hrishikesh Kanitkar with a team that had ‘professional’ players like Aakash Chopra and RR Parida.
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But, one local youngster who made his mark with that team was Deepak Chahar. Making his debut against Hyderabad in Rajasthan’s opening match of the season, a young Chahar picked up 8 wickets for just 10 runs from 7.3 overs as Hyderabad was bundled out for just 21 runs. Least did he know that after eight years, he along with a 20-year and two first-class matches old Khaleel Ahmed will become the baton holder of Rajasthan cricket – a state that has been longing to see its sons don that blue jersey.
Between 1958 to 1973, when Bombay dominated India’s domestic cricket scene, Rajputana as Rajasthan was earlier known, was easily the second-best side. With Raj Singh Dungarpur and Kishen Rungta taking command, the team finished runners-up four times in a row from 1960-61 to 1963-64, and eight times between 1960-61 and 1973-74. Yet, neither Dungarpur nor Rungta was considered good enough to represent India. Wicketkeeper-batsman Suryaveer Singh who played seven Ranji Trophy finals during his 14 seasons with Rajasthan also failed to make the cut.
However, his elder brother Hanumant Singh ended Rajasthan’s drought for an international cricketer when he made his Test debut against England at Delhi on February 8, 1964. A born prince, Hanumant batted like one too but it only helped him earn 14 India caps with the last coming against New Zealand in 1969.
And, the state had to wait for another 29 years before selectors took notice of another name from Rajasthan. In 1998, Gagan Khoda was selected to face Bangladesh and Kenya in Coca-Cola tri-series 1997/98. The opener made 26 on his debut against Bangladesh and followed it with an exciting knock of 89 against Kenya which turned out to be his – let this sink in – last international match. And, it wasn’t until 2014 that another Rajasthan player was selected in the Indian team.
In 2012, when Rajasthan had won its second consecutive Ranji Trophy title, Robin Bist had ended up as the leading run-scorer of the tournament, aggregating more than 1000 runs at an average of 86 but even that couldn’t earn him a place in the Indian side.
Chahar believes that this has to do with the fact that Rajasthan doesn’t have a godfather. “Kyunki hamare liye upar bolne wala koi nahi tha. There are many disadvantages when you play for Rajasthan – even when you perform, you don’t get recognised,” he had said in an earlier interview.
However, things seem to be changing for the state and Khaleel Ahmed is a perfect example of the same. In a state that has failed to convince that it has enough talent to take on the heat at the highest level, Khaleel who has picked up just 50 wickets in domestic cricket across all formats, was selected purely on the basis of promise. What is fascinating to see is that unlike some of the other players of the current era, the 20-year-old fast bowler hasn’t just been handed over the India cap for the sake of it but is being looked upon as a solution to the long-standing problem of lack of quality left-arm fast bowlers.
Another young speedster from the state, Kamlesh Nagarkkoti has already caught enough eyes by clocking over 150kmph in this year’s U19 World Cup, Mahipal Lomror has been a part of the IPL setup for the last couple of years while Rahul Chahar witnessed a bidding war among IPL biggies, eventually going to Mumbai Indians for Rs 2 crore.
This shows that the state certainly has the arsenal and finally, it is getting recognised too. With two Rajasthan boys now a part of the Indian team, the future of cricket looks exciting for the state.