Uttar Pradesh have won the Ranji Trophy only once – in the 2005-06 season when, under Mohammad Kaif, they bested Bengal by virtue of their 14-run first-innings lead over Bengal in Lucknow.
It was a strong Uttar Pradesh side that included Suresh Raina, Rizwan Shamsad, Gyanendra Pandey, Piyush Chawla, Shallabh Srivastava and Ashish Winston Zaidi. But it was without one paceman who would have been a shoo-in had he not been picked for India’s tour of Pakistan in early 2006.
RP Singh didn’t play any part in Uttar Pradesh’s victorious run that season, and while he did play a lead role during their 316-run win over Sialkot in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy played between the domestic first-class champions of India and Pakistan, the disappointment of not being a part of the Ranji Trophy campaign was only marginally offset by a man-of-the-match-winning Test debut against Pakistan in Faisalabad.
Over the next five days starting Tuesday (January 10) at the Holkar Stadium, RP Singh has the chance to do with Gujarat what he couldn’t with his home state. A full-time professional who only plays part-time, if you like, for Parthiv Patel’s men, the left-arm quick will look to bring all his experience into the equation as the second-time finalists lock horns with Mumbai, the defending champions seeking their 42nd crown.
RP Singh has played just four of Gujarat’s nine games this season, picking up 14 wickets at 23.35. Nine of those wickets came last week alone, in the semifinal against Jharkhand in Nagpur in his first match in more than four weeks. His 6 for 90 in the first innings ensured Jharkhand did not take a lead of more than 18; 3 for 25 in the second was the perfect foil to Jasprit Bumrah’s 6 for 29 as Saurabh Tiwary’s men were shot out for 111, chasing 235 for a spot in the final.
Over the years, RP Singh has made it a habit of making an instant impact on return from a hiatus for Gujarat. Last season, having missed the entire Vijay Hazare Trophy 50-over tournament, he was summoned for the day-night final against Delhi at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. After Gujarat had put up 273, RP Singh got the new white ball to swing like a banana, taking 4 for 23 in his first spell of seven overs, among them the sticks of Shikhar Dhawan and Gautam Gambhir, to make it the most one-sided of title clashes. It was also Gujarat’s first taste of 50-over success.
“Being a professional player for any team is tough, actually,” RP Singh, who recently turned 31, concedes to Wisden India on Monday. “The expectations are high but somehow the support staff and especially Parthiv, they know how to manage me. Before you ask, I am not difficult to manage, no! But sometimes, you need rest. The season is very long, we have only three days’ gap between matches. So they took all that into consideration so that I could maintain my fitness.”
How does he switch on when he comes back from a longish break? “Maybe because of my experience?” he offers, hesitantly. “After all, I have played more than 90 first-class matches (93 in all), including the India Tests. The reason why I haven’t played all matches is also because we have a good bunch of pace bowlers, so they also need to groomed. If I keep playing all the matches, how can they maintain their bench strength? Switching on, I have never thought about that – nor about switching off too. My job is to bowl in the proper areas, that’s what I am trying – to swing the ball and bowl in proper areas.”
Of the fourth-day heroics in Nagpur when Gujarat defended a smallish total with alacrity to knock Jharkhand out, RP has this to say, “Our belief was high. The previous evening at the hotel, we spoke about how we can’t let the opportunity go because it is not in our nature to give up. 235 is not a huge target, yes, but it’s a matter of one or two wickets. Me and Bumrah as the new-ball pair needed to pick up a couple of quick wickets because Rush (Kalaria) was injured. It was a pressure game, the idea was to maintain pressure and get support from the field. We did precisely that.
“Often, what happens is that any player, say RP Singh, is playing for RP Singh, for his reputation. But I have never been the kind of player who plays for himself, who lets things go unfinished. Till I am there, I will give 100%, the result doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, when we return to the hotel, we should not feel that we should have given that 10% more which could have made the difference. That’s why we told the kids that we will go with full force, let’s see what happens.”
While Gujarat have been in many limited-overs finals in recent times, this is the biggest game for every member of the side. “If you look at the Bombay team, there is no bowler or batsman in the top-10 but still they managed to be in the final because of their culture,” RP Singh points out, knowing where we are headed. “They know how to play the game, it is a team game. The coaches and the senior players also know how to manage to get there and stay there. For us, a young side – five-six kids are very young – they haven’t played big games like this.
“In the meeting, we try to tell them that this final is just another game. This season, we took the lead against Mumbai as well. The process is the most important thing for us. We can’t be result oriented, we can’t think too much about the result. It is a five-day game, in my opinion it will be an outright game. Five days is a long time. Our focus must not be diverted. We have heavy run-getters in our team, we have the highest run-getter etc. Our focus must be to keep following the processes and keep going forward.”
Not for the first time, RP Singh spoke of the cultural differences between the state of his birth and his adopted state. “If you compare them, they are two different teams. I played under Kaif’s captaincy, but the best part of the UP team was the ability to bounce back. Often we conceded big leads but we had a good bowling attack – me, PK (Praveen Kumar), Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar), (Sudeep) Tyagi. That ability was great – to bounce back, to back our skills and to not give up. This Gujarat team is also a decent team. The basic difference is in our nature. Towards the north, we are more aggressive. These people are very calm, they are more focused towards their goal. But hey, I am not an aggressive bloke. I just love playing my game and enjoying my life.”
Should, at some stage over the next five days, Gujarat do the unthinkable, it would be a massive occasion, RP says, stating the obvious. “It will hold huge value both for RP Singh and for Gujarat. Winning the top domestic championship will be awesome because it is the base of India’s cricketing structure. It will be great for the boys, it will be great for Gujarat cricket because they have followed a long process, started building a team six-seven years back, brought in juniors, the coaches worked very hard. For me, it will be great because I will then have been with another Ranji Trophy-winning team.”