A ‘long rope’ and a ‘slap on the face’: how Haryana created a winning culture

In October, after Haryana went down for a second straight game, against Chhattisgarh, at the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, seamer Harshal Patel remembers walking into the dressing room in Jaipur to deathly silence. Everyone had huddled around, but there were no words exchanged. But when they dispersed, Harshal sensed something had changed.

And on Saturday, as he stood on the cusp of a title win in Rajkot, Haryana’s maiden Vijay Hazare triumph, Harshal’s mind briefly went back to that October night. He’s now convinced it was the “slap on the face” they needed.

“With the firepower we had, not qualifying for the SMAT knockouts was quite embarrassing,” Harshal tells ESPNcricinfo. “Over the years, we’ve blown hot and cold with the intensity we bring to a game. But in this tournament, it was top-notch and I’d compare it to the standards of any IPL or international team. That SMAT loss was a slap on our face. We needed to pull our socks up.”

The semi-final against Tamil Nadu was a perfect testing ground. They had vowed to not be intimidated or bullied by teams, and this was an opportunity to prove it in a game scenario.

“If you objectively look at both sides, 99% people would’ve said TN would be the clear winners,” Harshal reflects. “We went into the game as underdogs and knew we had to play out of our skins. We didn’t have a great powerplay. We struggled, but nobody threw their wicket away. Himanshu [Rana] started slowly, so did Yuvraj [Singh]. As the ball got older, we started throwing punches.”

The team’s think tank felt the key to countering Tamil Nadu’s threat lay in taking their spinners out of the equation. Haryana managed to keep them at bay for much of their innings. It wasn’t until the 32nd over, when Haryana were beginning to shift gears, that TN had a wicket through spin. Varun Chakravarthy and R Sai Kishore ended up taking four wickets, but the dismissals had all come towards the back end of the innings. Haryana finished with 293 for 7, an innings fuelled by Himanshu Rana‘s 116. It was way above par.

“I genuinely felt if we play their spinners well we’re more likely to win because they don’t really have a lot of fast bowlers,” Harshal says. “I felt after the first ten overs, TN felt they could keep the foot on the pedal. Till the 15th or 17th over, they had just two-three players out when they could’ve had four and build pressure.

“It allowed us to get boundaries and counterattack and start building those partnerships and take the game deep. Honestly, had they gone with a conventional approach with conventional fields, it would have forced us to take risks and we may have been 20-30 short. That tactic kind of backfired on them and it played into our hands.”

There were other challenges as well. In their fourth league fixture, they found themselves tottering at 1 for 3 inside two overs against an unfancied Mizoram. Rana led the way out of trouble with 136, while Rahul Tewatia, their finisher supreme, walloped an unbeaten 80 off 42 balls from No. 7 to eventually help them post 315 for 6. It proved to be 190 too many for Mizoram.

Haryana’s campaign was punctuated by clutch performances from different players. They also had to deviate from set plans at times to accommodate young and inexperienced players in the absence of seniors. Mohit Sharma wasn’t available for the entire tournament after picking up a hip injury during SMAT; Jayant Yadav opted out of the first set of games because of family commitments; and Yuzvendra Chahal wasn’t available for the semi-finals and final, although he had left his imprint earlier by picking up 18 wickets at an average of 14.83. Harshal himself picked up 19, the joint-highest, including a three-for in the final.

Beyond the seniors, Ankit Kumar, the opener, who was in and out of the team having debuted in 2018, left his mark with 453 runs in ten innings, including two centuries. Rana, who led them at SMAT, came good at other times, most crucially in the semi-final after seasons of having underachieved. Sumit Kumar played the perfect allrounder role, delivering new-ball wickets and end-overs momentum, while Anshul Kamboj bowled the tough overs.

“One of the good things in Haryana is if you’re doing well, you will get a long rope even if you have a bad tournament or season,” Harshal says. “All these are prerequisites to creating a good environment. We’ve emphasised a lot on team culture. It plays a big part. Haryana is usually a hierarchy-based conservative culture.

“Even if I’m not cut off, to the juniors, I’m almost unreachable – at least that’s what they thought. Same with Yuzi, Rahul, Jayant. We tried to create an environment where anyone can tell senior players anything. We have an open-door policy. We try and set the right examples and keep reminding them of basics.

“When we deviate from it, the chat is to remember the basics, do them right, and if everyone takes care of their roles, we’ll be fine with the skill and talent we have. That has been the major focus. There have been occasions where we’ve gone away from that, trying to do too many things too soon with the young guys, and it has never worked.

“It was a conscious decision to work on our roles, our jobs and then luckily the boys picked up on that energy and realised the important thing was to do their roles right, and everything else took care of itself. At the moment, everyone feels comfortable enough to go to anyone and talk about anything. That’s a byproduct of us winning, but I hope when we’re not doing well also, they’re comfortable enough to come up to us and tell us.”

Creating a culture is easier said than done. It could have been a tricky ground for Haryana this time around given they had a new captain in Ashok Menaria, whose exit from Rajasthan had been messy. The association had accused him of faking injury. He decided to move.

In some set-ups, such a move has the potential to unsettle the group. At Haryana, it only appeared to galvanise them. On his part, Menaria proved to be a calming influence as a leader, and with the bat, he saved his best for the last, making 70 in the final.

“The focus was only on performance and what you could do for the team,” says Harshal, who moved to the side from Gujarat in 2010-11. “The same principle has applied to Ashok. None of us felt, ‘Oh he’s come from outside and taken the captaincy’. None of us have that aspiration for a ‘c’ next to our name. No grudges. The good thing is whoever has been given the rein has put the team first.

“If that was not the case, things may have been different. It happens in a lot of teams – one faction pulls to the left, other to the right. Luckily everyone who has led this team – me, Mohit before me, Amit Mishra before him… they’ve always put the team first. Expectation has always trickled from top to bottom.

“Right from Anirudh [Chaudhry, former HCA top boss] sir to the coaching staff, there has never been the case where someone feels they have been robbed of a position in power at the expense of someone else, which is a great thing, because in a team of 15, even if there’s one bad apple, it could all go down.”

Purely on the cricket side of things, Haryana isn’t quite the gold standard in Indian domestic cricket but they have made the most of the resources they have, both in terms of infrastructure and talent.

“Even though we don’t have club cricket system like other states, the good thing we have is when they identify a player who they think has potential to do well in the long run, they keep them around in the system,” Harshal explains. “If we have a junior bowler coming in when a senior camp is going on, he’s given an opportunity to come and bowl in the nets.

“He’s thrown into the senior team environment during practice games, so they’re constantly exposed to these quality of players. Then they realise what they’re doing well, where they’re falling short. The system is such they are always around camps, practice games, off-season boot camps, under observation.”

Today, the junior teams across men’s and women’s categories are consistently challengers for the title. And a number of players from the senior team are beginning to make a mark, either in the IPL or for India. Like Harshal and Chahal, and Mohit, Jayant and Mishra before them. Surely, now the aspiration must be to win titles consistently?

“Yes, titles are what is seen but honestly how we define success is by seeing the quality of cricket we play, the kind of principles we follow,” Harshal says. “Most of the guys are below 25, they’re coming up from age-group cricket and wetting their feet in professional cricket. It’s important how we set examples, the way we play whether we win or lose. We step onto the field with the intention to win but these attributes are important for us. If we can do that, we can consistently win titles.”

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