When Delhi last made it to a Ranji Trophy final - the 2007-08 season - their team boasted of the likes of Aakash Chopra, Gautam Gambhir, Mithun Manhas, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli. While the former two were well-established players, Dhawan and Kohli were still in their early 20s and yet to make their international bow.
Ten years hence, Delhi made it to the final again, their 15th Ranji Trophy summit clash and though they ended up on the wrong side this time, the team composition was similar. While Gambhir has been a constant since then, the core of this side is made up of youngsters. Rishabh Pant, Nitish Rana, Navdeep Saini, Dhruv Shorey, Himmat Singh, Vikas Mishra, Kulwant Khejroliya, all on or around the better side of 20s.
Delhi's middle-order batsman and Mumbai Indians star Nitish Rana opened up on Delhi's run to the final and how his rise through the ranks has been over the years in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda.
"In my first season for the senior Delhi side, we had a lot of young players. Except Gautam bhaiyya (Gautam Gambhir), all of us were around the early 20s. We did take a couple of seasons to gel and learn each other's game because building a team is not an easy process. So now in two years, we can see that each and everyone is chipping in. It's not that one player has scored 1000 runs," said Rana of Delhi's run to the final of the Ranji this season.
The 24-year-old was the second highest run-getter for Delhi after Gautam Gambhir. 613 runs in eight matches at 55.72, a century in the opener against Assam and one against Maharashtra along with three 50s made him the 13th best run scorer of the season.
"Gautam bhaiyya has played the biggest role in my career
"Our senior-most player has done the bulk of the scoring, so he sets an example that 'I'm there to see you guys through'. So that drives us that if he's been doing that for such a long time, we should pick our games up as well."
My initial exchanges with Rana had only gone on to validate my belief that Gambhir, or as the majority of Delhi team likes to call him, Gautam bhaiyya, was indeed a Messiah to these youngsters. Not long ago, even Navdeep Saini had come out and said that 'I owe this life and my success to Gautam Gambhir'.
Expanding on how important Gambhir's role has been in his rise through the ranks in Delhi, Rana went to reveal that the former captain trained in the very academy the youngster started his journey in. With a batsman of Gambhir's stature training at a pitch's length from him, the Mumbai Indians star learned to bat watching one of the best in the business.
"Gautam bhaiyya's mere presence is very important for all of us as he has truckloads of experience behind him. I've been playing with him for around 10 years now and have grown watching him. Even today if I'm worried about anything cricket, Gautam bhaiyya is the first person I call after my coach Bharadwaj sir.
"He has played the biggest role in my career."
The 24-year-old was bought by Mumbai Indians for the 2015 edition of the tournament, however, due to a surplus of batting talent in the side then, he had to wait for the last four matches of the 2016 IPL to get a taste of the T20 extravaganza. Moreover, as the player admitted himself, he wasn't expecting much from the first season and went in with mindset of improving his game
"They have a legendary coaching staff - Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jonty Rhodes, even Anil Kumble sir was there, so it was a big thing for me. I just thought that there can't be a bigger opportunity to learn the nuances of the game and gain experience."
A 70-run knock against Gujarat Lions at Kanpur in his second season with the franchise was what enabled him to settle down and carry the form into the next season. Before that very knock, as Rana revealed, a pep-talk from Ricky Ponting 'calmed his nerves' and he went about his job in the match next day.
"Before that Gujarat Lions knock, I had a chat with Ricky Ponting as that was a do-or-die match for us. He said, 'I've been backing you for the last couple of matches, and you have the potential. Why are you not backing yourself? Go out there and express yourself, play your natural game and back yourself.' That pep-talk gave me a lot of confidence and I batted freely in the match.
"When such a big player comes out and helps you then it's naturally a big thing. Everyone was supporting me, so that helped me calm my nerves."
Rana was, visibly, a different batsman once he arrived on the stage next season. The left-hander, who took up cricket as a 12-year-old after his father forced him to join a sport as he had put on some weight, put up a string of impressive performances for Mumbai Indians in the initial stages of 2017 IPL. He was even the Orange Cap holder, ahead of David Warner, after six matches with 255 runs. His initial push and a collective team effort meant MI went on to win their third IPL.
"I was almost in tears before going to the IPL"
However, in the lead-up to the tournament, Rana wasn't having the best of times on the professional front and was dropped from the Delhi ODI side. As the youngster revealed, he was "mentally disturbed" and wasn't expecting much out of the season.
"It's a matter of shame for any player who gets dropped from his stateside. That was a time when I was very stressed. "
'Almost in tears' and unhappy with the non-selection in the ODI team, Rana fell back to his father. "He said cricket is just a game and irrespective of what you do on the field, your parents will always have your back."
With nothing to lose, Rana went to the tournament and expressed himself and he has his 'family, coach Bhardwaj Sir and Gautam bhaiyya' to thank.
Cricketing culture in Delhi
During Delhi's Vijay Hazare encounter in Cuttack last year, there were reports of a heated altercation between coach KP Bhaskar and Gautam Gambhir, following which the player was handed a suspended four-match ban. In the follow-up of the incident, Gambhir stressed that he only questioned the coach's treatment of youngsters following a defeat in one of the matches.
"I could not have let this man (Bhaskar) play with careers of young players like Unmukt Chand and Nitish Rana," the 36-year-old had said.
When asked for his opinion on the matter, Rana revealed that the cricket culture in Delhi is to blame for the situation.
"The cricketing culture in Delhi is such that if you've been dropped from the senior side, there is no league system or a competition where you can score some runs and make a comeback.
"So if now I'm above 23 and can't play under-age cricket, and I'm dropped from the Ranji side then there's nowhere for me to go and prove my worth. Bhaiyya always advocates for players who've been dropped so that they're given at least one outing to prove themselves. If he were not there, I can tell you that you'll see a new Delhi side after every three or four matches," Rana said.
While signing off, the 24-year-old reiterated that though he is looking forward to the IPL Auctions, he has no control on the proceedings.
"My job is to perform"