In September 2019, Irfan Pathan handed copies of a letter he had signed to his young Jammu & Kashmir team-mates. In it was a line that read: "We will qualify for the knockouts in at least one format this season."
To make sure it wasn't just words, mentor Irfan joined hands with close friend and former Baroda player Milap Mewada, the head coach of the side. At the outset of the Ranji Trophy season, Mewada gave a name to the team's plan: JK's Mission. Not J&K's mission, mind you. Jammu-Kashmir, a united force.
Unfortunately for the mentor and the coach, the players' minds were "elsewhere" as their season was in danger of never even getting on the rails.
The Indian government's decision to bifurcate Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories last August resulted in restricted access to the region from other parts of the country. Internet connectivity was withdrawn, telephone lines went blank, and private television channels were taken off air for a while. Government offices were empty, petrol stations dry, and food supplies were limited.
In such an environment where everyday life was a struggle, there was little hope of assembling a squad together, let alone trying to compete or win against the best in the country. At the J&K Cricket Association office in Srinagar, there was a circular on the notice board that asked players to report for a camp on August 16. Except, there was no way for that information to go out. Only two weeks earlier, the players had been sent home.
"For three weeks, we didn't have contact. The season was approaching and we had to do something. I instructed the district police office to personally go to the homes of a many players and bring them safely to Jammu," Syed Ashiq Bukhari, a former IPS office and current CEO of JKCA, says. "One of the players, when the police went to his house, started running away, thinking he had committed an offence. The police had to explain to the boy's father and then he came. The other thing we did was to run tickers in our local TV channel asking for players to report in Jammu."
Yet, Parvez Rasool's team has managed to cast aside all such distractions and focus on the cricket. This is only the second time they have entered the Ranji quarter-final in their 50-year history. A first-ever semi-final appearance is a step away. Irfan's prophecy has come true, but he and Mewada, just like the rest of the squad, are hoping for something bigger, something historic. They have come a long way. They want to go further.
'Go back, go back, don't take another step'
Mewada remembers August 6 as if it were just yesterday.
"On one side, there were stone pelters. The other side, there were cops. A curfew had been called, and I was told to return to my hotel," Mewada recalls his attempts to return home to his anxious family in Baroda. "The cop was shouting: 'go back, go back, don't take another step.' I was stunned. We were told in no uncertain terms that 'you get past us, and we can't guarantee you anything'. I was scared, and told my driver to turn back."
Mewada was the lone guest at his hotel in Srinagar, sitting by himself with no contact to the outside world. The next day, he somehow made a dash to the airport only because his driver happened to show up unexpectedly. He had a printed copy of his ticket - luckily, because there was no internet. "Else, god knows how I would have travelled."
All along, he was anxious about his players' safety. It had been 72 hours and he hadn't heard from any of them. It would be that way for the rest of the month. Six weeks of intense preparation in the summer, Mewada feared, was on the verge of going to waste.
Months before the domestic season had started, the team management had got a professional trainer in VP Sudarshan, who had the experience of working with the senior Indian team in the past. Yo-yo fitness was as important as the ability to bowl or bat. Fielding sessions were scheduled in the heat of the afternoon sun to test endurance. The focus was on specifics. Irfan even brought in a throwdown specialist in Pritesh Joshi, himself a club cricketer in Baroda with aspirations of being a fast bowler. They put the players through army-style fitness sessions to get them match ready.
"We noticed the players had no concept of fitness and training during the off season," Mewada says. "So every time they turned up from a break, they were carrying niggles or took a while to get back into shape. We wanted to change that before this season. But all the work we did was disturbed by the forced six-week break, where we didn't have any contact at all."
"We always wanted to give Irfan a free hand. We knew someone of his experience can deliver only if he's allowed the space and freedom. It's fair to say we have managed to build on well from the previous season to this one" Syed Ashiq Bukhari, JKCA CEO
Meanwhile, even as Bukhari tried to assemble the squad in Jammu and take them elsewhere, the team had to pull out of the invitational Vizzy Trophy in Andhra Pradesh. Irfan then requested Samarjithsinh Gaekwad, scion of the royal family that owns the Moti Bagh Stadium in Vadodara, to help.
Mewada remembers Gaekwad promising "all that you want".
Now they could get the team together at training, but a key hurdle remained.
"The boys were down mentally," Irfan says. "On the field, they were playing cricket. Then they were worried about selection, which I tried to insulate them from. I gave them confidence that you will be backed. But cricket aside, every now and then, you could see the bigger worry. They had left their families behind, and had no contact. While those from Jammu were slightly better off because at least landlines were working, the Kashmir boys were upset."
Mewada adds, "They needed a lot of emotional support. Some of them were very young. So apart from just training and shaping them for the season, we had to engage a sports psychologist. Things started improving, and we even beat a full-strength Baroda side in three 50-0ver games heading into the Vijay Hazare Trophy. The mood was slightly better towards the end of September.
Team Donkey, Team Monkey
As much as the challenge was to ready them for on-field action, Mewada noticed something missing off it. He sensed a disconnect between certain players. He felt there were factions.
To foster better understanding and team spirit, he split the team into four groups of four each, each group with a designated leader with whom the others fixed specific dinner plans which no other group was privy to. Then there were games, where each member of the groups was to reveal an unknown facet about his life to the other, and the quietest person in the camp would then reveal it to everyone else, on stage with a mic.
Such gestures slowly brought the team together.
"The situation has changed now," Mewada says. "We had senior players who didn't get along. They are not part of the team now. The new generation doesn't understand divisions. We give everyone a role and they are asked to perform that role. We want to imbibe a sense of leadership and responsibility.
"Waseem Raza, for example, is our senior left-arm spinner, but he hasn't got game time because we felt Abid Mushtaq was better equipped to certain conditions. When Abid got wickets, Waseem was the first to run up with a bottle of water or a hug. Such gestures create warmth and puts everyone in a good frame of mind."
The biggest eye-opener was the painting game the team played a day before their first game of the season. Each team had to come up with a painting. The theme was: 'What you feel about the Jammu-Kashmir cricket team.'
Team Donkey, led by fast bowler Ram Dayal, drew an axe, a few trees, and four logs, one on top of each other. Mewada explains: "With one axe, one log of wood can be chopped down, but the same can't cut four logs bound on top of the other. This exhibited team work."
Team Monkey, led by Rasool, depicted mountains, sunshine and water trickling down towards a dam to produce electricity. "In between, they also depicted a few leaks," Mewada says. "This was to suggest that water produces electricity, but the leaks are ensuring less production. To them, leaks signify a disconnect within the team. So then they said, 'if we fix the leaks, we will be driven to be more powerful'."
Another team, led by Shubham Khajuria, came up with a drawing of a man - who they said was their coach and mentor. And then a goat, inside which they drew a tiger's face. "The coach sees us, goats, like tigers," Mewada explains. "He thinks we're stronger than what we seem. That should be the way we think as well."
Such off-field activities have helped bring the fun element, while allowing the team to reconnect with each other, amid the hectic travel. Mewada and Irfan address the group as "champions". Mewada is a believer in the power of the subconscious mind, and wants this thought to be firmly planted in their heads. To him, all of them are champions.
A Match-winner for every situation
Like these, there are so many interwoven narratives. The off-field camaraderie has come together on the field too. For starters, players haven't felt insecure because of the confidence the group has in Mewada, Irfan and the selectors. And in every game, they have found someone raising their hand. After all, winning six out of nine games is no joke.
"We always wanted to give Irfan a free hand," Bukhari says. "We knew someone of his experience can deliver only if he's allowed the space and freedom. The management, the JKCA, everyone took a collective decision to change things this time around and see where it takes us. It's fair to say we have managed to build on well from the previous season to this one."
One of the examples of that free hand was the decision to hand Mujtaba Yousuf, the left-arm pacer, a debut in their last league game against Haryana. Until then, he was in the system, and being monitored.
"I worked with him at different stages on developing an inswinger," Irfan says. "I took examples from my own career and told him to avoid the mistakes I made. The learnings I had from my career, I passed on to him. We worked on his wrist position, follow-through and using of his crease better. When we were confident he had worked on these significantly, we played him and he got a six-for on debut." Yousuf's is just one example of the work put in resulting in performance.
In the game against Services, Jammu & Kashmir were tottering after their top order was taken out inside the first hour. Rasool came in and hit 182 in the team's total of 360 to drive the game forward. Rasool is their biggest name, the most popular player, and a performance from him went a long way in inspiring a young unit.
Against Assam and Jharkhand, it was 18-year-old Abdul Samad, who proved he's one worth investing in. Both his centuries - 103* and 128 - came at more than a run a ball. Until then, Samad was just known to be a talented young bat who could strike big and make destructive 30s or 40s. Interestingly, it took Irfan just one look at him at a district trial last year to ask for his statistics.
"I saw him drive on the up like I hadn't seen from any other batsman," he remembers. "He was effortlessly making runs on an up-and-down surface. I fished out his scores and I saw consistent starts, but none higher than fifty. I took him aside and told him, he will be put in the probables, and we worked on the value of preserving his wicket. We set small goals for him, and today, there are a few results along the way. This was possible only because we didn't go by the convention of simply looking at his numbers and dismissing him as a short-format player."
Then there's the example of Umar Nazir, the fast bowler. He made a vow at the start of the season that he wouldn't let off-field worries affect his cricket, and he's stuck to his commitment. Nazir hasn't been to his hometown in Pulwama since July. He hadn't heard from his family, but found peace in ripping out middle stumps with yorkers and bowling quick bouncers. On a green deck in Pune, he had Maharashtra's batsmen hopping around. He picked up a five-for in a match-winning effort then.
The common theme here is match temperament and self-belief. Mewada made it clear at the start that this wouldn't be about nine games, but 11, possibly 12. "The idea took a while to digest, but once they were convinced they are winners, it got stuck in their head," he says. "There was a bit of silence early on, but once they knew I was serious, they all bought in to the idea."
It has been a team effort all right: four batsmen have over 400 runs (a fifth has 386), five bowlers have more than 20 wickets. The entire team has showed indomitable spirit.
Often, when an underdog goes into uncharted territory, questions of sustainability crop up. Mewada is quick to point out that irrespective of where they go from here, this team will be work-in-progress for the next two years. Whether they can go one better, into the semi-finals and beyond, and replicate it next year is a debate for another day, but the very fact that they have made everyone sit up and take note of their on-field exploits when no one gave them a chance, says enough about their character.
In two days' time this united J&K team will lock horns with favorites and multiple-title winners Karnataka. But the players and their coaches remain undeterred. Mewada is a touch philosophical when asked if this is where the magic could end.
"See, we're champions, we have nothing to lose," he says. "They don't know our bowlers, our players. We knew each and everyone of them. We have plans. This team has fought through adversities. In front of all that, this is just a cricket match, and if they treat it as one, anything can happen."