Saurashtra have recognised the fine line that separates desperation from eagerness, and that has put them just a step away from fulfilling the dream of winning their maiden Ranji Trophy. It is rare for a team to win back-to-back matches after conceding the first-innings lead. While their record-breaking chase of 372 against Uttar Pradesh in the quarter-final in Lucknow showcased the depth and lack of stage fright, Cheteshwar Pujara and Sheldon Jackson coming together at 23 for 3 to put on 214 in a successful chase of 279 against Karnataka in the semi-final in Bangalore displayed the region’s rich batting legacy whose seeds were first sown by the great Ranjitsinhji, in whose name the tournament is named, in the late nineteenth century.
These two monumental chases has made Jaydev Unadkat, who became Saurashtra’s captain in the middle of the season after Jaydev Shah retired, believe that this team is different from the one that lost the finals to Mumbai by an innings in 2012-13 and 2015-16.
“Things have changed a lot from the time we played the last final. We have got a very young side compared to what we had then. We have three, four, five guys who were not playing that game, but are playing now and have done really well for the team,” Unadkat said at the press conference after the five-wicket win over Karnataka. “The atmosphere is pretty different. We were a bit desperate to win the title in those finals. We are really eager to win it this time, but we are not afraid of losing it. That is one change I can see between that final and how we are approaching the game this year.”
Like Vidarbha, the defending champions and their opponent in the final in Nagpur from 3 February, Saurashtra are unbeaten this season. Jackson’s rise as a batting leader is one of the key reasons behind it. He tops the team’s batting charts with 838 runs. This is in fact his best first-class season.
“I have changed a little bit of my technique and practiced with heavy plastic balls from a shorter distance. They bounce a lot more and come quicker to the bat, and gives you little time,” Jackson told Firstpost, elaborating on the work he did in the off season to lift his game. “I have been following this routine for a while now, but this season I have rigorously stuck to it, and it has meant that in an actual match I have got more time to play the ball. You are not troubled by pace and bounce on different tracks.”
Jackson stressed that his role has become easier because of the tremendous job done by the opening pair of Harvik Desai and Snell Patel. They have had three century stands, three fifty-plus associations and three forty-plus partnerships. Desai, who made a century in that chase in the quarter-final, and Snell, who notched 85 in the semi-final, cumulatively aggregate 1,409 runs. They are the team’s second and third highest run-getters respectively.
“After many years we have got two openers who are doing so well,” Jackson added. “They are our unsung heroes. They staying for long at the centre has ensured that the middle-order is not rushed, and we go in after the ball is old.”
Like Desai and Snell, many other youngsters have also made a strong case for themselves. Chetan Sakariya, for example, has shared the pace bowling responsibilities with Unadkat for 26 wickets in seven matches. Unadkat said that while there is a lot of work that still needs to be done at grassroots, there is no dearth of talent in the districts.
“It’s down to the talent and determination the players have coming from the region. They want to do well no matter what facilities they have, doesn’t matter what match practice they have before the tournament.”
Jackson credited Sitanshu Kotak, the coach since 2014-15, for injecting freshness in the dressing room. “Whenever he finds a promising youngster, he monitors and keeps a close eye on him. Since the time he joined us as coach many youngsters have come. The energy of youth adds new flavour, improves fitness level and also they play fearless cricket, which adds up to the team’s benefit,” Jackson said.
“Sakariya, for example, is coach’s find. He saw him last year in a district tournament and straightaway felt that this boy if given a proper chance can prove worthy for Saurashtra. Our coach is a person who knows everything that is happening in state cricket and in the country,” he added.
Sakariya has benefitted from the presence of Unadkat, who seems to have been boosted by the leadership role. He has so far taken 28 wickets in his five matches as captain. More crucial in the bowling department has been Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, the left-arm spinner who has 52 wickets including a hat-trick. His control has been outstanding, as has been his ability to set up batsmen and provide crucial breakthroughs.
All of this has been topped up by Pujara’s calmness since he joined the team for the knockouts after a series-winning performance in Australia. He made the team believe that 372 is gettable in the quarter-final, and then walked the talk with an unbeaten 133 against Karnataka in the semi-final. The way he guided Jackson through that big partnership as they blunted a potent Karnataka seam attack made for absorbing viewing as did his constant advices to Unadkat while fielding.
“(We) can’t really have anyone better than him to have that influence. The way he approached this game or even the last game, he wants it more than anyone of us,” Unadkat said of Pujara’s impact. “That’s one thing I really love about him. Doesn’t really matter what game, what level he’s playing, he just wants to be out there and win it for the team. It’s really showing at the moment on how determined he is to win it for Saurashtra.
“Helping me on the field, helping other batsmen on how to approach the game not just in the middle, but out of the game as well. The guys have been really fortunate to have him in the side. He has been guiding the batsmen in the UP game as well, that was one game where we got the confidence and it reflected in this game,” the Saurashtra skipper added. “Even though we were 23 for 3, no one actually was out of belief that we can(not) win this game, it was down to him. The character that he has, the image that he has, we are lucky to have him in the team.”
Saurashtra along with Pujara are hopeful that they will be third time lucky. “Yes, all of us are excited and looking forward to winning our first Ranji Trophy title,” Pujara told the broadcaster after batting for 266 balls in the second innings against Karnataka. “We have been in the final twice, this time we have a very good team and the opportunity. So, hopefully we will continue with the same performance and not worry too much about the final.”