Old timers fondly remember how Mumbai's Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar stretched their every sinew to counter the Karnataka spin duo of Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar or Delhi's Bishan Singh Bedi. Times have changed and such stories have dried up. For a variety of reasons, active international cricketers do not play regularly for their state teams anymore. In fact, two current Test cricketers facing off in a Ranji Trophy final is a rarity now.
(The Vidarbha vs Saurashtra Ranji Trophy 2018-19 final will be played from 3 February. The match will start from 9.30 AM IST and will broadcast on Star Sports 2 and Star Sports 2 HD.)
This is why the prospect of Cheteshwar Pujara taking guard against Umesh Yadav in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy final between Saurashtra and Vidarbha, the defending champions, in Nagpur from Sunday (February 3) is tantalising. Ever since they made their respective international debut, Pujara and Umesh have played against their India teammates on only a handful of occasions. One of them was the non-televised Ranji quarterfinal in 2015-16 when Umesh dismissed Pujara for 47 in the only innings Saurashtra batted in. It was for the first and only time so far the two were pitted against each other in a Ranji game.
Umesh and Pujara were in a middle of a purple patch then. The Vidarbha pacer finished the home season with 30 wickets, and Pujara found support in Anil Kumble, the then coach who told him to not worry about his strike-rate, and scored 1316 runs. Both of them were keys to India winning 10 of the 13 Tests and retaining the No 1 ranking.
The duo's recent journey has been a bit contrasting. Pujara consumed 1258 deliveries for three centuries to anchor India's first-ever Test series win in Australia last month, but Umesh has played just two out of the last 12 overseas Tests across three countries.
They returned from Australia on the same flight and immediately got into heavy duty domestic action. That they have adapted to the change in level of competition effortlessly and that has not gone unnoticed. "(Pujara) comes from Australia and plays for Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy," Rahul Dravid told ESPNcricinfo in an interaction during the course of the semifinal. He could have meant Umesh also. "For me that is terrific. I know that Pujara is not just going to be playing, he is going to be playing the match properly. That is very important."
Umesh has taken 21 wickets to be the Man of the Match against Uttarakhand in the quarterfinal and Kerala in the semifinal where he returned career-best match haul of 12 for 79. Pujara has had a calming influence in the Saurashtra dressing room. He made the team believe that a record-breaking chase of 372 against Uttar Pradesh in Lucknow was possible, and then walked the talk with an unbeaten 131 in a chase of 279 in the last-four clash against Karnataka.
Both of them are driven by an inner urge to do something special for the team that gave them the base to dream big all those years back. Umesh missed being a part of the final against Delhi last season because of the tour of South Africa, and Pujara has played one final against Mumbai in 2015-16 where he dropped Siddhesh Lad's catch at first slip, which turned the course of the game. He had missed the 2012-13 final as he was warming the bench with the Indian ODI team.
The duo, now have a chance to create history, but the final is as much about them as it is about the collective force of Vidarbha and Saurashtra. The two teams are filled with players who have complemented each other's strength to remain unbeaten in the tournament so far.
The old sage Wasim Jaffer, who recently became the first batsman to score 1000 runs in a season twice, will be featuring in his tenth final and second for Vidarbha. He aggregates 948 runs at 67.71 in nine winning finals so far. No one knows better than him how different these five days are from the entire season, and yet how important it is to treat them as the same.
"Wasim bhai means a lot to us. His mere presence in the dressing room means a lot to us," Umesh told CricketNext in appreciation of the soon to be 41-year-old. "He reads the game very quickly - doesn't matter if you are a batsman or bowler, he gives very important inputs. It is always a pleasure to play with him. He still has the hunger to score runs and is always trying to do his best. We can see it from his batting and body language."
Sheldon Jackson has had his best season to carry the batting responsibility for his team in the absence of Pujara for most parts. What Jackson is to Pujara in the Saurashtra batting line-up, Faiz Fazal is that to Jaffer. Fazal's knock of 75 on a spicy surface in Wayanad in the semifinal was full of steely resolve, and as captain he has been tactically on the money throughout just like Jaydev Unadkat has been for Saurashtra since taking over from Jaydev Shah in the middle of the season. Unadkat's ability to provide early breakthroughs regularly has allowed them to play four frontline bowlers.
While Saurashtra's top-order batsmen have more often than not given good account of themselves, with the two openers — Harvik Desai and Snell Patel — leading the way, Vidarbha have had valuable contributions from Akshay Wadkar and Aditya Sarwate in the middle-order. Sarwate, who bowls left-arm spin, also tops Vidarbha's bowling charts with 44 wickets, which makes him a handy component. Dharmendrasinh Jadeja is the other left-arm spinner who will be in focus, having taken 52 wickets for Saurashtra including a hat-trick.
Coached by two domestic stalwarts — Chandrakant Pandit (Vidarbha) and Sitanshu Kotak (Saurashtra) — there is very little that separates these two likeable teams on paper. After the semifinal, Unadkat said that Saurashtra are eager but not desperate to win their maiden silverware. The same can be said about Vidarbha who have a chance to be the first team since Karnataka in 2014-15 to defend the title. Apart from Karnataka (twice), only Mumbai (multiple times), Maharashtra, Delhi and Rajasthan have achieved the feat so far.
The 85th edition of the Ranji Trophy has been the most inclusive with 37 teams participating due to the implementation of the Lodha Committee's recommendation. Now it boils down to who between Vidarbha and Saurashtra is willing to hang on for a longer duration over the next few days to have the last laugh in what has been a marathon season.