Umesh Yadav ran through Kerala's batting line-up like ninepin twice in two days for his second Man-of-the-Match award in as many Ranji Trophy knockout matches this season. He will also hold all the aces in the title clash, where Vidarbha would face either Karnataka or Saurashtra. Whether Vidarbha can retain the title they won for the first time last season is dependent on how things pan out between 3 to 7 February, but with an unbeaten streak of 14 first-class matches stretching back to the 2017-18 Ranji quarter-final they have carried the swagger of defending champions.
Drawing their first league game against Maharashtra this season after being dismissed for 120 was a strong show of character as was captain Faiz Fazal's knock of 75 in the semi-final on a spicy surface where the next highest score was 37. He called it as "one of my better knocks" and Chandrakant Pandit, the coach, felt the "75 on this wicket is as good as 175."
Umesh, Fazal, Wasim Jaffer, who is now the first batsman in Ranji history to score 1,000 runs in a season twice, and Ganesh Satish are the pillars of the playing unit and the rest have revolved around them. Equally crucial has been Vidarbha Cricket Association's (VCA) intent to make an impact in the long run. Among the unfancied teams that filled up numbers for many seasons, the seed for this transformation was sowed in 2008.
Shashank Manohar, who is from Nagpur - Vidarbha's primary cricketing centre - became BCCI's president that same year. He was keen to have a residential academy for his association so that youngsters could be groomed and Vidarbha could be a force to reckon with. He found a great resource in Prashant Vaidya, who is the city's first international cricketer, having played four ODIs in 1995 and 1996. Vaidya is known to be a visionary, but had surprisingly not been actively involved in VCA and was running his own business. Impressed by his ideas, Manohar gave Vaidya a free hand.
Vaidya immediately got on to the act. He appointed Australia's Neil D'Costa, who counts Michael Clarke and Mitchell Starc among his students, as the academy's head coach with the responsibility of putting the structure in place. Subroto Banerjee, the former India pacer, who had worked with D'Costa at New South Wales, was brought in as bowling coach. Sulakshan Kulkarni, the former Mumbai wicketkeeper, was made the head coach of the senior team.
Suddenly the playing fraternity was exposed to the highest level of professionalism. The young talents coming into the academy had a blank mind and it was easy to create an impression on them. Also, the local league which was played in 50-over format was changed to multi-day format to acquaint players at the grassroots level with the demands of first-class cricket.
D'Costa and Kulkarni left around the same time, but they had done their bit. For some reason Vaidya was also excluded from VCA's executive committee, but as a member of the Cricket Development Committee he continued to make meaningful contribution. Signing up Paras Mhambrey, another Mumbaikar and former India pacer, as he was brought in as coach in 2014-15. In the same season, the approach towards signing up professional players also changed.
Earlier Vidarbha had roped in the services of Shiv Sundar Das, Sairaj Bahutule, Rashmi Ranjan Parida and Hemang Badani, but by then they were past their prime as players. While their inputs were valuable, their performances did not add up mostly.
Mhambrey recognised the need for professionals who still had a few good years of cricket left in them. So, S Badrinath moved from Tamil Nadu to captain Vidarbha and Ganesh Satish, who had won the Ranji Trophy with Karnataka in 2013-14, was also brought in. While the duo along with Fazal and Shalabh Shrivastava took care of the batting department, Mhambrey focussed on preparing a strong bowling unit. The bowlers also got more runs to play with, which was not the case earlier. The result of it was that Vidarbha qualified for the Ranji quarter-final for the first time since 1970-71. They made it to the quarter-finals in 2015-16 also, but things flattened out as Vaidya was no more considered the solution to all problems.
Vidarbha needed someone to push them, and because of the implementation of the Lodha committee's recommendations Vaidya returned as VCA's vice-president in 2016. He had an immediate challenge in hand as in early 2017 Mhambrey had to leave Vidarbha because of his appointment as India A's and India Under-19's bowling coach. Badrinath also moved to captain Hyderabad. It was the same time when Pandit was looking for a new job after Mumbai felt he did not fit into their scheme of things anymore.
Vaidya did not think twice before signing him up as coach. Jaffer, who had missed 2016-17 because of fitness issues, also returned. He in fact told the association that he would play for free as his commitment towards Vidarbha cricket. Pandit and Jaffer coming together was like Mumbai's knowledge bank being shifted to Nagpur. Vidarbha also hired Karn Sharma, the leg-spinner who has played one Test, as the third professional. He stayed for just one season before shifting to Andhra Pradesh.
A Whatsapp group was created where the display image of the group was that of the Ranji Trophy. It made everyone think of the common goal. When Vaidya got Pandit, the Mumbaikar asked 'what happens to the prize money?' That surprised Vaidya, but he was also sure that he has got what he wanted - the right man for the right job.
Pandit has not been afraid to make bold calls. He benched Karn for the semi-final and final last season, and gave a teenaged Aditya Thakare his debut in the final against Delhi. The leadership group got the team to prepare to play without Umesh, who was mostly unavailable because of international commitments, and there were no sympathy exchanged everytime the team slipped. Jaffer became the mentor as Vidarbha got a first-hand taste of Mumbai's famed khadoos mentality.
This season after Vidarbha lost five matches in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Tournament, the selectors replaced five under performing players with youngsters. They won their remaining three matches and also strengthened the bench. The message was clear -- only performance counts. This kind of transparency and accountability has created an open culture in the dressing room.
There are areas that still need to be addressed, but with people like Vaidya working in the background to ensure that there is no dearth of talent supply - their age-group teams are also making a splash - it would be fair to say that the Vidarbha story is still some distance away from peaking.