Saurashtra have a unique way of pulling themselves up when the chips are down. Any random given player starts off by clapping and the other players - both on the field and the ones in the dressing room - join in to create an electrifying atmosphere that cheers up the bowler.
On Wednesday, as they completed a win over Gujarat in the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy to reach their fourth final in the last eight years, the celebrations had a distinct rhythm to it. Players were running around exuberantly, led by Jaydev Unadkat with a stump in hand. They later formed a huddle and the camaraderie in the squad was unmistakable even to an outsider.
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) March 4, 2020
"In a Ranji Trophy game, there aren't that many spectators in all the games. So you need to create that atmosphere where you feel good about yourself and you back your bowlers really well," Saurashtra skipper Jaydev Unadkat had said last year.
"I think it's something that gets us in our zone, which is really good. For a team to have a routine and get into that zone is something I love personally as well. If I'm bowling, and they start clapping and that atmosphere comes up, I really get that punch. And it's the same with everyone."
It is ironic then that Unadkat's career graph has often seen the fast bowler down and out, well in need of some clapping and encouragement to return to the top. Unadkat really came to the fore after a sensational season with Rising Pune Supergiant in 2017 although he had debuted for India prior to that.
In that season, the left-armer claimed 24 wickets in 12 matches, shining in the death overs where he even took a hat-trick in the final over of a game. By the end of 2017, he was in the Indian T20I side and shone in the first series against Sri Lanka. For the 2018 season, he was bought for an Indian record of Rs 11.5 crores in the IPL auction by Rajasthan Royals but Unadkat failed to replicate his form, averaging 44.18 and leaking runs at a rate above nine runs an over.
For India, the returns started fading before the IPL season. In each of his last five T20Is - from February to March 2018 - Unadkat leaked runs at a rate of eight runs per over or above, going above 11 runs per over thrice. Despite a rather poor 2018 with the white ball, Unadkat was bought back by Rajasthan Royals for the 2019 season at a stunning price of Rs 8.4 crore. Unadkat yet again failed to find his touch and in the season, his economy rate was a shocking 10.66.
Last December, he was yet again re-bought by Rajasthan in the auction, although at a much lesser fee. That franchises trust him despite his inconsistent returns might come as a surprise, but it is pretty much in sync with Unadkat's career graph. He has underperformed only to come back stronger each time and although his white-ball performances have earned him the wrath of Indian fans, the Saurashtra pacer has maintained an exemplary red-ball record.
In the 2019-2020 season, Unadkat has been pivotal in Saurashtra's run to the finals. He has snared 65 wickets in the season so far - the most by any pacer in a Ranji season - with seven five-wicket hauls in 15 innings. He has led the side from the front and nothing portrayed this better than the semi-finals game against Gujarat.
6⃣3⃣ and counting! 👏👏
Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat becomes the pacer with the most number of wickets in a #RanjiTrophy season. 💪💪
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) March 4, 2020
After picking up three wickets in the first innings - that of the dangerous Priyank Panchal and top-scorer Rujul Bhatt included - Unadkat was outstanding in the final innings as Saurashtra sealed the game. The left-armer ran through the top-order before Parthiv Patel and Chirag Gandhi put on 158 for the sixth wicket.
Unadkat came back to prise out Parthiv and went on to dismiss Axar Patel off the next delivery. Chirag Gandhi was also dismissed in the next over as the skipper changed the complexion of the game. His seven-wicket haul paved the way for a fantastic win, but what could go unnoticed is his leadership qualities that also came to the fore.
In the second innings, Saurashtra were reeling at 15 for 5 with Chintan Gaja generating vicious movement away from the right-handers. At three down, surprisingly No 11 batsman Chetan Sakariya, a left-hander, was sent in. It was a spur of the moment decision from Unadkat, but also one that changed the outcome of the game. The skipper even helped the No 11 pad up quickly. It altered Gujarat's momentum and Sakariya's 90-run stand with Arpit Vasavada brought Saurashtra back into the game.
It still needed an extraordinary effort from the bowling group to deny the Gujarat side and Unadkat, unsurprisingly, was the man taking charge. The left-arm seamer has often been in that role in the past for Saurashtra in red-ball cricket. While his white-ball form and numbers have made way for trolls, Unadkat has silently improved his red-ball game season after season.
Since the 2013-14 Ranji season, no fast bowler has a better strike rate than Unadkat in the Indian domestic scene. Contrary to popular notion, he isn't a one-trick pony. A large chunk of his wickets have come on his home ground in Rajkot, one of the least helpful track for pace bowlers in the Ranji Trophy. His average at the ground is nearly half of what the other pace bowlers have managed at the venue.
Pivotal to this has been his work with former Rajasthan Royals bowling coach Steffan Jones who has helped him remain fresh and hungry. Instead of a generic training routine, Unadkat worked with Jones to identify what exactly he needed to work on.
At 28, his career is peaking and his red-ball numbers pack quite a punch. That he can swing the ball upfront on helpful wickets and find ways to remain in the game on barren wickets make Unadkat one of a kind in the Indian domestic circuit. His exploits in recent years have flown under the radar, but this season, Unadkat has attracted massive attention with his performances game after game. Compound it with an astute understanding of the game that is reflected in his captaincy and India might just be pondering about bringing the left-armer back to the national setup.
He has been ignored even in the India A teams but Unadkat for one isn't bothered about selection for now. "I am in a state of peace in the sense that it does not affect my mindset at all when I play a game. Being the captain actually helps because I'm thinking about the team, strategies and all that and it's not just about me. That's helped me a lot to be in a good space," Unadkat revealed in an interview last month.
As Saurashtra prepare for a fourth final in eight years, they will also want to overturn a wretched record in the finals of the Ranji Trophy. In their last three finals, Saurashtra have finished second-best. But with Unadkat in peak form with the ball and leading his men in an inspirational fashion, Bengal sure won't have it easy against them in the final.
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