On Friday afternoon, Saurashtra became the third first-time winners of the Ranji Trophy in the last four years. Interestingly, all three teams come from the west of India, which was once all about first Bombay, then Mumbai. Parthiv Patel’s Gujarat kick-started the trend in 2016-17, Faiz Fazal’s Vidarbha followed suit in the two subsequent seasons. Mumbai haven’t made the final since being slayed by Parthiv’s second-innings hundred four seasons back; this year, they didn’t even progress beyond the group stage. Safe to say that the balance of power has shifted. For now.
What makes Saurashtra’s success remarkable is that it has come almost despite the system, not necessarily because of it. A fourth appearance in the final of the country’s premier first-class competition in the last eight years is suggestive of an impeccable talent-spotting, nurturing and honing process. How else can one explain such great consistency? News flash: Saurashtra’s Ranji Trophy-winning side didn’t have a physical trainer as part of the support staff.
The glorious marches of Gujarat and Vidarbha to the Promised Land were the result of carefully designed structures which married pragmatism with practicality. Solid programmes at the grassroots level facilitated a gradual rather than dramatic climb up the ranks, though it helped in Gujarat’s case that in Parthiv, they had a leader non-pareil in every sense.
Saurashtra’s repeated dalliances with Ranji finals over the last decade, therefore, could indicate similar systems, but that’s not the case. Much of the infrastructure is housed in Rajkot, the home of the Saurashtra Cricket Association, while even the core districts can point to reasonable neglect. And yet, this is the body that has given the sport the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja. And, of course, Jaydev Unadkat.
Unlike his Gujarat counterpart, Unadkat does not exude authority. When Gujarat are on the field, you are in no doubt who is in charge, even though Parthiv himself is not given to extravagant hand-waving and traffic-policing. With Saurashtra, there is a different feel, with or without Pujara and Jadeja in the ranks. Then again, while Parthiv has helmed Gujarat for nearly a decade, this was Unadkat’s first full season in charge of the state side. And what a season it has been.
As far as inspirational skippers go, Unadkat is right up there. Looking at him now, at his confidence in his abilities, it’s hard to believe that this is the same person who debuted disastrously for India in the Centurion Test in 2010. He had had a good year until then, with the India Under-19s and India ‘A’, but the frail teenager wasn’t quite ready for the next step up at the end of a very demanding 12 months physically. With Zaheer Khan ruled out through injury, Unadkat’s left-arm over clinched the deal ahead of the pacy Umesh Yadav. Following figures of 26-4-101-0 in his only bowl, he hasn’t come near the Test eleven since.
But it isn’t those numbers which define Unadkat. How about 67, for instance? That’s the number of wickets he took in the Ranji Trophy this season, comfortably the highest by a paceman in the history of the tournament and just one fewer than the all-time record for most wickets in a season. How about seven, if you like? That’s the number of five-wicket hauls he had in an innings this season. How about three, the number of his ten-wicket match-hauls? Lest we should forget, Unadkat bounds in from a distance and bowls fast medium. And these wickets came on Indian pitches, several of them on unresponsive surfaces like the one laid out for the final against Bengal.
Going into the final, Saurashtra boasted Pujara, just back from New Zealand, and Arpit Vasavada, the second-innings centurion from the semifinal win against Gujarat, both struggling with illness. They had Sheldon Jackson, their top run-scorer this season who was coming off a first-innings hundred in the semis. There was Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, the left-arm spinner also battling fever but a crucial defensive cog in the Saurashtra bowling wheel. But Unadkat was the cynosure, as a man with 65 scalps from nine matches would inevitably be.
The captain endured a frustrating day and three quarters with the ball, having shouts for leg before turned down or overturned, seeing the ball hiss past the outside edge, finding edges that either burst through or evaded clutching fingers. If he was frustrated, he didn’t show it. Perhaps he knew something that no one else did.
The 28-year-old had delivered 32.3 fruitless overs and seen Bengal claw to within 64 of his team’s 425 when he produced an excellent delivery from the round the stumps and a little wide of the crease that came in with the angle to trap Anustup Majumdar in front. Majumdar, centurion in both the quarters and the semis, and Arnab Nandi had threatened to ruin Saurashtra’s party with a stand of 98 for the seventh wicket, but Unadkat wasn’t going to finish second best this time. No sir, he wasn’t. For good measure, he showed the smarts Akash Deep lacked to run the dawdling batsman out at the striker’s end two deliveries later, and fittingly sealed the deal by pinging Ishan Porel in front of the stumps to secure his team the decisive lead. No one deserved the encomiums more than Unadkat the braveheart.
But no matter how inspirational, lion-hearted and talismanic, no one single individual can fashion a title-winning run. Unadkat was the planner alongside wily old coach Karsan Ghavri and the principal bowling enforcer, but there were other stellar performers including the captain’s great mate, Pujara. Either side of his India commitments, he was always available for the mother lode; it would have been tempting for Pujara, afflicted by a sore throat and bouts of dizziness, to sit out the final. But that’s not Pujara, is it? Batting out of position but totally in character, he negotiated 237 deliveries in making 66. And stitched together 142 for the sixth wicket with Vasavada with whom he shared not only physical discomfort but also the same coach, his father Arvind Pujara. Vasavada and the experienced Jackson, who himself became a father during the final, were the batting bulwarks with 763 and 809 runs respectively, while opener Harvik Desai, Pujara (in his limited appearances) and Chirag Jani all topped 500.
Unadkat picked up more than twice as many wickets as the No 2, Jadeja (32); the less celebrated stars were Jani (17 wickets) and fellow all-rounder Prerak Mankad, who backed up 445 runs with 23 important scalps. As coach, the soft-spoken Ghavri couldn’t have asked for more. The whole was even more impressive than the sum of the not inconsiderable parts, this was a team in every sense of the word.
This is also a team that has been together for a long time now. Most of them have come up through the ranks in each other’s company, and are comfortable both in their own skins and alongside their friends first and team-mates next. There is an organised chaos to their methods stemming from an awareness in each member of what is required from them and the security that one or two failures don’t light the pathway to the exit door. Whenever he is around, Pujara is Unadkat’s trusted confidant though the senior India international makes it a point to never hijack the captain’s platform. When Pujara is away on national duty, Unadkat knows his buddy is just a phone call away. It’s a great situation to be in, devoid of ego and superstar antics. It might not always guarantee success, but when the pieces do fall in place, it is an unbeatable combination. And to think that the more illustrious Jadeja couldn’t play a single game on account of his India commitments.
At one point accused, not unjustly, of fashioning wins on designer dust-bowls at home, Saurashtra have emerged an all-weather, all-round outfit. The ultimate proof of their levels of comfort outside of home came in the semifinal last year when, after conceding a 39-run lead in Bangalore, they mounted a stirring chase of 279 at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium against Karnataka. After being reduced to 23 for three. It finally seemed to convince not just the team but to the sceptics as well that Saurashtra were here to stay. Vidarbha were too good for them at the final hurdle last season, but Unadkat’s band of warriors were not to be denied for long. With the captain as both the engine room and the driver, they have now carved their way into the record books. As Unadkat will have everyone know, this is just the beginning of the beginning. System, or no system.
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