Do ghosts of the past haunt teams like a malevolent power year after year? Does history leave a mere footprint in the sands of time or an indelible impression on the future? Does what transpired years ago remain a hoodoo and impinge on the present?
Gujarat may have nervously grappled with these questions before the Ranji Trophy final against 41 times champions Mumbai, at a venue where they previously missed their only other chance to win the title. For all their toils through 2016-17, it came down to this gloriously cruel moment that would pronounce judgement on their campaign. No matter how much sportsmen hide behind the facade of processes, it is the results that torment and the results that elate.
These five days were set to witness them defy historical odds and clinch the title or leave them wallowing in imponderables like 'what might have been'. As they were left wondering in 2013-14 against the same opposition, when they narrowly missed out on a knockout spot. Despite securing a 99-run first innings lead, Gujarat trembled under the assault of the occasion, falling 28 runs short of their target of 175 in the second innings. In a near and rather advantageous coincidence, they managed to secure a hundred-run first innings lead this time.
They were up against the same Mumbai that had thwarted their bid for another knockout qualification in 2015-16. The core of the side had not changed much since those heartbreaks. Parthiv Patel, who eventually played a pivotal role in scripting a turnaround, had seen it slip away from their fingers like quicksand, from close quarters.
The hangover of an unfavourable past has broken the resolve of greater teams; just look at South Africa’s myriad World Cup faux pas’ as an archetypal example. Except in Gujarat’s case, it only seemed to have spurred them on.
"From the beginning our aim was to win the Ranji Trophy, so we planned accordingly. We had all bases covered this time. The last few times that we could not qualify was because our fortunes were determined by the result of the last league match. This time we consciously guarded against falling into that trap and ensured that we qualified for the knockouts earlier," affirmed Gujarat opener and highest run-getter Priyank Panchal, in conversation with Firstpost.
Pieces of the jigsaw could be seen falling in place when they usurped Mumbai on first innings lead at Hubballi this season. Overcoming the Mumbai hurdle was a major stepping stone in what they were endeavouring to achieve. It was unfortunate that Jasprit Bumrah, who played protagonist in that psychological shift with a six-wicket haul, was sidelined due to national commitments, with Gujarat on the cusp of something special.
However, whatever Gujarat missed in Bumrah's individual brilliance against a star-studded Mumbai, they made up for by operating as a disciplined pack. They restricted Mumbai to a modest 228 with the wickets shared in twos and threes between all their bowlers, almost as a symbol of coherence.
This was not the first time in the tournament that Gujarat were dealt such a crippling blow either. In a league match against Uttar Pradesh, they lost the services of ace spinner Axar Patel to India, but another left-arm spinner in Hardik Patel spun them to victory, with eleven wickets in the match. They lost Axar again, this time courtesy injury, prior to the semi-final against Jharkhand, but hardly felt his absence in another outright win. In the final, it was Bumrah's replacement, Chintan Gaja who toiled away tirelessly to bag eight wickets in the match.
"The core of the team has been together since much younger days, the same group of players have played together in junior tournaments also, which we have won, so we are very familiar with each others strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, Jasprit's experience and the way he was been bowling makes a difference but we already knew that he was going to leave because he represents India, so we were not thinking about it.”
“Besides, Chintan Gaja, who came into the side in place of Jasprit took eight wickets, which is a reflection of our bench strength. We knew if it comes down to it, we have enough back up in the squad, because even those who weren't getting a place in the XI are as good as the ones playing and whenever someone got a chance they delivered," concluded Panchal.
Any other shortcomings on the field were masked by their diminutive captain, with a giant heart and a steely resolve. When they were pegged back by the early departure of Panchal and Samit Gohel, Parthiv sprang into action. He steered them to the safety of a first innings lead with a counter-attacking 90. When he left, Gujarat were just two runs short of Mumbai's 228 with six wickets in hand. Half the job was done.
In a sense, both Parthiv and Gujarat were gradually building up to this moment. No stranger to extreme pressure, Parthiv had already led Gujarat to the Vijay Hazare Trophy a year ago. Gujarat were also winners of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (the premier domestic T20 tournament) 2015. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy final against Delhi, Parthiv set up the match with a hundred, before RP Singh and Bumrah performed the last rites, incinerating Delhi's vaunted batting line up.
On an individual note, things could not have been rosier for Parthiv, who was recalled to the Indian Test side after a gap of eight years. His crowning glory, however, was saved for the last. After bossing the final for most part, Gujarat floundered ephemerally, losing three quick wickets on the final morning, in pursuit of 313. At 89 for three, given the security of a first innings lead, a lot of teams would have opted to shut shop and block the day out, which is often counterproductive. Amidst the cacophony, Parthiv stood unruffled, as he had through most of Gujarat's triumphs and near misses, to his stroke his way to a hundred that exorcised the ghosts of the past.
Updated Date: Jan 16, 2017 11:54 AM