Ranji Trophy: Chintan Gaja revisits memorable semifinal adventure

Gujarat seamer Gaja looks back on a remarkable day in the 2019-20 season of the Ranji Trophy – the third day of the semifinal against Saurashtra.

Gujarat bowler Chintan Gaja in action during Ranji Trophy semifinal against Saurashtra in Rajkot.   -  Vijay Soneji

For his 36 wickets, Chintan Gaja had a big hand in Gujarat’s memorable run in the recently concluded 2019-20 season of the Ranji Trophy. The standout day for him in his nascent first-class career so far would be the third day of the semifinal against Saurashtra, the eventual champion, in Rajkot.

Staring at a large first-innings deficit after two days of cricket, Gujarat turned the tables on its opponent. Gaja’s daredevilry with the bat brought the deficit down to 52, and his spell with the new ball reduced Saurashtra to 15 for 5 in the second innings. In his strokeful half-century, he threw caution to the wind and repeatedly ran down the track to fast bowlers, including the in-form Jaydev Unadkat, to hit sixes, and then when he came on to bowl, he flummoxed the opposition top-order with his nagging fourth-stump line.

In lockdown, socially yours: World of Virat, Dhoni, Rohit and gang  

The advantage secured couldn’t be capitalised on, however, as wickets were hard to come by on the fourth day and Saurashtra secured a 92-run win on the fifth.

But Gaja’s efforts with bat and ball had given Saurashtra a real scare. Currently locked at home in Ahmedabad, the 25-year-old is keeping himself mentally and physically fit through workouts and other activities. In a conversation with Sportstar, he looks back on that remarkable day in Rajkot.

You were repeatedly coming down the track to bowlers to hit sixes during your counter-attacking half-century. Was this what you thought you would do when you went out to bat?

We were eight down when I went in to bat. I had a word with our coach, Sairaj Bahutule. [He told me,] ‘If you get it in your arc you can hit it,’ because for the past seven-eight overs we just got one or two runs. Akshar [Patel] and Roosh [Kalaria] both got out because of it. So I had a word with Sairaj and he told me to play my natural innings. Earlier, in the match against Kerala, I had adopted this approach, and it paid off.

“The turning point for me this season was Sairaj Bahutule, he changed my perspective about playing cricket...He changed the perspective of bowling and of batting. Skill-wise, I was able to execute my plans better. In terms of my mindset also, he helped me.”

First I got a bouncer from Prerak [Mankad]. In the very next over, Chirag Jani bowled a bouncer. I didn’t have anything in my mind then about whether I should hit the ball or not. But I just saw a bouncer and played my shot. Then, my mindset changed. Our team didn’t enjoy success in the first two days, and I hadn’t been successful at all as I had a wicket off a no-ball. I had a gut feeling that I could do something. Then, I tried it and it went well.

[Jaydev] Unadkat came into bowl and I had the same approach against him as well. Even if he was the standout bowler of the season (he had 67 wickets by the end of the tournament), I couldn’t let him dictate terms. So I played with the same approach.

How would you compare your spell with the eight-wicket haul you got earlier this season?

This was a little more important, in terms of being the semifinal. Eight wickets for a fast bowler; it was something memorable. But this was something else; here, our entire team was buoyant after that spell. It was at different level. I would prefer this spell over the other.

This was the best season for me. I wanted to keep it simple. From the very first match, I had a feeling that if kept landing the ball in the right areas, I would have a good chance of taking wickets. I had that in mind [during the semifinal as well] and my bowling wasn’t off radar even in a single match. I was bowling well, but I was getting two [or] three [or] four-wicket hauls. I had confidence that I was bowling well and that the wickets would come. And they did.

Can you reflect on that spell? The batsmen were all either caught behind or caught in the slips. [One was caught at short leg off an inside edge]

Off the first ball, the batsman was beaten. I got [confidence] from that. Fortunately, Parthiv bhai (Gujarat captain Parthiv Patel) was not keeping at that time, he was standing at mid-on. After every ball he used to come to me and say, ‘you have to do nothing else, you have to just remember the fourth-stump line, let the ball do the talking. The ball will go in, go out, and you will get the wicket.’ He knows about these things; since I started playing, he had been guiding me. Even after I had taken two [or] three wickets, he would come to me after every ball and encourage me, saying ‘you have to be there, and don’t think anything else.’ So my plan was to keep the ball landing there.

The ball was holding the line. It wasn’t coming in sharply, but was just holding the line and the batsmen were playing the wrong line.

The contest slipped away from your team’s hands on the fourth day.

On that wicket, you could bowl well with the new ball, but after 30 overs, the ball wouldn’t do anything. We were having our dinner at the end of the third day; everyone was seated. We said to ourselves that the ball had got old and that if we got wickets the next morning, it would be great. But things didn’t go our way. But regardless of the end, it was fun to be a part of that contest.

You had a memorable 2016-17 final as well. It was your first season with Gujarat. You took six wickets and ended up on the winning side.

That season, I was playing U-23 as well as Ranji Trophy, simultaneously. In the first two matches, I bowled 60-70 odd overs, and I got no wicket. I wondered when I would get my first wicket. I got my first wicket in the third match, and the fourth match I played was the final. The evening before that final, I didn’t know whether I was going to play as no one had told me anything. Then, Parthiv bhai came to me and said: ‘Be ready, you’re playing tomorrow.’ Then, my mind started racing. But it went well.

READ| Sportswashing, a new word for an old idea

In these three seasons of first-class cricket, which coaches have influenced you strongly and what have you learnt?

There were a few coaches that have helped me in my career. One was my U-23 coach, Tejas Varsani sir. After that, our Ranji Trophy coach Hitesh Majmudar, and now Sairaj Bahutule. The turning point for me this season was Sairaj Bahutule, he changed my perspective about playing cricket. I have been in the team for some time but there is tough competition for spots; we wouldn’t know whether we would hold our spots. He told me: ‘Chintan, you’re doing a fantastic job, just keep your focus and just prove it when your turn comes.’ He changed the perspective of bowling and of batting. Skill-wise, I was able to execute my plans better. In terms of my mindset also, he helped me. He said: ‘you have to deliver during pressure situations as well.’

“This was the best season for me. I wanted to keep it simple. From the very first match, I had a feeling that if kept landing the ball in the right areas, I would have a good chance of taking wickets. I had that in mind [during the semifinal as well] and my bowling wasn’t off radar even in a single match.”

Now that you’re amidst a lockdown, are you in touch with your Gujarat team-mates and planning or discussing a few things together?

We had a meeting with the coach (Bahutule) a few days ago. Sir said, we could do visualisation. We could visualise our game, about the aspect we would want to focus on. I could visualise that I was winning matches for my team. Yesterday, we had a Zoom session with Billiards player Geet Sethi, for our Ranji Trophy players and U-23 players. We could ask our questions if we had any. The boys asked what we could do to improve our temperament; how could we improve? It was a wonderful meeting. He said plenty of good things. He told us not to watch news about COVID-19 for more than five minutes, to not let it into our subconscious mind. You’re athletes, he said. Ghar pe bhi aap log kuchh na kuchh kar hi sakte ho achha (You can do good things at home as well) .He said plenty of things.

How are you spending your time during this lockdown?

My parents keep complaining I don’t stay at home. Their complaints have stopped as I’ve stayed at home for a long time now. For the first few days I wasn’t doing much but for a cricketer it is very difficult to just sit at home. Whatever I could do I started to do, such as play gully cricket. The whole week I keep myself busy with something or the other – a gym session or conditioning [or something else].

[I don’t have] a particular gymnasium, but a proper session can be managed. I have got weights; through those, I can manage my gym workouts.

  Dugout videos