Ranji Trophy final: My presence will give confidence to Saurashtra's batsmen - Cheteshwar Pujara

Pujara is confident of Saurashtra's top order returning to form against Bengal.

Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat (left) and Cheteshwar Pujara had been in regular correspondence during the semifinal.   -  Vivek Bendre

It’s been a challenging tour with the Indian team for Cheteshwar Pujara, and not one the side would like to remember. So, one would expect the team’s batting ace to return home, take a break and then go about his business. But then, that’s not the typical Pujara.

The bouncers don’t scare him. The trickiest of surfaces aren’t intimidating any more. The fear of failure doesn’t affect him much. Even the jet lag can’t stop Pujara from hitting the nets, hours after reaching home, following a long flight from New Zealand. So, here he is, back at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium for a rigorous training session ahead of a “very important fixture” — the Ranji Trophy final between Saurashtra and Bengal. This is Saurashtra’s second summit clash in two years, and Pujara has made sure he’s available for the game.

Last year, despite his participation, the team failed to clear the final hurdle against Vidarbha.

Leading from the front

Can the Jaydev Unadkat-led side go one better this time? The team has certainly shown promise with an outstanding semifinal win, credit for which in no small part goes to the captain himself. Against a mighty Gujarat, Saurashtra found itself on the crossroads on the final day; when Parthiv Patel and Chirag Gandhi kept the bowlers at bay, the contest appeared to be slipping away from Saurashtra. But Unadkat effected a devastating spell on the opposition after tea to clinch the win, finishing with seven wickets in the second innings.

This gritty show, Pujara feels, will work in his team’s favour. “It’s been a collective effort, but then, Jaydev is having a fantastic season. The way he has bowled, is remarkable. He is the first fast bowler to scalp 65 wickets in a season — not many have done it. He has led from the front,” Pujara told Sportstar.

Ready with advice

“The team is in good shape. We cannot forget that it’s a team game and whenever there was a tough situation, someone has stepped up and pulled us through,” Pujara said, drawing reference to centuries from Sheldon Jackson and Arpit Vasavada in the semifinal.

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Even when in New Zealand, Pujara regularly communicated with Unadkat and helped him plan. Before boarding the flight to Mumbai, Pujara asked Unadkat to send him a message in case any help was needed; after all, Saurashtra was in a tricky spot on the fourth day of the semifinal. “It is difficult for me to disclose the game plans,” Pujara said with a smile.

But he admitted they spoke mostly about coming up with a right strategy. “The chat was about setting a right game plan in place. I am just there to advise, it’s also important for the guys to execute the plans. When it comes to the skills, the guys have been able to execute things well.”

Misfiring middle order

Before leaving for New Zealand, Pujara had featured in the first five matches of the Ranji Trophy for Saurashtra. In one of the matches, against Karnataka, he scored 248. But the middle order failed to get going after his exit, and now, ahead of the final, the team members are excited to have their beloved ‘Chintu bhai’ back. “My presence will give a lot of confidence to the team. When it comes to our team, the guys at the top can perform really well. Our top order has gone through tough times, yes, but I am confident that it’s a matter of one game and things can change quickly,” the seasoned campaigner said.

“If I am there, I can guide them on how to prepare. Ultimately, they will have to execute the plans, but I have seen them overcoming the odds in the past. So, I am confident.”

Having seen the highs and lows in his career, Pujara understands that every player goes through such rough phases. “Look at Gujarat’s Priyank Panchal. The way he plays his cricket, nobody could believe that he was out on a duck on both the innings. So, it happens… I am sure, our players will be able to come back stronger,” he said.

‘A good chance’

While this is the second consecutive final for Saurashtra, Bengal will be appearing for a summit clash after 13 long seasons. “Bengal is a good team, there is no doubt about it. The only advantage for us is that we are playing at home, so we know the conditions well. We know Bengal’s strength and weaknesses, so keeping that in mind, we would like to play to our strength,” he said.

“If we have our plans in place, then we can have a good chance of winning the title at home. We have been consistent, we played the final last year. We lost, but it shows that we have talent to reach the final back-to-back. Everyone is contributing.”

In the last few games, the top order hasn’t really shown steel, but as the most important clash nears, the State association officials, the fans and the support staff are excited. At home, here’s a chance to end the trophy drought, and some stability in batting can turn things their way.

Over to Chintu bhai!

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