It’s a cold, hazy February morning in Kolkata. A pall of gloom has fallen on the Bengal dressing room at Eden Gardens – players are dejected and try hard to control their emotions as the home team has just been handed its second defeat in three years by Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy.
The Saurashtra camp, on the other hand, is buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. Players are clicking selfies with the trophy, families have entered the playing arena to bask in the glory. In one corner of the ground, captain Jaydev Unadkat is seen sharing a light moment with a few of his colleagues.
Unadkat, popularly called ‘JD’ by team-mates, knows that his team is one of the best-ever Saurashtra teams. Reaching five finals in 10 years and grabbing two titles in three years are no mean achievements.
“This decade belongs to us – Saurashtra cricket,” Unadkat tells Sportstar with a smile.
His team-mates agree. This team has managed to keep its core intact since the 2015-16 season. The management and the players know this isn’t a bunch of star-studded players except Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, both of whom are mostly busy with international commitments. But it doesn’t matter.
Communication has been clear, and players know their roles. Somebody always steps up to the plate during periods of crisis, be it Dharmendrasinh Jadeja picking up six wickets and scoring 90 runs in the second innings to pave the way for a historic win against Mumbai, or Parth Bhut scoring a century batting at No. 9 and taking eight wickets to guide the side to a win against Punjab in the quarterfinals.
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“It’s down to the core of the group. We have developed really well. They were all youngsters when we started this decade, but when you look at them now, you will realise that the core of the team has played about 70-80 games throughout. That’s probably one of one the reasons why there’s a lot of stability in the team,” Unadkat says.
Senior members of the team in Arpit Vasavada and Sheldon Jackson lend balance to the team. That’s why, when Saurashtra Cricket Association officials mulled over the option of trying out new players and benching a few seniors, Unadkat convinced them not to do so. Vasavada scored 907 runs in 15 innings and led Saurashtra in the absence of Unadkat (Unadkat had been selected to play for India), while Jackson scored 588 runs, including 160 in the first innings of the semifinals against Karnataka, and 59 in the final.
“My job was to create that culture where the senior pros of the team are setting the right example, including myself. We did that really well. That’s why, everyone who has come in over the last five-six seasons has been drafted into the system and they know what’s expected from them. The strength lies in that stability that we have in our team at the moment,” Unadkat says.
Unadkat missed a few first-round matches, the quarterfinal, and the semifinal due to his India commitments. But stand-in captain Vasavada made some significant contributions in his absence – a 202 and 47 not out in the semifinals against Karnataka, and a gritty 77 in the quarterfinal against Punjab. Vasavada also scored 81 against Bengal in the final. “I just play to my strengths. My style of play is a bit defensive, so I take a bit of time, and that’s why I don’t focus on the scorecard and just play freely,” he says.
Vasavada believes that keeping the core intact since the 2015-16 season has benefited the team. “The core players have been playing for a long time and they have the experience of handling high-pressure situations. And, that’s why we have been able to handle each and every situation,” Vasavada says.
‘Confidence and belief’
He also attributes the success to “confidence and belief.”
“We just look to play to our strengths and as a unit. Whenever there has been a crunch situation, someone has stood up and pulled the team out of the woods. We have been able to instil that confidence and belief among the players, which is paying off…”
While players give their hundred percent on the field, the friendships among them are also strong. They spend a considerable time together and believe that confidence should be high in victory and defeat. That’s why you saw them chilling out in the team hotel on the eve of the final and having a hearty laugh. They know that they are leaving a legacy behind. To that end, the SCA has ensured that the players are well taken care of. Being a former first-class cricketer, SCA president Jaydev Shah understands what a team needs to achieve success at the highest level; that’s why despite a few heartbreaks in the final, the team never lost hope.
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“Saurashtra was being consistent and it was just a matter of time before we could push a bit. JD played a crucial role in taking the team a bit higher and the fact that the foundation of the team was already built actually helped,” Shah explains. “There were transitions, but everything was fluent. It’s all about everyone aiming for that one common goal — we want to become the champions. Be it the selectors, the coaches, everyone had just one target…”
That’s why the team wasn’t despondent after losing a couple of Ranji Trophy finals. “It’s just about that one moment when things start clicking and it happened for us,” Shah says.
Coach Neeraj Odedra got the best out of his players. Shah reveals that Odedra took suggestions from many — including former SCA president Niranjan Shah, former captain and coach Sitanshu Kotak — to make sure that everyone was on the same page. It only helped the team get better as a group. In the build-up to the season, the players had regular fitness camps across categories. That, Shah believes, helped them immensely.
When the team travelled to Kolkata for the final, Bengal was the favourite. Playing at home, in the known conditions and amid a huge crowd support, Bengal had everything in its favour, but in the end, it failed to capitalise.
While Bengal lost the crucial toss, which allowed Saurashtra bowlers make most of the early conditions and dismiss half of Bengal’s batters in the first session, captain Manoj Tiwary believes that skill set let them down.
“When you look from outside, it is very obvious to say that the team is crumbling in big games, but having been there, I know that’s not the case,” Tiwary says.
“In the quarterfinals and semifinal against defending champion Madhya Pradesh, our boys delivered. Those were also big matches, so it’s not right to say that they are unable to handle pressure. In cricket, there are a few little factors that are beyond your control and I think in the final, the toss became crucial and also Saurashtra bowled well,” the Bengal captain says, adding “In the first session, the skill set let us down…”
Tiwary is optimistic that players will learn from their mistakes and turn things around in years to come. It was once again a case of so-near-yet-so-far for the team, but it can certainly take inspiration from its conquerors who are now reaping rewards of years of single-minded focus on their goal.
Saurashtra defeated Bengal in a one-sided final at Eden Gardens for its second title in three years. The assuring presence of a solid core of senior players, role clarity, fitness trainings, and confidence and belief among players have enabled the team to script another glorious chapter in its history.
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