The rise of Saurashtra from the districts

In the off-season, head coach Sitanshu Kotak travels around the districts just to watch and pick players who would later share the dressing room with the likes of Pujara and Unadkat.

Saurashtra's Sitanshu Kotak is head coach, analyst and media manager all rolled into one.   -  Prashant Nakwe

Saurashtra, one of three teams from the state of Gujarat that play domestic cricket, reached its third Ranji Trophy final in six years in the just-concluded season. However, the region’s cricketing success dates to earlier times and under earlier iterations – it won the title as Nawanagar in 1936-37 and again as Western India in 1943-44.

As Saurashtra, it is still seeking a first Ranji Trophy title, and the search for quality players is on across the districts in the region. But the level of cricket at the grassroots level tends to fluctuate – it’s not often that a Cheteshwar Pujara and a Ravindra Jadeja are found – and that’s perhaps why Saurashtra has a pool of just 20-25 players, far fewer than big guns Mumbai and Karnataka.

But Sitanshu Kotak – head coach, analyst and media manager all rolled into one – has sworn to find the best. A successful Ranji batsman (7,607 runs) for Saurashtra, he earned the job on merit. Kotak’s real challenge starts in the off-season, when he travels around the districts to watch players.

In an interview with Sportstar ahead of the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, he spoke on the journey of the new Saurashtra and how he traps talent.

Saurashtra lost the Ranji final to Vidarbha, but this has been a season of positives. What’s your assessment?

The whole team has performed in the season. Three players — Harvik Desai, Snell Patel and Sheldon Jackson — have scored above 700 runs individually. Eight or nine players are averaging more than 30, which is a good achievement. Dharmendrasinh Jadeja picked up 50 wickets in a season, which is a record in Saurashtra. Chetan Sakariya [left-arm pacer] is still learning but he is somebody who can get the work done for you. 

Left-arm pacer Chetan Sakariya (R) took 29 wickets in 8 matches in his first Ranji trophy season.   -  Vivek Bendre

Tell us about your player-searching methods, most of the youngsters in this Saurashtra side that played the Ranji final are your picks…

At times, by word of mouth, I get to know of a player. Somebody had informed me to check out Chetan Sakariya [left-arm pacer]. I called him in the off-season in the Ranji probables camp. As soon as I saw him, I knew he had it in him. I knew I needed to make him ready. And we did it straight away. Generally, four-day sides are stable. I try to make rookies play one-dayers and T20s first. I made Vishvaraj Jadeja played T20 first, he missed out on the one-dayers due to an injury, but played the Ranji. Samarth Vyas is also promising. He played the whole one-day season. Harvik Desai first played in the one-dayers and then, Ranji.

How much of travel is involved in your scouting schedule?

A decent amount. I watched Vishvaraj in the district matches in Rajkot. I have been following him for two to three years. I go for district matches to check out players. I usually get a probables list in advance. If I have to watch a player, I definitely make it to the match. My decision-making has been my vision. Whenever I have felt ‘this boy will click’, he has clicked. I can identify players who play for survival and who play for greater things. 

When you pick players in bulk, how do you balance the side with their strengths and weaknesses?

Every player has different strengths. Not all of them are complete cricketers yet. Vishvaraj never batted at No 3. In U-23, they were making him bat at No 6. I had faith that he could bat at No 3. He also told me he had never played so up, the earliest was No 4. I told him it had no difference. As a player, I have opened as well as batted at No 7. I told him ‘if you have to play and perform, just go out and play and don’t worry’. He has a good technique.

The Saurashtra team is benefitting from seniors like Jaydev Unadkat and Cheteshwar Pujara.   -  Vivek Bendre

 

You were saying not all districts produce good cricketers, what should be done to ensure the problem of plenty? It is a good problem to have…

It is. I think we should play more tournaments. Rajkot has tournaments. Three or four districts are reasonably strong, the others are average. There are around 16 districts. They play in two groups. Competitive matches are less, so you got to go out of Rajkot and play club games. Some players do that. For example, Chirag Jani and Arpit Vasavada play in Chennai. These players are in match practise. It is all a part of my vision, and now my focus is to ensure how others can get more games.

 

List of affiliated teams of districts under Saurashtra Cricket Association

Amreli District Cricket Association (Amreli), Bhavnagar District Cricket Association (Bhavnagar), Bhavnagar District (Rural) Cricket Association  (Mahuva), Botad Jilla Cricket Association (Botad), Cricket Association of Surendranagar District (Surendranagar), Cricket for Rajkot District (Rajkot), Diu District Cricket Association (Diu), Dwarka District Cricket Association (Dwarka), Gramya Cricket Association Morbi (Morbi), Jamnagar District Cricket Association (Jamnagar), Junagadh District Cricket Association (Junagadh), Junagadh District Rural Cricket Association (Veraval), Kutch District Cricket Association (Bhuj), Kachchh District (Rural) Cricket Association  (Gandhidham), Porbandar District Cricket Association (Porbandar), Rural Cricket Association of Rajkot (Gondal), Rajkot Division Sports Association (Railway, Rajkot).


Sintanshu Kotak (L) was a successful Ranji batsman (7,607 runs) for Saurashtra.   -  Vivek Bendre

 

Being a former player and a domestic giant, how much did it help to lay out the plans?

As a player, I thought wherever I play, the team should win. As coach, I thought the same. If I am coaching a side, I would need results or else, there is no point doing the job. Our fast bowling department is something I wanted to improve from my playing days. I wanted to ensure my bowlers are ready to perform on green wickets. I started having grass on our practise wickets. I have been trying this for long. I make the batters bat on those wickets too. We had never won matches on green wickets before, and you can’t have one bowler, Jaydev Unadkat, making the ball talk. My plan was to have four bowlers ready — Sakariya, Jani, Hardik Rathod and Shaurya Sanandiya. I feel I have been able to create a pool.

Saurashtra has also been a very disciplined unit. How much of an influence are the senior players?

One thing has changed from my playing days. Earlier, players making mistakes had to deal with harsh treatment. I do it differently. And there are seniors such as Jaydev Shah [who was still touring with the side after retiring mid-way in the season], Unadkat and Pujara who talk. There are lots of such talks. See, nobody is an idiot and a person is bound to realise his mistake. I don’t get angry on them. I give them their space for the realisation to sink in. I usually talk the next morning. As a coach, you should always give time to players to absorb. It does not make sense to shout at them after stumps.