The Khandheri stadium in Rajkot is straight out of the wild west. With barren lands on either side separated by a national highway and a railway track behind, the Bengal cricketers had a Clint Eastwood-like determination, but it was Saurashtra which pulled the trigger at the opportune moment.
On day five, Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat caught Bengal by the neck to secure a victory on the first-innings lead of 44 runs. He trapped Anustup Majumdar in front of the stumps and ran Akash Deep out — a freak dismissal with the batsman carelessly stranded outside the crease — to bring his side back into the game. From 354/6, the visiting team added just 27 runs to be dismissed for 381 in reply to 425. Saurashtra batted till tea as a formality.
The trophy returned to the Kathiawar region and the land of Ranjitsinhji, after whom the tournament is named, after 73 years. Before Saurashtra came into the domestic cricketing map in 1950, Nawanagar and Western India from the domain had a taste of the title in 1936-37 and 1943-44. Surprisingly, Bengal was the runner-up on both occasions.
Appearing in its fourth final in eight years, Saurashtra had to do it this time. Earlier, it had lost twice to Mumbai and once to Vidarbha.
Cut to 2007, when Ravindra Jadeja had gone to play a T20 match wearing Saurashtra’s jersey. Somebody asked him, "Yeh kahan ki team hai? Kahan se khelto ho? (Where is this team from? Where do you come from?" Debu Mitra, coach for 10 years, reveals.
“A few years later, when we were playing Mumbai in the Ranji final, they got Sachin Tendulkar for the game. He hadn’t played too many games that season but he returned to play against us,” recalls Mitra.
That was the start of Saurashtra’s rise.
It is a coincidence the team that beat Bengal this time has been made by a former Bengal cricketer!
After the veteran moved on, former player Sitanshu Kotak wore many hats — that of coach, analyst and also, the media manager. The press would love him back too. Former India fast bowler Karsan Ghavri was appointed coach for season 2019-20. He was more of a mentor with assistant coach Niraj Odedra being the taskmaster on the field.
Ghavri announced that he wouldn’t be continuing from the coming season due to health concerns as Ranji also means an erratic travel schedule across India; slightly difficult for a 69-year-old, who suffered a heart attack four years ago. He ended on a high.
The final, however, was not a great advertisement for red-ball cricket with only three-and-a-quarter innings on display. Bengal batsman Majumdar once again was on course to win the game for Bengal but Unadkat bowled with belief. After every wicket, he would look up to thank the almighty. He finished as top wicket-taker of the season with 67 scalps. “Before every ball, I told myself that I need to bowl that one magic ball,” he says.
Ranji matches do not pull enough people to the stands. It was mostly the players’ and officials’ families along with some schoolchildren. On day three, the kids had arrived with vuvuzela-type horns. Their roar would start with Unadkat’s run up and fade once the ball hit the bat. The players would clap in return. They have been doing this for three years. All of them would clap in a synchronised pattern. It can be intimidating for the opponent batsmen.
Elsewhere, Hemali Desai, the woman scorer of BCCI-SCA, was at work.
On-field umpire C. Shamshuddin got injured in the middle of the match when a ball accidentally hit his groin. Reserve umpire Yeshwant Barde flew in that evening.
We sat in an open media box, right beside the president’s box and the selectors’ enclosure. New chief selector Sunil Joshi was in attendance with Sarandeep Singh. Jatin Paranjpe joined two days later. Bengal bowling coach Ranadeb Bose was in fact hoping Mukesh Kumar, the pacer who got the wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara, would catch Joshi’s eye.
Bengal coach Arun Lal had criticised the strip. And it did not go down well with the Saurashtra Cricket Association officials. “Very poor wicket. The board has to look into things like this. The ball is not coming up, it is not getting off properly. It is dusting on the first day. This is very poor,” he was visibly put off.
Lal Ji, as he is fondly called, is a cancer survivor and his story is an inspiration to Bengal cricketers. But his comment on the pitch, on day one itself, was not received well. The SCA issued a statement stating that ‘the wicket may not have had extra bounce which the Bengal bowlers were looking for, but that doesn’t make the wicket poor.’
Cheteshwar Pujara’s father, Arvind, was a happy man in the end. He stood quietly beside his daughter-in-law when the Saurashtra players lifted the trophy.
“For the entire team and the region, this is special and it also means a lot for my father, who has played in the Ranji Trophy for Saurashtra in the past. And he was present today. For generations to follow, it will give them belief,” says Pujara.
“The youngsters will get inspiration out of this and the entire cricketing structure will improve. We have started a process and it will continue. It is about performing consistently season after season,” says Pujara, adding that Ranji performances should count. “Jaydev has bowled exceptionally well throughout the season. If someone takes 67 wickets in a season, I don’t think there is anyone who can perform better in the Ranji Trophy. There has to be a lot of importance given to Ranji performances for getting picked in the Indian team.”
There was a sense of gloom in the Bengal dressing room but they fought hard with a strong performance from comeback man Wriddhiman Saha. He batted for 247 minutes with Sudip Chatterjee to drop anchor. His innings stopped at 64.
Unadkat carried the trophy to the press conference room and kept it beside him while answering the media. “I wanted to be bowl-fit. To be fit and bowling with the same intensity on the final day as I would on the first day.
I wanted to prove I am not just someone who is looked up to when the IPL auction numbers come up,” he made it clear.
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