How they brought Ranji home
Saurashtra have enough players from small towns. Sheldon Jackson, Chirag Jani, Harvik Desai and Chetan Sakariya all hail from Bhavnagar. Kotak has graduated to coaching India A and former India pacer Kharsan Ghavri was coach this season.Updated: Mar 16, 2020, 22:50 IST
The reign of Ranjitsinhji as Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, ruler of the region now called Jamnagar, had ended three years earlier with his death at 60. Nawanagar found a perfect way to pay cricketing tribute to the man hailed for his leg glance in a 15-Test career for England—winning the third edition of the national championship named after Ranji.
That victory in 1936-37 had come against Bengal, and a team since renamed Saurashtra ended an endless wait before eventually overcoming the same opponents last week to claim the Ranji Trophy—after three defeats in the final over the last decade.
Despite Saurashtra being steeped in cricket history, it was seen as lightweights until the last decade. The team under the captaincy of Jaydev Shah, now the association president, was only trying to bury the image of being pushovers in domestic cricket.
And the results began to show. Saurashtra reached the final in 2012-13, losing to Mumbai. But it again back to battle for the title against Indian cricket’s most formidable side in 2015-16. The team would no longer look at Mumbai or Karnataka in awe. In 2014, Shah was joined by Sitanshu Kotak, who became the coach.
Kotak the batsman would kill the confidence of opposing bowlers by digging in, as a prelude to the Cheteshwar Pujara show. “When I became the coach, I realised that you need to make this a team. In Ranji Trophy, a team that relies on individuals struggles to qualify for the knockouts,” Kotak said.
“I started looking for individuals who don’t play for survival, but to win games for the team. Those who have been around for 2 to 5 years should be playing to grow or to help the team win. In the Ranji circuit, even now you will see there are individuals who are playing with the wrong motives. That I have made a hundred, a fifty, or taken a three-wicket-haul, and now I will be able to play through the season. I thought, that was never a good idea,” says Kotak, explaining how the seeds of team spirit were sowed.
Pujara, despite being an India Test mainstay, has taken over the job of providing inputs in the last few years. He continues to be heavily involved with skipper Jaydev Unadkat in the planning for his state team, and not missing a game for Saurashtra when he is free of national duties.
Pujara echoes Kotak’s thoughts. “Earlier, players were not aiming big. They were happy if they scored a hundred,” he says.
Kotak says, “I’m not saying age is a criteria. I myself played till I was 40-41. But once you are over 30, and are less likely to play for India, you should not be looking to only stretch your domestic career by a few years. The team should need you more than you needing the team.
“If there a few players like this, it spreads negativity. When there is a bad patch, they would be seen joking around after they have completed their fifty. That ruins the atmosphere. You need team men, hard-working people; you need people who are ready to die for the team. In the five years or so I was there, we tried to change things,” he adds.
Saurashtra have enough players from small towns. Sheldon Jackson, Chirag Jani, Harvik Desai and Chetan Sakariya all hail from Bhavnagar. Kotak has graduated to coaching India A and former India pacer Kharsan Ghavri was coach this season.
Apart from finding common cause, the other reason for Saurashtra’s transformation has been Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja and Jaydev Unadkat playing for India. Each has been a role model for the rest of the side. The arrival of the U-19 World Cup concept, and Pujara and Jadeja breaking into the age-group sides, gave players confidence that a Saurashtra player can make it to the India team.
However, the road to become champions has been long and bumpy.
“I’ve heard from my father that during their time they did not even think of challenging Mumbai. Seven Mumbai players would make the Indian team. The infrastructure was not there in Rajkot, they did not have enough turf wickets,” Pujara recalls his conversations with father Arvind, an ex-state player and his coach.
“The moment we youngsters started coming in, they were not playing for survival anymore. A lot of people started having the confidence that he belonged to this level. Not just that, actually they belonged to the next level.”
The other challenge for Saurashtra was to end the impression as flat-track specialists. The racecourse ground, and now the Khanderi stadium, are best known flat pitches. Rivals would put out green tops to roll visiting Saurashtra teams over. Pujara believes the impression that Saurashtra batsmen can bat only on batting wickets has hurt him and teammates. “I didn’t produce those wickets, but even I had to suffer from facing that perception,” says Pujara.
It was a problem, acknowledges Kotak. “In my playing career alone, we would have hardly won a match or two on green wickets; we must have lost about 15 or 20.
“To start winning, you have to start readying pace bowlers. That’s coaching. Also, we started preparing practice wickets with grass. Once we improved, even if we were offered green wickets, we would win. Unadkat came along and we had Kushang Patel. We always had the spinners, but developed fast bowlers too.”
In 2018-19, Saurashtra bid to be third-time lucky in the Ranji final against Vidarbha, under Unadkat. They fell short, but the team says that’s the season it felt the most complete.
In the semi-finals this year, with the Parthiv Patel-led Gujarat giving them a scare, things were getting tense. But Unadkat could do no wrong. He rescued them with the ball and Arpit Vasavda scored a fighting hundred, repeating with another century and a crucial partnership with Pujara.
Unadkat struggled on a slow pitch that had blunted Bengal’s formidable pace attack, but came good on the last morning of the final. Saurashtra needed four wickets to take the winning first-innings lead to seal the game, but Bengal were only 71 runs away.
“The Ranji Trophy is not a series played among players. A lot of families and former players who feel for the team are involved. I got a lot of messages from people who had that belief that I can do it for the team,” Unadkat says.
“Those messages worked for us. We talked about it in the morning, that there was one twist left. I told our boys ‘this is our ground and we are going to make it count.’ We believed there was something left for us in the game, came out with that mindset and that did the trick for us.”
Saurashtra cricket also owes it to Niranjan Shah, the former BCCI secretary, who was an administrator for more than four decades. While fingers are pointed at him that he still controls the association, he has laid a strong foundation for cricket in the region. His son Jaydev is SCA president but Shah knows the pulse of ground conditions and is actively involved. It’s been nearly five decades since he successfully plotted the end of the royal family’s grip on SCA.
“It was Mr. Niranjan Shah’s dream. That’s what associations are there for, that your standard of cricket goes up. We had won all India one-dayers, but this was the real goal,” says Jaydev.