An Arabic prayer escaped the lips of Faiz Fazal. It was high noon at Eden Gardens, and Karnataka’s Abhimanyu Mithun was threatening to end Vidarbha’s Ranji romance in the semifinal. The big screen spewed the imminent threat: 15 runs needed.
Fazal, the captain, quickly shuffled across to his young paceman Rajneesh Gurbani, who had dragged Vidarbha to the finish line only to see it being stalled by the Karnataka tail. “Don’t look at the screen. Just don’t. Keep your focus on what you want to do with the ball. Don’t worry, we will win.” More runs trickled by, the gap narrowed. “Sabki fati padi thi (everyone was nervous), I was also tensed but somehow I had this feeling that we can’t lose here.”
Fazal looked around the field. No drooping shoulders, no desolate eyes, as if everyone felt the same way about winning. Fazal went back to his position, muttering that prayer given to him by his family’s pir. Extraneous thoughts dropped out, prayer cleared the clogged space, and he waited for the miracle.
As the ball spooned up beyond point off a thickish edge from Mithun, Fazal froze. “There was this complete silence inside me. I look up to see (Aditya) Sarwate running in very calmly.” Relief windswept in as the catch was taken, and Wasim Jaffer, he says, told the team to not think about anything but just live ball by ball. Many players felt they were going to win. “Years later, I am sure I will remember the feeling in those moments. Tension, confidence, doubt, belief.”
But in the here and now, Fazal is curious about a weight measure. He wants to know how heavy the Ranji Trophy is. The only way, he wants to find out, is by lifting it. “I have tasted that winning feeling in the Irani Trophy couple of years back, and I know it’s pretty heavy. I am sure the Ranji Trophy would weigh more. I want that feeling. It would be the greatest moment of my career.” And just like that day in Kolkata, he says, he has got that tingling winning feeling coursing through him.
The first thing that strikes the eye in Indore, the venue for the Ranji final, is how clean the city is. Driven by mayor Malini Gaur, and municipal commissioner Manish Singh, Indore has cleaned itself of its dirt, and currently is rated India’s cleanest city. Everyone likes to talk about it. The autowallah, the Uber-wala, the local journalist, the meetha pan-shop wala who points to a spittoon. Even the cows have vanished from the roads, and been deposited in gaushalas on the outskirts. The pigs too are gone. Even the stray dogs seem minimal. The telephone networks seem always jammed though, especially the one tagged with the dog in the adverts. “Idhar sab kuchh milega, network chhod key (You will get everything here, except mobile network)!” laughs an auto driver. Vidarbha hope that the city will give them the heavyweight domestic trophy.
On a wintery morning — just a light nip, but enough to make you welcome the sunshine — Vidarbha players laugh about as they indulge in catching practice. Frequent leg-pulling of each other and cries to convert near-impossible catches fill the josh-full air, when one asks a couple of them, including leg-spinner Karn Sharma who hasn’t got much of a run in this campaign, Nikaal loge match (can you take the match)? “Haan haan, ho jayega, kar denge (yes yes, it will be done, we will do it).” Karn turns around to say with a smile, “tight toh rahega, 50-50, but ho jaana chahiye (It will be tight, but should be done)”.
That winning feeling is the inescapable essence of Vidarbha’s campaign so far. In the last decade, a few underdogs have won the Ranji Trophy but very few “small” teams have shed that tag so quickly as Vidarbha have. Unlike the others, Vidarbha have been almost strutting around. You hear it in the voice of Fazal, who has already spoken about how he wants his team to play in the Irani Trophy (the winner plays Rest of India in the annual fixture), you hear it in the cackle of his younger teammates, you sense it in the quiet sound bytes of Wasim Jaffer, you feel it with ever-confident coach Chandrakant Pandit.
It was a gym in Nagpur in September-end that Fazal firmed up his dream for the season. Pandit sauntered across to a sweaty Fazal and asked him, “So, what’s the plan? What do you want to achieve?” “There we decided that what we really want is to win the trophy.” Fazal had spent that month in England, playing league cricket and was in touch with Pandit and his team through WhatsApp. In a month-long camp of sorts, Pandit had already shelved open nets as much as possible. Match simulation was the mantra.
“It’s really tough to do meaningful work in nets alone. There is just too many distractions – many bowlers bowl a ball each, there would be someone walking behind the bowler, you are surrounded by nets – it’s not easy,” Fazal says. Instead, the batsmen and bowlers simulated match situations at open grounds. First at the old VCA stadium in the heart of Nagpur, and then in the international stadium on the outskirts. Young turks like Sanjay Ramasamy and Ganesh Sathish were being mentored by Jaffer, the talismanic former Mumbai batsman.
Fazal says he can’t do justice to Jaffer’s contribution to the young team. In his end years with Mumbai, Jaffer wasn’t necessarily a weary man, but one could sense the burden of Mumbai’s glorious past sitting heavily on him. In his time with Vidarbha, that load has eased up, and this team has seen a very happy Jaffer amidst them. It’s been a win-win situation for both. The experienced batsman knows more than most about the art of innings building, is intimate with success in domestic cricket, and what it takes to build a winning team. If he had chosen to relax like his senior counterparts in other teams, no one really would have had an issue in Vidarbha.
“But he has been phenomenal. He has hardly ever left the field even once,” Fazal says. Not an idle presence, either. He would spot the lazy footwork in a new batsman, or one who was well set and got a tad complacent, and would pass on a message to Gurbani to fire in an in-swinger. “Jaldi, ek andar daal, fasega yeh (Quick, bowl an incoming delivery, he’ll struggle).” Or whisper to Fazal to ask a bowler to go round the stumps. Or introduce a new bowler. When to attack, when to defend – constant words of wisdom.
Vidarbha have been lucky that they haven’t got a disgruntled veteran finishing an illustrious career but a wise and humble legend eager to help the young.
It’s not been all work and no play for the team. In fact, if anything, it’s the off-the-field fun that has helped the team bond. Pandit has brought his old Mumbai bag of tricks over. Various committees have been formed – entertainment, food, fitness — and every one has bonded together.
Fitness freak Fazal, who transformed his body in the last couple of years with intense gym work and a complete change of diet (Olive oil only, please!) has been a constant presence in the food committee. Together with the physio, it’s his job to work with the chefs on the type of food being served at the hotel, and even at the grounds. Not that it has always worked. In Surat, he recalls, asking for brown bread and other healthy snacks at the ground ,only for his own coach to laugh it off: “arre idhar voh sab nahi milega. Normal khaana kha lo yaar (you won’t get all that here. Eat normal food, guys)!”
The entertainment committee arranges a common conference room at the hotels, think of games, often silly but always fun, to keep the group in a good frame of mind. Ian Chappell would have perhaps said, ‘Why this fuss? How about a visit to a good-old pub?’.
Well, this has worked for Vidarbha. “These are little things but all these activities help the young and seniors in the team to gel, get to know each other, not stay in their own bubble in the rooms — I can confidently say that this is a really happy team,” Fazal says.
It’s a happy captain too that has made the difference. Couple of years back, his third year with Railways ( he had switched teams after seven years with Vidarbha), Fazal wasn’t all that chuffed. The season had gone awry, and he was even dropped from the team. He remembers reaching Nagpur with self-doubts: “Will they take me back in the team? Where is my career heading?”
Not only was he warmly embraced, but made the captain in a year. In the interim, he had kicked up his ambition levels, turned a fitness freak, worked on his game in England, and become a more confident batsman. An India call came through, and when he got the cap from MS Dhoni, he went numb.
“I had dreamt of that moment all those years, and was so happy when it arrived. I went absolutely numb in that moment. Voh India team key saath alag hi duniya thi (It was a different world altogether with the India team). It has made me desperate to get into the Test team. I am confident of making it one day. I won’t give up that dream. If you don’t aim high, what’s the use of playing?”
Throughout his life, Fazal has made bold choices. A trained Hindustani classical singer ( “I started at the age of 5, as my father is not only cricket mad but also a music-aficionado”), he quit dreams of serious singing once he tasted success in cricket in his teens.
When his career was stalling, he switched to Railways, and though the third year wasn’t swell, he says he cherished the tough times that made him mentally tougher. When the India dream ended rather abruptly, he switched on his manic focus to domestic cricket, and now wants to get his hands on the trophy that he has only seen others lift on television.
On the cusp
# Delhi steamrolled Bengal in the semi-finals, while Vidarbha made their way into finals by beating Karnataka by a slender margin of five runs at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
# Delhi have won two games, lost one and drew two in five matches played against Vidarbha in Ranji Trophy. The last meeting between the two teams at Chennai last year ended in a draw.
DELHI-VIDARBHA IN RANJI TROPHY
Season – Venue – Result
2012-13 – Nagpur – Draw
2013-14 – Delhi – Delhi won by an innings and 156 runs
2014-15 – Nagpur – Vidarbha won by an innings and 93 runs
2015-16 – Delhi – Delhi won by 10 wickets
2016-17 – Chennai – Draw
ROAD TO FINAL
# Drew with Assam.
# Beat Railways by innings & 105 runs. n Beat Uttar Pradesh by 4 wickets.
# Drew with Karnataka.
# Beat Maharashtra by an innings & 61 runs.
# Drew with Hyderabad.
# Beat MP by 7 wickets in Quarters.
# Beat Bengal by an innings & 26 runs in the semis.
# Beat Punjab by an innings & 117 runs.
# Draw with Chhattisgarh.
# Beat Services by 192 runs.
# Beat Bengal by 10 wickets.
# Beat Goa by an innings & 37 runs.
# Draw with Himachal Pradesh.
# Beat Kerala by 412 runs in Quarters. n Beat Karnataka by 5 runs in Semis.
(Stats by S.Pervez Qaiser)