Standing on the lush green turf at Lucknow’s 50,000-seater Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Cricket Stadium, Saurashtra coach Sitanshu Kotak taxes his memory but is unable to remember the last time his team was comprehensively outplayed in the Ranji Trophy. “Honestly, I don’t remember…” he quips.
Such has been Saurashtra’s consistency in this format that they have clinched as many as eight outright wins in their previous 16 matches. Their impressive run this year saw them qualify in second spot in the Elite Groups A and B. Even on the rare occasion when they have had their backs to the wall, like in the league encounter against Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium, Kotak’s team displayed remarkable resilience to mount a stirring fightback to almost pull off a miraculous win.
On the eve of their quarter-final against hosts Uttar Pradesh, the coach exuded a quiet sense of achievement at his team’s march into the last eight. More so, because Saurashtra never had the luxury of fielding a full-strength side.
Kotak puts matters into perspective when he said: “Things were really tough at the start. We missed both Cheteshwar (Pujara) and Ravindra (Jadeja) due to their international commitments, while both Robin (Uthappa) and Kushang (Patel) missed the whole season due to injury. On the bowling front, we were hampered when our most experienced bowler in Jaydev (Unadkat), too, broke down in the middle of the season. So, we needed players who could replace them immediately. It was the ultimate test of our bench strength.”
In the absence of the fancied names, inexperienced players like Chetan Sakaria, Vishwaraj Jadeja and Hardik Rathod stepped up with vital contributions. In doing so, they complemented the likes of Dharmendra Jadeja, who is enjoying a breakthrough season with the ball with 38 scalps while at the same time orchestrating some dour performances with the bat lower down the order.
Dharmendra apart, there’s Kamlesh Makvana, another dogged all-rounder, chipping in with his off-spinners and handy contributions lower down the order. All this meant that Saurashtra were never overtly reliant on a handful of players.
As far as their batting goes, Sheldon Jackson, despite his inconsistency, remains Saurashtra’s top scorer with 613 runs from eight matches. The 32-year-old began the season on an emphatic note with a century in the season opener against Chhattisgarh before hitting a lean patch.
Despite showing strains of indiscretion, he did manage to turn a corner somewhat with four consecutive fifties in the last two games. Even as teamwork remains Saurashtra’s watchword, the top order’s inability to convert starts is an area they would like to rectify.
“I think this team is playing as a unit and there has been a constant effort to improve some of the areas such as contributions from the lower order, which has given us the momentum. But I would like my batsmen to convert those starts into big 100s. If they do that in the knockouts, we will be in a very strong position,” Kotak asserted.
The minor worry notwithstanding, what will perk Kotak and his team is the return of Pujara, who comes back to domestic cricket after his career-defining performances in the recent four-match Test series in Australia, where his 521 runs played a pivotal role in helping India register a historic 2-1 series win. Pujara’s presence should galvanise Kotak’s troops even further.
If Saurashtra’s march into the knock-outs was defined by teamwork, Uttar Pradesh relied on sheer individual brilliance to get their campaign going. This has thrown up some surprising names who have climbed to the top of the bowling and batting charts respectively. Among them is left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar who, with 50 scalps, is the highest wicket-taker outside the Plate Division. Kumar’s orthodox spin has complemented the pace and zip of the rapidly improving Ankit Rajpoot, who despite missing two games for the Emerging Cup in Sri Lanka, still managed to grab 38 wickets. What helped the bowlers further was Uttar Pradesh’s batsmen, who buried oppositions under a mountain of runs.
The most prolific of them have been young stroke-makers like Rinku Singh and Priyam Garg, backed by the astute stone-walling of captain Akshdeep Nath.
Singh has been the standout performer with 803 runs, including three centuries, while Nath and Garg have notched up over 600 runs each. “Our bowling has been the talking point this season, but if you see closely, it’s the runs scored by the batsmen that has given our bowlers the platform. One of the reasons we failed to qualify in the last four years was the inability of our batsmen to score big,” Nath explained.
However, the hosts will miss their talisman Suresh Raina, yet to recover from a knee injury. “His injury is a blow to us, but we need to remain positive and are banking on some of our in-form players to fire,” Nath added.