The game effectively ended when Saurashtra ran through Bengal’s lower order but they had to bat for the second time until tea before the game was officially terminated. The threat of Covid-19 virus had ensured that the final day of the Ranji Trophy final would be played without any fans but Saurashtra players’ family members had gatecrashed to witness the historic moment of the team winning the tournament for the first time. Every team-member got autographs of all players signed on their jerseys, a special memento for life. The players clicked selfies with former players and the association officials snapped I-was-there moments with the players.
Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat, who took two wickets in the morning, including the vital wicket of Anustup Majumdar, later revealed how three players were running high fever on the opening day. Cheteshwar Pujara, Arpit Vasavada and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja all played with medications and Prerak Mankad gritted it out with an injured finger.
They all knew it could be now or never, and wanted to extend themselves for their collective dream. In the morning, Unadkat too had told himself that he will give his best shot with the ball: “Aaj nahi toh kabhi nahi.(if not now, then never).”
The special day was also an occasion for Saurashtra’s players to remember the people they cherished. Chirag Jani had a black band on his arm for the late NC Gohil, a cricket administrator in Bhavnagar who had first given him the opportunity to play district cricket. Sheldon Jackson hasn’t seen his new-born yet and was on the phone with his family. The game effectively ended when Saurashtra ran through Bengal’s lower order but they had to bat for the second time for 34 overs until the play was officially terminated. Jackson talked about how tough it was to bat in the second innings as he would keep thinking about the moment when he would get to lift the famed trophy. He would be imagining running to the dressing room with the stumps if he remained not out till the end.
Pujara shared the words he spoke in the team meeting earlier in the game. “Those who overcome nervous moments will win Ranji Trophy.” Pujara has been twice part of the losing team in Ranji finals and has experienced remarkable highs with the Indian team but winning a domestic championship will be always special, he said. His childhood friend Arpit Vasavada had played all three Ranji finals and felt huge relief-tinged-joy this time around. “It feels as if a huge load is off, I feel lighter and enjoying the moment,” he says.
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) March 13, 2020
The load didn’t seem to lighten as easily as it did on the final morning. Throughout the fourth day, Bengal had fought valiantly and they needed 72 runs more to get the match-winning lead. Saurashtra needed four wickets and it seemed it could be a fight to finish.
It came down to the captain Unadkat. He had taken 65 wickets prior to the game but despite bowling well, he was defeated by combination of stubborn Bengal batting and a couple of iffy limited-DRS decisions. He was flooded with calls and text messages on Thursday night and on Friday morning from his friends and well-wishers. Moved by the goodwill, he too began to feel the same, and even conveyed to his team that he felt there is going to be a “twist” on the final day. It was thus a buoyant unit that took the field to defend the runs and win the crown.
Bengal too had revved up for the battle. As players tend to do worldwide, they even indulged superstitions to see if luck goes their way. The management had told all the players in the dressing room to continue sit at the same spot as they had done on Thursday, a day that had gone their way. The newly elected Cricket Association of Bengal president Avishek Dalmiya too flew in from Kolkata in hope that Bengal would end the Ranji Trophy drought under his leadership.
Often, at the start of his run-up, Unadkat told himself that he will bowl the delivery of his life to take the wicket. ‘One ball, one ball,’ he kept muttering through his spell, he says.
That one ball came through eventually. Unadkat ran around the stumps, the shiny side was tilted in towards the stumps, and it was almost a perfect delivery. It came in with the angle, started to tilt in further with the shiny side, landed on a length and rushed past the attempted defensive prod from Majumdar to rap him on the pad. Unadkat knew he had done it before the umpire raised his finger.
Majumdar also knew the writing was on the wall when he took use of DRS but his worst fears were confirmed. Unadkat was on the ground by then, screaming in joy even as his team-mates mobbed him. “It was the best ball of this season,” the man who took 67 wickets this season would say later.
And the 66th one in this season of #RanjiTrophy @JUnadkat away from just 3 more wickets to set new record to capture highest wicket in single season of Ranji trophy. @BCCI @BCCIdomestic pic.twitter.com/29hijcFUEg
— Saurashtra Cricket (@saucricket) March 13, 2020
Two balls later, a bizarre dismissal followed. A brain fade from the next batsman Akash Deep. He had poked at a Unadkat delivery and was beaten. So far so good. The wicketkeeper Avi Barot immediately fired at the stumps as he had noticed that Deep’s feet were outside the crease. The ball missed the stumps and went to Unadkat who picked it on his follow-through and shrugged and winced. Still no reaction from Deep, who turned behind to look at his back foot, which came down on the line. Nothing behind it.
Yet, Deep didn’t try to slide it back. Unadkat had recovered quickly, sensed Deep’s headspace, and fired a direct hit at the stumps to dismiss him. During semi-final game, Saurashtra were in similar position after Gujarat’s Parthiv Patel had threatened to take the game away before Unadkat removed him and then took another wicket to end Gujarat’s campaign. Last year, Bihar’s Ashutosh Aman had taken 68 wickets in the season but he had played in the Plate group. So in some ways, Bishen Singh Bedi’s 64 wickets in 1974-75 season was still the bar to climb and Unadkat has ended up with a dreamy 67 wickets.
Left-arm spinner Dharmendrasinh Jadeja soon had Mukesh Kumar caught at short leg before Unadkat got Ishan Porel leg before with another curler from round the stumps to enable Saurashtra take the all-important first-innings lead – and the match with it.
Pujara wanted to come on to the field but couldn’t due to his back spasm. He knew what this triumph meant not just for him but for all the players. Many in the IPL team don’t have any IPL contract and most have moved up from hard economic backgrounds. Some of the players’ fathers have worked as tempo-driver and clerk to advance the dream of their sons.
Pujara believes that this win will change their cricket as people will take them more seriously now. “I remember those defeats, for me this is the best day of my life in domestic cricket,” he said.
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) March 13, 2020
With the 15-kilograms Trophy beside him, Unadkat summed up the situation. “The dream season could only have been special if we actually won the title.
At the end, we had had three defeats in finals and it doesn’t feel good. It is a long season, lot of blood and sweat. I gave everything that I had—mentally and physically this season. I wouldn’t have enjoyed any sort of record if I hadn’t won. I wanted to do it one more time for my team today.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines