Bengal coach Arun Lal could not control himself when shutterbugs frequently trespassed the practice area at the Rajkot stadium. Media from 18 organisations have come from West Bengal, apart from other national and local media, and it was a bit of a scrum out there.
“We have a Ranji final tomorrow. I request you to please leave this place,” Lal said out aloud, calling for administrators to prevent players being bothered. The area was soon cordoned off. Even as both camps talk about “keeping it simple”, they know that this is as great an opportunity as any to win the premier domestic competition of the country. Lal calls the game bigger than a Test match. He says this is their best chance, who knows when their time will come next.
Saurashtra will hope to be fourth time lucky, their previous three final experiences in the last few years were at away venues. Four finals in eight years is a big achievement but they are at a point now when that feeling seems like only a consolation. They now want to get their hands around that old trophy that weighs a good 15 kilograms. Saurashtra have Cheteshwar Pujara, Bengal possess Wriddhiman Saha and Manoj Tiwary, who would be playing his 100th Ranji Trophy game.
Watch Pujara’s interview
The last time Bengal was in a final was 13 years ago. The last time they lifted the trophy was in the early 1990s; their current coach Lal was then the captain. In some ways, Lal has almost been a pied piper for Bengal this season. Who doesn’t like a heartwarming story, especially when he is considered one of the nicest men in Indian cricket? He beat cancer a few years back and put his hand up to lift Bengal cricket, took some tough and considerate calls to get the team up and into the final.
Even Saurashtra’s coach is an old India hand; at 68, Karsan Ghavri is four years older than Lal. A passionate cricketer and coach, Kadubhai, as he is called, has ensured his life continued to revolve around cricket even after retirement. He grew up in Rajkot and soon found that he was too fast for the city and shifted his cricketing base to Mumbai and punctuated his medium pace with deceptively-quick bouncers for India.
Some Indians would remember seeing Lal walking in slow motion out of a Kolkata metro train in the video for the national integration song, mile sur mera tumhara, in the 1980s. Ghavri’s India career was a more accomplished one but over the years, both have continued their love affair with the game.
Playing in Rajkot will be a big deal for Saurashtra. Their previous three finals away from home were one-sided affairs. In 2012, they lost to a star-studded Mumbai team by an innings and 125 runs. In a neutral venue final in Pune in 2016, Saurashtra lost again to Mumbai by an innings and 21 runs. Last year, they went down to Vidarbha in Nagpur by 78 runs. Pujara played in the last two finals but had minimum impact. But at home, Saurashtra is certainly a tough team to handle. It would also be a sweet feeling for him to turn up for the final with Ghavri as coach as when he was a boy, it was the latter’s validation of his talent – “Chhokra upar mehnat karva jevi chhe (the kid is worth investing your time on) that had driven his passionate father Arvind.
It’s just not the old faces or established Indian stars that this final is about. Jaydev Unadkat is Saurashtra’s captain who has taken 65 wickets to lead from the front. He learnt his cricket at the famous Duleep school of cricket started in 1945 in Porbandar and as an upcoming bowler, his greatest worry, as recalled by his coach Rambhai Odedera once, was whether he would have to start having non-vegetarian food to sustain as a pacer. When he was selected for the Indian Premier League, Odedera found a few fans in Porbandar losing their head in pride and told Unadkat that IPL is good but the aim should be to play for India.
“I told him in 1932, Maharaja Natwarsinghji of Porbandar, who eventually started the Duleep School of cricket, was the original captain for India’s first tour but was replaced in the end by CK Nayudu. You have this great chance to play for India, someone from Porbandar, imagine.” He has done that; can he now become the first captain of Saurashtra to win the Ranji trophy?
For that, he would need more than a little help from Pujara. The India batsman was keeping an eye on Saurashtra’s Ranji progress and in touch with Unadkat even while involved in a tough Test series in New Zealand. Pujara says home advantage will definitely come into play.
“Whatever final matches we have played were played away from home. We have young players, playing good cricket and playing at home will be an advantage for us. I have an idea of conditions here, everyone here knows how the pitch behaves and definitely it will be home advantage for us,” Pujara told The Indian Express.
Two days before the game, the team watched the movie ‘Point Break’ to gain some motivation from the adventure drama. Unadkat wants everyone to be in their comfort zone and away from pressure.
Bengal had a light net session and kept the photographers from Bengal newspapers busy. Tiwary and Saha were requested for a combined photo; they obliged. To make it seem ‘candid’, a photographer asked them to act as if they are chatting with each other; they oblige again. At some point, Tiwary says that he has got his son Yuvaan’s name on the back of his bat, and flips it to show it to Saha.
Once he finished training, Saha said he had never been part of a Ranji final, something he had wanted for years. “The feel and experience of a Ranji Trophy final is something different,” he said, before ducking questions on being left out of both Tests in New Zealand.
Tiwary has been in two Ranji finals, but victory eluded him. “Twice we came close but couldn’t finish off the game. We have a good chance here as our team has been playing good cricket for the last two months. Touch wood. I have got good stats at this venue, had hit a double hundred too,” he said.
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