“Forget about the nine league matches that you’ve played. It’s these three remaining matches that will define you.”
Goa captain Amit Verma used these words to address his teammates following their innings and 211-run win over Mizoram in Kolkata last week. The victory, in essence, was a watershed moment in Goa’s cricketing history, as this was the first time they had qualified for the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals.
J&K and Goa will aim to upset the applecart in the knockouts and carry the underdog element in the business end of the tournament. If it was veteran all-rounder Parvez Rasool who has been instrumental in J&K’s quarterfinal march, Goa have pinned their hopes on their captain, Verma.
The 32-year-old is very much a domestic workhorse, as much as he’s a journeyman, having ploughed away for 12 seasons with three first-class teams. He made his debut for Karnataka in 2007 and was a regular with them till their 2013-14 Ranji Trophy triumph. But the emergence of Karun Nair and KL Rahul meant that opportunities with the domestic superpower would be too few and far between. He took a NOC in 2014 and shifted to Assam under his mentor Sanath Kumar. After two fruitful years, including one where Assam qualified for the Ranji Trophy semis, he finally made Goa his home after Assam stopped taking in professional cricketers.
In his second season, Verma has brought about a turnaround in Goa’s fortunes with his irrepressible all-round performances. He has scored 791 runs, with three finely-crafted centuries while batting at No.4. More than these runs, it’s his bowling that’s been a revelation. His leg-breaks, combined with googlies and flippers, have tied opposition batsmen in knots. He has 41 scalps at a scarcely-believable bowling average of 13.26.
These feats came in the Plate Group, but still Goa had to top it as only one team advances from the weakest bunch.
Like a true team man, however, Verma doesn’t give much credence to his feats. He reckoned that it was his team’s insatiable desire to compete and excel that’s helped them advance.
“After the win over Mizoram, I got the boys into a huddle and told them that we were just three matches away from winning the Ranji Trophy. There’s absolutely no reason why we cannot beat the more fancied teams. Yes, they are talented no doubt, but if we keep playing the way we have done in these nine matches, no one can stop us,” Verma quipped.
The Goa captain will know for a fact that the path ahead is quite arduous. Up next, they face Gujarat, 2017 Ranji Trophy champions at Valsad. Toppling them in their own backyard will not be as easy as dismantling Plate Division teams such as Mizoram and Puducherry. Ahead of Goa’s most stringent tests so far, captain Verma looked to count on the positives.
“Personally, I have fond memories of playing at Valsad. Back in the 2015-16 season when I was playing for Assam, we had defeated Punjab in the quarterfinal to qualify for the semis for the first time,” he explained.
Much more than depending on the element of luck and propped up by history, what’s got Verma excited is that he has a talented team at his disposal. While the captain has been doing the bulk of the job – from plundering runs to picking up wickets – there’s a core group of talented individuals who have come up with timely contributions at crucial junctures.
Among them are opener Sumiran Amonkar, No.3 batsman Smit Patel and the dashing Suyansh Prabhudessai. Amonkar scored 160 against Arunachal that paved the way for Goa’s third innings win of the season. With three centuries, including a humongous 236 against Mizoram, Patel, too has been a pivot at the top of the order for Goa.
In a similar vein, Verma has been central to the team’s bowling plans, but don’t discount the indefatigable efforts of pacers Lakshay Garg and Felix Alemao. The duo has not picked wickets in a heap. Alemao’s 28 scalps and Garg’s 13 scalps may look like very tepid returns. But their captain jumps to his pacers’ rescue.
“Unlike most teams, we played most of our matches on wickets that suited our spinners. Which is why you don’t see our pacers in the list of the top wicket-takers. But you don’t have to look beyond Felix’s 11-wicket haul against Puducherry that helped us win that match by 81 runs,” Verma recounted.
Going forward, it’s just a question of three matches for Goa. The belief in the dressing room is intact and the mood bordering on quiet confidence. “Trust me, we have only begun to dream,” Verma concluded.
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