Sitanshu Kotak, Saurashtra’s coach, called his team over for a chat on the eve of the Ranji Trophy semifinal against Karnataka. In his lilting Saurashtrian drawl, he gently tossed out a statistical achievement of the recent past. “In the last five Ranji matches against Karnataka, spread over a few seasons, we have won four and taken the first-innings lead in the other,” Kotak says.
Just one of them was at home in Rajkot. It’s this history that gives Saurashtra the confidence that they can win one more time – despite the fact that the game is being held in Bangalore.
There is another stat, quite a stunning one at that, Kotak throws up in a chat. “In our last 17 games, we have lost just one match. 9 outright wins, five first-innings leads – it has taken us to the Ranji final two years back. I am proud of that consistency – young players who have gelled well, played as a unit, and taken care of each other. The consistency shows that there is a process, a system, a culture that the players have managed to maintain. That’s very important,” Kotak says.
That run is also remarkable for the context in which it has emerged. Saurashtra don’t have a video analyst. “We had one for couple of games in the middle,” Kotak says almost shyly. Is there a bowling coach? “Well, there is me, my assistant coach, trainer and the manager.” Ok. Physio? “The trainer is the physio”.
However, Saurashtra players now possess new-found confidence, the kind which comes from watching some of their peers step it up – from domestic cricket to the international stage.
“These days, I can tell you even young Saurashtra players dream bigger,” Kotak says. “They have seen Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja and Jaydev Unadkat (who took over as the captain mid-season after the retirement of Jaydev Shah) play for India and know they can too. No one is even tensed I would say. At least they don’t show. Even the younger ones.”
Three made their debuts this season and the likes of Harvik Desai, with six fifties and a century in his debut season, Chetan Sakariya, and other youngsters have sparkled. The difference between the two teams is a certain sense of stability that has been visible in Saurashtra.
Karnataka has catapulted through some up-and-down times in this season, fighting back from the brink. As a result, they have lost three games.
Saurashtra’s progress has been serene almost. No loss but have cantered through with wins, leads, and draws. “The team feels settled and confident. All the seniors pull their weight – be it Cheteshwar or Ravindra or Unadkat or Jaydev – they share their experience and speak to the youngsters a lot. More importantly, I see a drive and determination in the youngsters that wasn’t quite there in my playing days. They know they can have a great career and life in cricket if they do well.”
All the other good signs that a coach likes to see in a team are present. It isn’t dependent on one or two players but there have been a clutch of good performances – be it in the bowling or batting.
Karnataka have the goods – they have Mayank Agarwal back for this game, Manish Pandey, the captain, in form and in some ways their coach Yere Goud, a committed old-school player in his time, is similar to Kotak. “Karnataka are one of the powerhouses of domestic cricket. They have a great cricketing culture and system in place. It would be foolish to take them lightly and at home, they won’t be easy to beat.”
But you can tell from his voice that Kotak genuinely believes his team can go through to the final.