Saurashtra revel after a sleepless night
The wind that had picked up mid-week in and around Rajkot seemed to have taken it easy on the weekend. But that didn't make the players any more relaxed as they went through their warm-up drills at the Khandheri stadium. What was startling to see before the start of the day's play was that almost everyone from both Saurashtra and Punjab camps had red eyes and/or dark circles under their eyes.
It was evident that with the match being tantalisingly poised, hardly anyone from both the camps got sound sleep overnight. Though Saurashtra had the upper hand since they had 349 to defend with Punjab having lost two batsmen on the fourth evening, it was understandable that they had a sleepless night - never before had they made it to the Ranji Trophy final as a team representing Saurashtra; the last time the Kathiawari region was represented in the Ranji final was in 1936-37 and 1937-38 when Nawanagar, the princely state which later merged into the Saurashtra Cricket Association, made back-to-back final appearances, winning the first.
But as the spin duo of Vishal Joshi and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja started weaving their web around the Punjab batsmen early on the fifth day, the sleep-deprived faces of the Punjab camp started appearing more and more hapless. A few yards away, the Saurashtra reserves and the support staff looked increasingly fresh with the fall of each wicket. Finally, the excitement turned into a sense of relief with Joshi finishing off proceedings with a legbreak that last man Sandeep Sharma had no answer to.
What followed for the next half an hour or so was unprecedented. After the customary post-match handshakes between the both the teams amid chants of "Saurashtra, Saurashtra" by 100-odd spectators on Sunday morning, the Saurashtra players went into a huddle. While captain Jaydev Shah took a backseat, it was left-arm pacer Jaydev Unadkat who churned out the pep talk before the whole squad burst into shouts of "hip hip hurray".
SCA head Niranjan Shah, Jaydev Shah's father, was in attendance along with his daughter and son-in-law, who refers to himself as Saurashtra's "lucky mascot". Also present were the wife and son of veteran Shitanshu Kotak, who will be playing his maiden Ranji final next week after being around for two decades. While the congratulatory pats and hugs were in abundance, it was heartening to see all the SCA officials, including Niranjan, pat curator Rasik Makvana on his shoulders for preparing an "ideal" pitch for a five-day match.
It was followed by a photograph of the winning team. And it came as a surprise that captain Jaydev refused to show the 'V' sign when prompted by a local photographer. "We still have to play the final. Let's celebrate victory after winning that," Jaydev said.
The feeling was unique for everyone involved in Saurashtra cricket, since none of them has ever experienced how it feels to have entered the Ranji final. "It has been a sense of achievement. Playing the Ranji Trophy final is something that all of us have been only dreaming of. It's still sinking in that the dream is in fact going to be a reality next week," Unadkat said.
Jaydev Shah appeared to be more composed than his young pace bowler. "It's a proud moment for all of us involved in the Saurashtra team. People said that Saurashtra was all about (Cheteshwar) Pujara and (Ravindra) Jadeja. But we have proven ourselves by winning the semi-final without both of them who have been with the national team."
Jaydev, though, hoped against hope for both Pujara and Jadeja to be released from the India squad. Sensing that Saurashtra were favourites to win this game, Niranjan Shah, who is a BCCI vice-president, had asked to have the final begin from January 28 instead of the originally scheduled January 26. "It would have allowed both the teams in the final to play with full strength. If Mumbai make it, both Mumbai and Saurashtra have two players each with the Indian team [playing against England] but unfortunately, it's not possible to postpone the final," Niranjan Shah said.
The mood, expectedly, was the opposite in the Punjab camp. It was disheartening to see them go down without any fight on the last day and captain Harbhajan Singh minced no words in criticising his batsmen's lack of application: "It wasn't the best pitch to bat on. But this wicket had just one spot for the off-spinner; apart from that, nothing much was happening.
"But if one ball bounces viciously, people start thinking "isse pehle mujhe ude, main uda doon" [I would rather go for it rather than getting such a ball]. I have played on worse pitches than this. This is probably still a good wicket. You need to apply yourself. Kotak applied himself and got 50-odd runs on the same wicket [on day four]. You need to back yourself in terms of what sort of shots you're playing on it and you need to have a good defensive technique. Our youngsters just didn't apply themselves. That's why we are here, on the losing side."
For Harbhajan and his team-mates, Saturday night could again be a sleepless one. Saurashtra though were set for some well-deserved rest earlier than expected. "I am so relieved that it finished early. It didn't get very close in the end and now that it's over early, I can get some deserving sleep in the afternoon," coach Debu Mitra said, as his team revelled in their biggest achievement so far.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo