Yusuf keeps Baroda calm ahead of crucial game
On the eve of their final league match, against Rajasthan, Baroda are on edge. They are playing in Jaipur, where the temperature has slipped into single digits, and have 20 points: they need an outright victory to secure a place in the knockouts. Three points from a first-innings lead will still leave them dependent on other Group B results going their way. Their opponents Rajasthan are out of contention and have nothing to lose. They could be dangerous. Baroda are in a predicament.
Luckily for them, their captain is Yusuf Pathan, a man who never betrays emotions even at the best and worst of times. For years he has been Baroda's go-to man. At various times, he has been their best batsman, best spinner and their most consistent player. He has been all of that this season, playing crucial roles in three outright wins and possibly the sole reason they can still dream of a knockout spot.
So on the eve of a virtually do-or-die match, Yusuf is unruffled. He has a message for his team: do not get excited. According to Yusuf, if Baroda will benefit from a cautious beginning against Rajasthan. "Initially we will target the first-innings lead. Only then can we go for the outright win,' Yusuf said at the Rajasthan Cricket Academy grounds after the team's training session on the eve of the match. "If we go straightaway for an outright victory then we might not even get the first-innings lead. That has always been the case: too much aggression is not good for the team. We need to play session by session and assure ourselves the lead, then bother about an outright victory."
The absence of Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Rajasthan's mentor-and-captain, because of a quadriceps injury will help Baroda, Yusuf said. "Obviously if a player like Hrishikesh does not play then it is a very big advantage. He is highly experienced and is a good captain. He carries the team nicely and also knows how to get the best out of the youngsters. So him not being there will only help us."
A person who is playing a Kanitkar-like role for Baroda is Yusuf's younger brother, Irfan Pathan. After missing most of the previous two seasons and this one with injuries, Irfan played Baroda's last two games. After recovering from a rib injury that kept him out of five games, Irfan said he was playing only as a batsman as part of a phased return.
Having recovered from the rib injury that kept him out of the first five matches, Irfan said he is playing only as a batsman, as part of a phased return. According to Yusuf, despite being unable to bowl, Irfan had the responsibility of motivating the rest of the team.
"He is batting still and that is a big plus point because if he stands at the other end he can encourage and inspire his partner," Yusuf said. "And he is also helping out the fast bowlers, he has been speaking to them and providing inputs. Considering he has played international cricket for a while, it is a huge benefit for me as the captain."
The Jaipur pitch has a green look to it and according to Taposh Chatterjee, the head groundsman, it will help both the fast and slow bowlers as the match progresses. One reason Baroda have been struggling is because their batsmen have failed more often than not, but Yusuf remained hopeful. "Our batsmen have finally started to perform. Earlier our batsmen did not click, even if our bowling had been good right from the beginning of the season. Now we are in a position to qualify so I hope the batsmen do their work."
For Rajasthan, two-time Ranji champions, this match is an opportunity to regain lost pride. The selectors have gone for an overhaul by making four changes, including dropping the young fast bowler Rituraj Singh, who took seven wickets in Rajasthan's only outright victory, in their last match against Madhya Pradesh. Despite Rajasthan's instability, Yusuf wanted Baroda to just focus on their job.
"It is not an easy match. And I do not want to take any game easy," he said. "The points table does not really matter. I want to tell my guys that regardless of the result we need to play good cricket. Even Rajasthan would like to put in effort. They have made several changes and they might be under pressure but then they could do well too."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo