Saurashtra enjoy the spotlight
"No one used to bother about Saurashtra in the past," says Shitanshu Kotak, their seniormost player. "Now they sit up and take notice, they think this team can beat us. It feels great." The feeling should be sweeter as Saurashtra have played all their matches away from home.
Saurashtra were a side that wallowed in anonymity over the last few decades. There would be an occasional newspaper reference of a hundred or a stand-out performance from a bowler but that's about it. They changed the status quo with their performances this season, but it has not been an overnight success story.
A few years ago Niranjan Shah, the passionate Saurashtrian who also happens to be BCCI secretary, sought to bring about a few changes in the cricketing set-up. He claims three reasons for the success: Consistency in selection, improvement of wickets in Rajkot and nice balance of the youth and experience, which was handled well by Debu Mitra.
The nucleus of the side has not changed much in the last four years. "We gave them a chance to grow as a team. We did not want to keep accepting the balance," says Shah. "But the professionalism was still missing."
Mitra, who had previously coached Bengal and West Zone and mentored a young Sourav Ganguly, recalls being bewildered when he arrived four years ago. "I wondered, where am I? But I told myself that I should not leave, as this is a chance to get a young team to do well."
What shocked him? "They were very raw. I noticed a lack of professionalism. They didn't know the importance of simple things like running between the wickets. They would not convert singles into twos and not recognise that one run makes a hell of a difference at the end. They were not doing the basics well."
The reason for the lack of professionalism lies in the nature of cricket - or lack of it - in Saurashtra, something both Mitra and Shah allude to. The players play a few district-level matches before getting to Ranji level. There are a couple of players like Kotak and the highly-rated batsman Cheteshwar Pujara who play club cricket in Mumbai, but the majority don't play regularly.
Kotak reckons that on the positive side, that attitude has helped a great deal in fusing the team spirit. "They are just a bunch of nice guys who are enjoying the success. There are no great ego clashes."
Not even with Jaydev Shah, Niranjan's son? He laughs and says firmly, "Jaydev has shown a lot of maturity and he has been a good man-manager. It must run in the blood! The only thing is, with his talent, he can score more runs than what he has been getting but I am sure that will come in time. The boy has done well with the team."
Mitra too agrees that the amateurish nature of the players has helped him mould them. "They are playing their second season in the Elite group. Last year was a struggle and I had to make them understand the difference between Elite and Plate [leagues]. But they are very nice lads, they listen to me and have grown well."
He desperately needed a left-arm spinner in the mix and worked hard on improving Rakesh Dhurv's bowling. "Before I joined, he was more of a batsman who could bowl rather than an allrounder. We have worked on him and he is now a pretty effective bowler." Statistics prove Mitra's point. Over the last three seasons, Dhurv's average has come below 25 while the wickets tally has gone up.
Kotak also notes the changes in his batting technique since Mitra's arrival. "Previously I used to be a front-foot player but Mitra made me work hard on my back-foot play and I have become a more all-round player now."
Kotak scored a brilliant back-to-the wall hundred to help his side gain a vital 117-run lead despite being placed at a precarious 100 for 5 in their previous match against Maharashtra. Dhurv then grabbed a five-for in the second innings to bowl his team to victory.
Cheteshwar Pujara has been the star performer with 733 runs, the highest by any batsman in this season. He hit an unbeaten 148 - which he rates as his best effort of the season - to help save a match against Delhi. He was the only batsman to cross 35 and stood firm between Delhi and victory even as Saurashtra lost nine wickets batting last on the final day. Saurashtra picked up a point, instead of handing Delhi five points for an outright win.
Sandeep Jobanputra, the left-arm seamer, has led the bowling with 27 wickets. He picked up a nine-wicket haul against Karnataka to help his team win five points.
"Whenever the team needed it, someone has done the job. With God's grace and a bit of luck, we have managed to do well," says Mitra. He didn't talk about reaching the semi-finals until he was certain that they would not be relegated to the Plate League. "I didn't want to put the team under pressure. Before the last match against Maharashtra, I told the boys, go all out now as there is no fear of relegation. Just enjoy."
And if they do force their way into the final four, and maybe, find a spot in the summit clash, it can only help Saurashtra. And it will be fitting - this region is, in many ways, the cradle of Indian cricket, the homeland of Duleepsinhji and his uncle, the man whose name adorns the trophy they are vying for.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo