Mumbai v Saurashtra, Ranji Trophy Super League, 4th day, Mumbai December 28, 2007

Confidence and camaraderie

Sriram Veera catches up with the Saurashtra team celebrating their passage to the Ranji semi-finals

Cheteshwar Pujara has been in irresistible form this season © Cricinfo Ltd

Even as the ball that ended Mumbai's innings, and the match, settled into Jaydev Shah's palms, Sandeep Jobanputra ran madly towards the pavilion. Jobanputra, Saurashtra's left-arm seamer who bagged a five-for, stopped only after crossing the ropes, and gave Debu Mitra, the 59-year-old coach, a bear hug before running back to the field and joining his team-mates into a huddle celebrating Saurashtra's passage into the semi-finals.

Later, Jobanputra explains that celebratory dash: "Sir [Mitra] had told me at tea, 'Don't let them [Mumbai] get away. Just bowl your heart out and get me the wickets.' We have worked hard on my bowling, getting my swing right, so it was just a spontaneous reaction to celebrate on reaching the target and thank him."

Back in the team hotel, Jobanputra enters Mitra's room and touches his feet in homage. "So, 32 wickets in the season, eh?" says Mitra and Jolly, as he is known, beams.

In the adjoining room, more celebrations. Shitanshu Kotak has been calling his younger room-mate Ravindra Jadeja a gadha (donkey), in jest, for the last two days; Jadeja got out, top-edging a slog sweep, 13 runs short of what would have been his maiden first-class hundred and Kotak has not let the young man forget. He doesn't want Jadeja to repeat the blunder on the upcoming India Under-19 tour of South Africa.

In yet another room, it's time for self-appraisals. Cheteshwar Pujara, the season's top scorer, is copying files on to his laptop. "Videos of my batting here," he explains. Since Saurashtra don't have the technology, he had asked the Mumbai video expert for a recording of his innings. Pujara was bowled by medium-pacer Mun Mangela for 63. "I didn't expect the ball to cut in so much," he offers by way of explanation.

Pujara, a natural opener, has been batting in the middle-order for Saurashtra to strengthen that part of the team. Would it not be better for him to open, given that is the position he has mostly batted at for India Under-19 and India A? "The team needs me down and that's my focus now," says Pujara.

Beside him, Jobanputra is deep in prayer and rolling a rudraksha mala (rosary) in his hands. "I just finished mine," says Pujara. Many players in the team say their prayers three times a day. Kotak frequently mentions God's grace in conversation and many players greet each other with Jai Mata di (victory to the goddess).

Yet the players know how to let their hair down. One of them has just scooted out to meet his girlfriend. "Hurry up and get to the station in time," shouts Kotak as the boy runs out of the room. Kotak, himself, had just sauntered in with a bag of goodies for his friends back home; let's just say it was stuff you wouldn't get in Gujarat, where prohibition is in place.

The view from the balcony is stunning. The sun is setting over the Arabian Sea and the sky is wrapped in a gorgeous orange hue. Inside the hotel, though, no one is watching the view. They have no time to indulge as they are busy packing to catch their 8.30 pm train. "We can celebrate after the semi-finals," says one player, while Pujara says, "Maybe after the finals!"

It's this newfound confidence that is striking. "They no longer fear the good teams," says Mitra. That, perhaps,is the single biggest transformation in Saurashtra this season. The nightmarish past, with frequent failures, is behind them. Critics say the real battle will start when they wake up next season and have to sustain this performance. Till then, they can afford to enjoy their fantastic run. They have earned it.

Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo