Young Baroda making steady progress
What would one expect from a young side that is without its talismanic allrounder, who topped the runs and wickets charts for them the previous season? Not three innings victories surely, but that is what Baroda, led by 23-year old wicketkeeper Pinal Shah, have managed in the absence of Irfan Pathan. The telling difference is that last year, Irfan's heroics were not enough to take Baroda to the knockouts; this season they have done so in style, finishing second in Group B behind Karnataka. They must certainly be doing some things alright.
Mukesh Narula, the coach, is not gloating yet. "I still maintain that it is a very young side, it's a great chance for them to impress. They have been able to gel as a team, and that is to their credit."
They have had some experience to fall back on. Connor Williams, the 37-year old veteran, has weighed in with 323 runs, Ambati Rayudu, the Mumbai Indians batsman who moved to Baroda this year from Hyderabad, tallies one short of 500. Yusuf Pathan and Munaf Patel have turned out whenever possible, and Yusuf, in particular, has been a revelation with his bowling, taking 22 wickets from four games at 14.72. "See, players like Yusuf, Munaf, Connor and even Rayudu, to a large extent, do not need to be told what to do," Narula says. "They have been around long enough to know what is expected of them. The challenge lies with the younger and inexperienced lot, who need to learn how to judge a match situation, and react accordingly."
In that sense, Bhargav Bhatt's performance has pleased Narula. The 20-year old left-arm spinner, who has played six of his seven first-class games this season, has tweaked his way to the top of the bowling charts, standing joint-second with 29 wickets at 21.20. Narula focuses on how Bhatt got there. "He was in the Under-19 side that won the Cooch Behar Trophy, but went out of the team after that. We made a couple of changes in his bowling action, working on his load and release. All credit to him."
Bhatt is not the only youngster turning heads with his performance. Kedar Devdhar, the 21-year old batsman, has been second only to Rayudu in the averages, tallying 294 runs in four games at 58.80. Narula says he has been one of the finds of the season. But the hard taskmaster in him cuts in. "He needs to learn to get hundreds, apart from half-centuries (Devdhar made three in five innings). He has to believe that he can score centuries, the thing is he hasn't made enough of them in local cricket in Baroda, so that is something he needs to work on."
He points out the reason for them not going on to make big scores. "In small places like Baroda, there is not much cricket. There is a lot of satisfaction even when you get out for, say 70 or 80."He details the pains he is taking to ingrain into his wards the importance of not wasting starts. "I always tell them, do you like sitting here in the dressing room and just clapping when someone else gets a hundred? If you get a 50 or a 60, don't come and sit with me and expect me to say, 'well played'. There is a big difference between even a 99 and a 100, and that has to get into their system." Baroda have been trying to zero down on a group of young players who can take their side forward as most of the old guard have ceded way, except Williams. That has meant many players being tried out. "We have taken a lot of time to establish the side. As many as 18 people have played for Baroda this year, not a sign of a settled side, is it? We have slowly begun to settle down though."
There is a long way to go still, he says. "Whatever you say about youth, experience is invaluable in the end. Like how you come out of a pressure situation, for instance, against Karnataka we were 153 for 5 when Sunil Joshi came on, and we caved in." Baroda lost four wickets to the veteran left-arm spinner in 16 deliveries to collapse to 169, conceding the first-innings lead.
How is Pinal, in his first year as captain, dealing with the challenge of leading? "It is his first season as captain, so there is a lot of time for him to mature. He's made some good fielding and bowling changes. We have been working on timing the changes better. At the same time, he is only 23, and needs to work on his game as well. This is not the age for him to think only about the captaincy." Pinal himself makes all the right noises. "It has been a great experience for me, playing with and learning from the seniors. I have been leading sides from Under-14 and Under-16 levels, so it's not like this is the first time I am doing this. Most of us are in our early to mid-twenties, so the only way forward is to help each other and build the team."
Rayudu has been a huge boost, admit both captain and coach. "He has contributed a lot towards team building; once he realised he carried respect among the players, he has guided the boys nicely," Narula says. "All of us look up to him. The youngsters know that there is someone out there to guide them," Pinal says. The fact that both Pinal and Rayudu have been part of the Mumbai Indians side in the IPL would have helped.
Finally, Narula's pride in the team's progress comes through. "We have logged good runs against virtually every team, and the pleasing aspect is that no one individual has dominated. It has been a complete team effort. And our fielding is marvellous, to say the least." Narula maintains Baroda is easily one of the best fielding units in the country. "If they realise their potential, some of this bunch could go on to play for India."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo