After the 2015-16 Vijay Hazare Trophy in Bangalore, Axar Patel was asked if their title win was his best moment in his career outside of him getting the India cap. A 50-overs title was theirs for the first time. In the preceding season, they were winners of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the national T20 championship. "Not till we win the Ranji Trophy," he said.
On Wednesday, Axar, not part of the Gujarat squad for the final but a key member in their rise over the previous three seasons, was in Indore to celebrate the Ranji Trophy title with his team. He flew in three days ago straight from a check-up for a fractured thumb at a Mumbai hospital. It was there that he received a message on Whatsapp that Gujarat had taken the lead. After the day's play, he phoned up Vijay Patel, the coach, and asked if he could join the team.
Axar drove to the airport and arrived in Indore later that evening. This was going to be an occasion to remember if they won. He had dreamt of it for a year. No Gujarat side had even challenged for the title previously. This would have been all the more special, because it was against Mumbai. He had to be there and celebrate with his mates. When the moment came, he was standing in the side, when Parthiv Patel, the captain, had to pull him into the team photograph.
Moments later, they got Jasprit Bumrah on the telephone, before there was song and dance. The trophy was passed around from one person to the other. This was unadulterated joy from a side that had finally graduated from being contenders to champions. You had to be around their dressing room to understand how much the trophy meant to them. This was a sign of team-spirit at its very best, a sentiment this side embodies.
"Lot of us have played junior cricket together, so this in a way is the coming together of a core group who have graduated together," Manprit Juneja told ESPNcricinfo. "It just feels like an extension of the junior days. There are no insecurities, because Parthiv would have it no other way. Everyone celebrates the other's success."
Unlike many others, Juneja says, team bonding has come naturally. "Anyway, we all catch up together as a group on tours," he said. "The team watches movies together, dine together. When you are away for three months, it's these small things that define you. Away from family, this has to be our family. We have carefully ensured no one feels out of place."
After their game in Hubballi against Mumbai, the team drove to Goa for a short getaway to re-energise towards the end of the season. Players were given the freedom to do what they liked, but they travelled together as a group. Parthiv, who was unavailable for three games, was in constant touch with the team and the head coach, on how the team was progressing, but he also ensured he wasn't too much in the ears of the new captain.
It's this independence as individuals and a collective vision that he wanted his mates to develop without being told what to do. Their collective hymn was '11 matches.' Unlike the previous seasons, the goal wasn't to simply qualify for the knockouts. "I think mindset was the key. We were playing well for seven matches and stumbling in the eighth," Priyank Panchal, the season's highest run-getter, said. "We had to correct that. It was not a question of mental fatigue or pressure, but we were giving more importance to the eighth match. This year we thought we should aim to qualify before the seventh or eighth round so that we can play the last two matches more easily."
Parthiv, a veteran in his 16th season, said experience of leadership over time has gradually broadened his horizon. He has been at the helm for close to a decade now, but the results have started coming only recently. In 2012-13, they won the domestic T20 title, a feat they repeated in 2014-15. This year, the key was to impress upon the need for consistency and not just have a middling season to guarantee a place for the next, a theory endorsed by the coach.
"The belief was there, but to move to the next level, we had to make choices as individuals. Are we happy with just making 600-700 runs and keeping our place for the next season? That sort of mentality, you can't have for long. Over the last two-three seasons, that has changed," Vijay said.
Parthiv added: "Before this season, we said we needed guys to make it big, push past the 1000 barrier. Set examples, something like what Panchal and Samit Gohel have done. We rely on our batting, and so we need runs to support the bowlers. If you see, we don't have bowlers with 40-45 wickets, but even the 20-25 wickets that a few of the guys have been picked up have all been at vital times."
Parthiv, who has seen enough ups and downs to advice his team, has drawn from personal experience and has often been the side's mentor and advisor. "The door is open," he said. "Every person who is not playing is told why, so that they know where they stand. That way we have tried to be fair with our calls. We didn't want a situation where players find out of their selection or non-selection from outside the camp. We have been as transparent as possible."
Transparency in selection is one thing. Picking the right personnel is the other. Parthiv admits there was a time where they didn't have too many choices outside the 30 probables. Today, he says there are different people knocking on the door for one berth, the example being Chintan Gaja, who had picked up just one wicket in two first-class games prior to the final. Chances are he may have not been selected for the final had Jasprit Bumrah been available. Here he was on the biggest stage, and delivered telling spells to finish with eight wickets.
"Basically, we have made a very good plan back in Gujarat," Parthiv said. "Five years ago when we weren't getting results, there was temptation to rejig our squad. We had to make a choice, but something prevented us from doing that. The likes of Panchal and Gohel were all there, scoring runs but it wasn't like they were making big runs. The talent was there, no doubt. That decision is paying off now.
"Young players need to feel they belong. Once you tick these boxes, you are rolling straightaway. The side of six-seven years ago wouldn't have stood a chance. They would have wilted. This group is different. Now will be the real test, if we can sustain this. Once you start winning, you have a reputation. How you perform when expectations are completely different will define this team."