Spirited Goa no longer the underdogs
Goa were one of the surprise packages of the Ranji Trophy, and though they missed out on a knockout spot to Jammu & Kashmir by a quotient difference of 0.001 their improved performance gave the team a lift going into the limited-overs leg of the domestic season.
However, their confidence was shattered as Goa, typically the minnows of the South Zone, lost all five of their one-dayers in the zonal league last month.
Swapnil Asnodkar's boys then staged a remarkable turnaround to not only qualify for the all-India Twenty20 Super League, but also maintained a clean slate during the zonal league at Visakhapatnam last week. Despite their impressive Ranji season, Goa cricket were usually mentioned in the domestic fraternity due to the presence of a foreign coach, former Sri Lanka fast bowler Nuwan Zoysa.
But their five wins in five at Visakhapatnam last week has made everyone sit up and take notice.
They started their T20 campaign with a comprehensive win against a strong Tamil Nadu, clinched a thriller against Kerala, rolled over Andhra and Karnataka, and justified their top ranking with a last-ball victory against Hyderabad.
The outstanding display has exceeded the expectations even of some of the Goa players themselves. "I would term it as a sweet surprise," Kamat, the left-handed opener who scored four fifties in the league stage, said. "At the start of the tournament, we had set ourselves a target of winning at least three of the five games, which could have given us a chance to qualify. That win against a star-studded Tamil Nadu team gave us the confidence of going all the way."
The coach Zoysa credits the Goa Premier League, a local franchise-based Twenty20s tournament that was sandwiched between the one-dayers and the zonal T20s, for helping his boys get into the best frame of mind. Besides all the local cricketers, the fourth season of GPL featured a bunch of players from Hyderabad.
"The presence of outstation players gave our players an idea about the need to raise the level of their game," Zoysa said. "To their credit, they have managed to do that and have been able to execute all our plans to near-perfection."
Goa's dream run was remarkable, especially considering the fact that the BCCI had forced all the domestic players with IPL contracts to play their respective zonal T20 leagues. As a result, the Tamil Nadu team that faced Goa featured six cricketers who have been regulars in the IPL, including India players Dinesh Karthik and M Vijay.
Moreover, the star-studded Karnataka team, also including six players who will feature in IPL-2014, could manage just 66 runs against a disciplined Goa attack.
Goa, on the other hand, have been one of the also-rans on the domestic circuit. While Asnodkar, whose heroics in the inaugural IPL season helped him earn an India A spot, remains their most familiar player, the spin duo of Shadab Jakati and Amit Yadav have also featured in IPL in previous seasons.
Jakati, the veteran left-arm spinner who was with Chennai Super Kings till 2012, is set to be the only Goa player who will feature in this year's IPL, having been signed by Royal Challengers Bangalore.
There is a plus to not having too many IPL stars in the side. Goa will go into the Super League with an almost unchanged combination while many of their opponents will lose several of their main players to the IPL.
While Zoysa remains cautious about Goa's prospects, saying his boys "aren't favourites but no more underdogs as well", Kamat is more upbeat.
"If we can chase down 150 against Tamil Nadu with more than two overs to spare and bundle Karnataka for less than 70 after scoring 170, we can beat any team in India," Kamat says. "We just have to continue in the same vein in Rajkot and hope the results go our way."
If Kamat and his team-mates continue in the same vein, don't be surprised if after the Super League in Rajkot, Goa travel to Mumbai for the final of the domestic Twenty20 next week.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo