In September, Sitanshu Kotak called up Ravindra Jadeja. "Kya plans hai ("What plans?")," he asked. "Saurashtra ko match jitaana, aur kya (To help Saurashtra win matches, of course") came the reply. Jadeja had just been left out of India's squad across formats, and Axar Patel's creditable show meant there was no guarantee of an immediate return. A comeback or the itch to prove a point, Kotak says, was far from Jadeja's mind, but the prospect of being able to play matches immediately had him excited.
A month later, on pitches tailored to suit Saurashtra's strength, in their backyard in Rajkot, Jadeja picked up a mind-boggling six consecutive five-fors, and 37 wickets in three Ranji games. He backed that up with knocks of 91 and 58 in two of those games as Saurashtra opened up a massive lead in Group C. It was the start of their journey from a group that is often considered "weak". That they came through unscathed till the end, blasting their way into the final, was as much due to the confidence they derived from those early wins as it was to their plan of empowering a young group of players.
For Kotak, it was a sense of déjà vu after he missed the chance of lifting the Ranji Trophy as a player in similar circumstances three years ago, when his team had lost to the same opponents. But Saurashtra's improvement this season - played for large parts without Jadeja and Cheteshwar Pujara, their two talismanic cricketers - was the most heartening sign for Kotak, even though the regret of folding cheaply without a fight at the final hurdle left him gutted.
"In my 21 years as a player, I hadn't seen relegation, so to be relegated as a coach in my first season last year was disheartening. This is as bad as I've felt since then, but these things happen," he told ESPNcricinfo. "Losses aside, the biggest lesson this season has taught us is that we need to be a better green-track team. It's not enough to score runs on flat tracks and play on turners."
The mention of turners is quite interesting, for it was a strategy that was well thought out. "The plan was simple," he starts. "We didn't want to be Himachal [Pradesh], who have been there and thereabouts. We wanted to push for results. Even if it meant we lose two here and there, so be it. We had to play to our strengths initially, just to get out of the rut we had found ourselves in. After getting relegated to Group C, the players were hurt. They finally realised something was wrong, so we thought, 'Why not play to our advantage and get a head start - surely away, we may have to face conditions where we don't thrive.'"
As it turned out, the ploy to prepare turners helped Jadeja pitch for a comeback, which was a roaring success as, along with R Ashwin, he dismantled South Africa in the Tests. For Saurashtra, though, it was back to the drawing board. Their winning streak came to a halt as soon as Jadeja left for the Tests, as they drew against Goa and Himachal, and soon lost to Kerala. "That was an eye-opener; that is when we felt how weak our batting was, and we needed to tighten our game," Kotak says. "We needed a mainstay. We've been used to not having Pujara around, but not too many raised their hands in the time he wasn't available.
"Sheldon Jackson has been doing well, has played India A too, but we needed someone in the top three. That was a challenge for us, because on seaming tracks, if we lost the toss, we would often fall behind. We could either change personnel or stick to the same set of guys who had shown the spark. We thought, this season wasn't the best to change too many things because, having made the start, we had to finish it well. In some ways, the absence of a proper club structure in Rajkot means most of the players play outside, while young players who can't do that get lost. So that needs to improve."
While the decision to stick with the batting seemed to work, the bowlers, particularly the pacers, who had little role to play on raging turners, were a little rusty. Jaydev Unadkat, who missed a good part of last season because of injury, was fit and firing. Hardik Rathod, who had played for Railways last season, returned to his home state in search of opportunities, as did Deepak Punia, the pacer, who previously represented Services. "After we finished our home games, both of them (Rathod and Punia) were key to our plans," Kotak says. "We worked on their skills right through the season, got them to bowl long spells in the nets. But we made it clear that while a place in the team was no guarantee, at least we would try and look after them better."
As he speaks, it seems that Kotak, the coach, is more flamboyant than Kotak, the batsman, a stonewaller. He says the biggest challenge as coach was to ensure those he played with were involved in planning, even though he consciously made an effort to maintain a distance and a sense of perspective.
"That is where I got guys like Jadeja and Pujara to talk to the boys," he says. "My cricket was limited, so from a coach's point of view, I had to make them feel comfortable, give them opportunities. These two, having played for India, were a major part of my plan because they have interacted with modern-day coaches and been exposed to the best training methods. You can be a Level-1 or Level-3 coach, but these are things no coaching degree will teach you. My challenge was to bring out the best in them without altering their game. Players react differently in good form, while the same advice when they are in bad form may invite a different discussion. So finding that balance was my challenge, but they were all motivated. The rebuilding phase has to be completed now."
With the side having bounced back to reach the final after having been relegated, Kotak doesn't mince words when he says individuals need to be self-motivated if they are to consistently challenge top teams. "It's not criticism, but the truth is, a lot of players get comfortable," he says. "There has to be a purpose of playing first-class cricket. Either you want to play for India or contribute to the state team because you love the game. There is at times a mentality of not wanting to let go. You should be helping a cause, two or three fifties in a season and you can't be happy."
A look at Saurashtra's batting charts this season further drives home the point Kotak is trying to make. The team scored a combined tally of five hundreds, with the highest number of fifties scored by a player being three, by Jadeja and Avi Barot. That the top run-scorer for Saurashtra was Jackson with 538 runs - in comparison Mumbai's top-scorer Shreyas Iyer had 1321 runs - further reinforces Kotak's point. Of course it didn't help that their captain Jaydev Shah, who has been in charge for a record 93 games out of the 105 he has played in, didn't lead by example, managing a modest 294 runs from 11 matches.
Saurashtra have faltered in the past, not having built on their gains from 2012-13. For a while now, their journey has been about taking one step forward, only to fall two steps back. This time around, there is another opportunity to build on the gains made by a young group of players. One way of doing so could be to have a younger captain take charge of the group, which means there could be a slot that could be filled by a promising batsman who is given a longer rope. How they decide to move forward from here could determine if Kotak manages to groom a set of players who go on to become 'lambi race ke ghode' (long-haul racehorses).