Kotak's silent pace revolution in Saurashtra

Jaydev Unadkat signs some autographs for the fans ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"They can win only at home; give them a green track and they will struggle." - During the first half of this decade, the Saurashtra Ranji Trophy side heard that a lot. It wasn't without basis though. In three seasons, from 2012-13 to 2014-15, they played 13 games away from home, winning none, losing four, and conceding the first-innings lead in six out of nine draws.

Sitanshu Kotak, who represented Saurashtra from 1992 to 2013, has had first-hand experience of the issue. And when he was entrusted with the coach's job in 2014-15, he had a remedy in mind.

"When I took over [as a coach], I knew we needed to make some changes," Kotak told ESPNcricinfo on Monday, the eve of Saurashtra's quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh. "My huge concern was our fast bowling department. When I was playing, anywhere we used to go, we used to get green wickets. And we very rarely won on those wickets. Therefore, I knew we needed fast bowlers who could take wickets on those green tracks.

"Nobody was going to give us a turning track with Ravindra [Jadeja] playing, [Kamlesh] Makvana playing, and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja coming up strongly. So my plan was to strengthen the fast bowling department."

But that was a plan, not a magic wand which could change things overnight. In fact in 2014-15, Kotak's first season as coach, Saurashtra were relegated to Group C, there being only three groups then. However, they bounced back the next season and reached the final, where they lost to Mumbai.

A string of wins at home set them on firm footing that year, but they improved in away games too. In the last four seasons, they have eight wins, six losses and five draws from 19 away matches.

So why couldn't Kotak bring about that change when he was captain? "I don't think I had that sort of vision when I was captain," he said. "In India, there was no culture of playing on green wickets. But in the last ten years, when we [India] were struggling in England and Australia, we realised we needed to play on green wickets more often.

"[In Saurashtra], we had fast bowlers, but [the goal] was to put them in proper shape, fine-tune their bowling areas, [so that] they start believing that they could run through a side. Some bowlers got more mature, then according to my plans, I gave more opportunities to some others. Fortunately, Jaydev Unadkat started performing really well. You cannot take credit for everything, but there was a fixed idea in my mind that if we want to win the Ranji Trophy or make a strong impact in the tournament, we need a good pace bowling attack.

"And that's where I think I have been pretty successful. When we reached the final in my second year as coach, when Jadeja took a lot of wickets, people didn't realise we had four outright wins away from home, including the quarter-final and semi-final. A lot of games we won were on green wickets."

Numbers back Kotak. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, Saurashtra's fast bowlers collected 148 wickets from 27 games at an average of 36.08 and a strike rate of 72.8. Since then, they have 263 scalps at 27.45, with a strike rate of 53.6. While Unadkat has obviously played a big role in that, Shaurya Sanandia, Kushang Patel and Chetan Sakariya have supported him well.

However, that's not the only key to Saurashtra's improved performance over the last few seasons.

"Another thing I always believed is your bowlers should be able to bat," Kotak said. "When you are playing against big teams like Mumbai and Delhi, their batsmen have played a lot of matches. In Saurashtra, no matter how much you try, it's impossible to play that many games. So I knew there will be times when my batsman won't perform. Say [Cheteshwar] Pujara and Jadeja are playing for India, and my other batsmen have an off day on a tough wicket, I needed my bowlers to contribute with the bat.

"I always feel bowlers have the ability to bat well, but their mindset is not tuned to that. So I slowly started taking interest in them. Making them bat more in nets, talking to some of them whenever I got a chance, but not putting any pressure that they needed to take wickets as well as score runs. [It was] more like putting it in their mind that they could actually score a fifty or even a hundred while batting at No. 7, 8, 9."

Kotak's efforts bore fruit this season. Against Vidarbha, they found themselves 231 for 7 before Dharmendrasinh Jadeja (72 from No. 9) and Makvana (49 not out from No. 8) added 112 for the eighth wicket. In fact this season, Makvana has almost always made a useful contribution lower down the order. His 226 runs from nine innings, mainly at No. 8 and 9, have come at an average of 56.50. Against Baroda, Dharmendrasinh hit a career-best 87, from No. 8.

But Kotak knew where to draw the line. "I must say I cannot pressurise someone like Jayadev Unadkat. If he gets out, I cannot get upset with him, but I have managed to get a lot of good innings out of them [lower order]. It's not like I have done anything special; they were always capable of scoring runs. It's the belief they needed that they could actually do it.

"[As a coach], it's making sure they bat in the nets regularly, at least say taking 50 throw-downs. And that has given us a lot of good results."

Another aspect Kotak has focused on is infusing the side with youth and creating a bench strength to cover for the absences of Pujara and Jadeja.

So far this season, the two have played only one game each, while Robin Uthappa, Saurashtra's professional, was ruled out even before the tournament started. Unadkat, the seam-bowling spearhead, was out for three matches due to an ankle injury. And yet, Saurashtra have managed to stay unbeaten so far.

Twenty-year-old Sakariya stepped up when they needed a pacer. When Pujara was away, Vishvaraj Jadeja scored a hundred and two fifties in six innings at No. 3. Harvik Desai, the India U-19 wicketkeeper during their World Cup win in 2018, played as a batsman and has five fifties to his name.

"This year our main players - Jadeja, Pujara, Uthappa, Kushang Patel, Shaurya Sanandia, Unadkat - were not available. Unadkat missed three games, but apart from that others missed much more," Kotak said. "But I knew the [backup] guys I was working on had great potential. I knew if these guys get a chance, they will deliver for me when I need them. And that's exactly what they have done. Without those six regulars, other XI guys put up the show, of which I am really proud of."

Kotak knows though that his job is not done. Saurashtra are yet to win a Ranji title and Kotak he has been thinking long-term. "I feel we need to develop more fast bowlers because that's the department we get maximum injuries," he said. "But all in all, we are trying to prepare an all-round team so that opposition should think twice before giving us any kind of wicket.

"A lot of people complain about a green top or a turning track, but I am not a person who complains about a wicket much, unless it's dangerous to bat on, or too damp to start with. Apart from that, if you are playing away, and somebody wants to play to their strength and give us a green wicket, or a batting track or a turning track, it's their choice. They should be able to do that and I should have enough resources to beat them on their ground. That's the whole beauty of playing home and away."