Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
"Youngster ko andar lo," (Get the youngster in the frame) is the cry as Gujarat pose for a group photo with the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
Young cricketers from north India are hard to tell from each other nowadays. They all have a particular length of a beard, not one strand out of place, and hair short at the sides and mushrooming at the top. A thousand Virat Kohli lookalikes if you will. It is also the look of about every Punjabi pop star. The young Delhi team that made it to the Vijay Hazare Trophy final had its fair share of the look, but they were up against different kinds of beard on two different 30-year-olds.
You look closely at Parthiv Patel's face and you will see greys appearing, but you remove that beard and you will have bouncers asking him for ID at pubs. RP Singh, the "youngster" in question, looks older than his 30 with a fair sprinkling of greys. The actual youngsters of the Gujarat team had just poured a bucket of ice-cold water on RP while celebrating their maiden Vijay Hazare triumph. RP's reaction was that of a benevolent senior, just a smile that seemed to say: "The kids these days."
On the big night, these two faces that won't fit the prototype of a modern athlete turned up with their experience. Parthiv first scored his maiden one-day century to give Gujarat a comfortable total to defend, and RP then, playing in his first match of the knockout stage, ripped the heart out of Delhi's chase with a first spell of 7-2-23-4. On the big night, the two experienced players proved to be the difference between the teams.
The real reason why Gujarat were such a successful team this season, though, was that the seniors turned it on not because the youngsters had failed, but because they got the chance ahead of the youngsters and grabbed it with the finality you need on the big day.
Even on the big day, there was Rujul Bhatt, the bespectacled 29-year-old allrounder who is a relatively youngster in experience, scoring 60 to end as Gujarat's highest run-getter. And there was the 22-year-old promising seam bowler Jasprit Bumrah, who wiped off the tail to take the most wickets in the tournament. Axar Patel, Gujarat's talisman, didn't even have to flex a finger.
Every time Gujarat were stuck in this tournament, they had someone produce the magic. Bumrah bowled MS Dhoni with a yorker in Alur to win the league game against Jharkhand. Against Vidarbha, in the quarter-final, when Axar was running out of partners, the 20-year-old left-arm spinner Hardik Patel added with a match-winning 36 for the ninth wicket. At 87 for 5 against Tamil Nadu, who were on a roll, in the semi-final, Gujarat found runs from the 25-year-old Chirag Gandhi and a return to form of the otherwise prodigious Manpreet Juneja. Even when Axar was taking six wickets in the defence, Bhatt kept the pressure up with 10 overs for 34 runs.
Parthiv acknowledged all these contributions after the win in the final. "Priyank [Panchal] got 750 runs this season in the Ranji Trophy," Parthiv said. "He is in good form, he has been around for years. Rujul has been a utility cricketer who would score 300 runs and take about 15 wickets every season in the Ranji Trophy. It was his time of reckoning in one-day cricket this year, scoring almost 300 runs and taking wickets. It plays the role of allrounder.
"And the way Bumrah bowled. And I think Rush Kalaria was the most unlucky bowler. He bowled brilliantly with the new ball but he doesn't have wickets to show for it. Young Hardik Patel, who scored 20-odd not out against Vidarbha where we needed 40-odd runs. Right players have clicked at the right point of time."
If you can roll off so many crucial contributions off the tongue, you are talking of a successful team. Then again, in the last name mentioned - Hardik - is the other factor that worked for Gujarat. Hardik played a crucial role in both the quarter-final and semi-final, but he knew why he wasn't playing the final against Delhi, full of left-hand batsmen.
RP hadn't played the earlier knockouts, but allrounder Rohit Dahiya knew he was making way for a man who could use the conditions and had massive experience of playing at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Also they had an association happy to fly in an offspinner to make debut on the big night.
"What we have done in this team is that we tell players why you are in the team and why you are not in the team, so they are not in the dark at all," Parthiv said. "They understand with seven left-handers in the team, there is no point playing two left-armers. Player understands it. We know that we have always been fair with them and the player also understands it, that whatever the selectors and the association has been very fair and very transparent with them, so they take it in the right spirit."
Also RP took in right spirit that when they were playing in Alur earlier he as a pure third seamer was surplus to requirement. And these was no ego stopping him for acknowledging that Kalaria was the No. 1 left-arm seamer in the squad. "What happened was that sometimes I have myself taken a rest because like me, a lot of players sit out," RP said. "I have come to play as a professional. I shouldn't come in their way."
RP has spent the last IPL season as an analyst, and when he puts that hat on, he feels Bumrah is ready to play limited-overs cricket for India. The analyst inside him was full of praise for captain Parthiv. "The beauty about [winning with] the state team is that you build it from scratch, like [Mohammad] Kaif did for us in UP," RP said. "Parthiv has built this team along similar lines. He has been captain for 10 years, he has picked players, hired professionals so that the team does well. His motive was that along with his own performances, the team also progresses because when you win championships, when you play finals, that's when your boys play more. The examples are Bombay, Delhi, Karnataka… Maybe Parthiv is slowly taking Gujarat in that direction."
For Parthiv himself, scoring the maiden century in the title triumph is big because this is no small victory in his mind. "Winning the championship for a state is something special. I have been a part of two IPL victories, I have been a part of the World Cup final team as well but winning a championship for your state, you know the people have worked really hard behind you, and winning a championship for them is really special."
Vijay Hazare Trophy
Indian Domestic Season