Baroda have a stiff task at hand in the Ranji Trophy final to overhaul a stubborn opponent in Rajasthan, especially in the absence of their biggest players - Yusuf and Irfan Pathan, and Munaf Patel. Yet there is one man though who believes the team is capable of achieving a dream that was contemplated on a bus ride about six months ago.
That man is Pinal Shah, who cannot stop smiling. He even breaks out into a deep-throated laugh at the slightest opportunity. The 23-year old Baroda captain has stunned everyone, including his team's staunchest supporters, by leading a side comprised mostly of 20-somethings all the way to the Ranji finals. As we walk into his favourite hangout, a coffee shop in an upmarket area of Vadodara, the smile gets broader. The staff at the place rush to congratulate him. He cracks a joke or two with them, and laughs the loudest.
"At the start of the season, everyone, even in Vadodara, was saying that the captain is so young, the team is so young, and there is a huge chance that Baroda could be relegated," he said. "Hardly anyone believed in us. But you know, we had the self-belief, this side is full of potential, koi chalu cricketer nahin hai (there is no undeserving cricketer on the team)."
Pinal led Baroda to a tour of Kenya last year, and it was then that they pondered the improbable. "We were going to Ahmedabad to get an injection for yellow fever. And we were discussing in the team bus. We had this thought, that whatever it took we had to prove the doubters wrong, we had to show we were a good team."
The fact that many in the squad to Kenya had played under Pinal at the age-group levels helped. "Swapnil Singh, Kedar Devdhar, Jaykishan Kolsawala and to a lesser degree, Bharghav Bhatt, have been under me since some time. This Ranji side is more or less the side that went to Kenya where we won almost all the matches. It helped immensely in bonding as a team. In fact, it was the first overseas tour for five or six players." The tour gave the team management an opportunity to zero in on the squad for the Ranji season. "All of them were inexperienced and untested at this level. We didn't know who could perform or not. We wanted to have a look at them."
He says he enjoys leading the side, and that they always find a way to enjoy their time in the middle. "If you can't enjoy the game, even spending one hour on the field can feel very tiring. Even if the opposition is 200 for 1, we manage to have a laugh." It's not all mischief though, and there is a lot of hard work and intent. "I love working with youngsters. You can approach them, and give them tips. But they need to be backed a lot. You cannot just drop someone after a couple of bad games. Their confidence goes for a toss. Like JK (Kolsawala) has been getting many good starts this season, but the big innings is not coming. I told him it's only a matter of time. We played a debutant (Aditya Waghmode) in the semi-final, but I had confidence in him."
The selectors have backed his decisions, he says. "We got a lot of support from the selectors that whatever you feel, if you need this player, take him, but stick to your decision. Even the officials told the players that you will not be dropped after you have two-three bad games. Just now I got a call from a selector that even if you want to hand out a debut in the final, it's alright. It matters hugely to a youngster to have this confidence."
Pinal hasn't backed away from taking the tough decisions as well, dropping experienced batsman Rakesh Solanki who struggled to score runs throughout the season, for the semi-final. "We supported Rakesh a lot, but then I thought he needed a gentle push to realise that he needed to step up." How well this side gels is evident from the fact that Pinal is to join his team-mates for a party later at Solanki's house to celebrate their semi-final win.
The conscious effort has been to keep the inexperienced side hungry and motivated. "I never point out mistakes in front of everyone, you didn't do this, didn't do that. It can hit a player's morale if you constantly point out mistakes. Even when we do badly, we go out for dinner together to get over say, getting bowled out for 100. Just to get it off their minds."
It's a bit different with the seniors, the Pathan brothers, and Munaf Patel, whenever they are available to play. "One has to be a bit more tactful with them. However, Munaf is pretty easy to handle, even Irfan to some extent. Yusuf is very aggressive in his approach to the game, and not only in his batting. He can lift the team with his performance. But you have to handle him well, he needs a lot of independence. But I can still go and tell him that Yusufbhai, so and so needs to be done. One has to assert himself as captain. Otherwise no one will listen to you."
Doesn't he miss them for crucial matches, like the semi-final and now, the final? "I tell the boys, only if you play in the big guys' absence will a team be built. It should be felt that Baroda is something even without the Pathan brothers and Munaf. Otherwise this feeling can set in that Munaf is there, he will take the wickets, Yusuf is there, he will get the runs. I don't want that to happen."
He shows that he is a fast learner. "I make the pacers bowl a leg stump attack in the nets, with a leg slip and a square leg. Once, Ambati Rayudu had fallen against Uttar Pradesh in this manner." At times, nothing works, and that is when his role becomes even more important. "Against Railways, our bowling was so poor in the second innings that we were getting hit all around. They made like 360-odd in around 60 overs. Everyone was dumbfounded. At that time it is your role to motivate everyone, one can't afford to panic."
What is different about this rookie side that has made the final, while the experienced team from last season could not make the knockouts? "If you look at last year's team, I think it was one of the best sides in the country. We had Williams, Satyajit Parab, Jacob Martin, Irfan, Yusuf, Munaf. But my reading was that we were not gelling that much as a team."
Two persons have had a positive effect on the team, he says, Mukesh Narula, the coach, and Rayudu. "I think the dressing room atmosphere has been very easy-going under Mukeshbhai. I respect him so much, but I can pull his leg, and he'll take it sportingly. That spirit should be there, if the coach is too strict, then the fun goes out of it. He does give us a dressing down when we deserve it, like he told me after the semi-final that I should have gone on to make a hundred (Pinal made 83)."
Baroda needed someone who could shore up the middle order, and Rayudu was the perfect fit. "We wanted someone who could hold the innings together. He has helped the other players a lot. You see how the batsmen played on this wicket (at the Reliance Stadium against Karnataka), going back to length balls. Rayudu told me that just don't jab at the ball, try to play with an angled bat slightly beside the line with soft hands, and the ball will not carry to the slips. This is such a delicate adjustment, and not many would have seen it. And when I made that adjustment, batting looked easy on the wicket."
Finally, Pinal's desire to build a team for the future is evident. "When everyone felt that we would be relegated this season, I said alright if we will be relegated, I will take the blame along with the coach. But we will invest and build a good team in two seasons, hopefully like the one Mumbai had about five years ago."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo