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Match Analysis

How Unadkat's Saurashtra became India's dominant first-class team

They found contributors from everywhere to claim a second Ranji Trophy crown

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Saurashtra's proud captain and coach: Jaydev Unadkat and Niraj Odedra pose with the Ranji Trophy  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Saurashtra's proud captain and coach: Jaydev Unadkat and Niraj Odedra pose with the Ranji Trophy  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

As he stood on the winner's podium, Jaydev Unadkat paused for a bit, and quickly announced he'd like to have Arpit Vasavada by his side while lifting the Ranji Trophy for the second time in three seasons.
That Unadkat, who picked up 6 for 85 in a lion-hearted effort, remembered Vasavada during his moment of glory told you of the camaraderie and spirit within this Saurashtra team that is now beginning to dominate the domestic scene.
As the cameras panned to the boundary edge, the rest of the players and support staff stood clapping. This synchronous clap was made famous by one of their very own, Avi Barot, who passed of a cardiac arrest prior to the season. In 2020, Barot was with the rest of the team on the winner's podium. In 2023, it felt like he was there in spirit.
Saurashtra began the season by clinching the Vijay Hazare Trophy, where Barot's wife was invited to be part of the celebrations. Here, with all their families cheering them on, Saurashtra ended the season with the biggest prize in Indian domestic cricket. As Unadkat and Vasavada received the cup, the sense of satisfaction at having achieved a goal they set for themselves at the start of the season was unmistakable.
"In a huddle just before the start of the season, I told the boys, 'yes we won the Vijay Hazare Trophy, but the big one is waiting, we've to work really hard to win it," Unadkat said at the post-match presentation. "I'm really proud of what the guys have been able to achieve, twice now in three seasons. There is a lot of stability in this team, which comes with performance, and everyone has done whatever was required of them."
Unadkat initially wasn't going to be available for the final. He had been picked to play the Tests against Australia. But India wrapped things up quickly in Nagpur and Unadkat was back in his hotel room, pacing up and down, watching Saurashtra slip to 42 for 5 chasing 115 in the semi-final.
"I was itching to make a phone call to someone at the ground to try and convey to the team management to promote Chetan Sakariya just to mess with the Karnataka bowlers a little, just to try and unsettle them," he told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the final. "When we lost three wickets, I was frantically trying to see if I could reach our manager, but I knew it wasn't possible.
"I was quietly hoping they would promote Chetan. When I saw him walking out [at No. 7], it was as if my prayers had been answered. It just tells you how similar the wavelength is between us [head coach Niraj Odedra, stand-in captain Vasavada and himself]."
On February 12, Unadkat put in a request to be released from the Indian team. One week later, he was a two-time Ranji Trophy champion. "Rahul and Rohit bhai were very encouraging of my request to make myself available for this final," he said. "It's a big game and I was keen to get back in and play straightaway."
In their triumphant 2019-20 season, Saurashtra were on the brink of elimination at 15 for 5 in their semi-final against Gujarat, after the first innings had ended with both sides only 52 runs apart. Sakariya, in his second season, was promoted to No. 5 to disrupt the bowlers, and he held fort for over three hours to make a defiant 45. His partnership with Vasavada, who made 139, helped turn their innings around and Saurashtra on course for a miraculous victory.
"That semi-final game was on my mind, so I was quietly hoping it would be the same this time. It was like telepathy," Unadkat said. "In this year's semi-final, when Sakariya played that cameo of 24, where he hit those three sixes to quickly bring the target down, it felt like some kind of destiny was at play. Full marks to Arpit and our coach Niraj bhai for that masterstroke."
Now, as Unadkat spoke of how far the team has come, he remembered the middle-order contributions. Sheldon Jackson delivered under pressure to make a game-changing 160 in the semi-final against Karnataka after a dry run until then.
Parth Bhut, who only got to play the quarter-final against Punjab because Unadkat was away on national duty, made 111 not out from No. 9 to rescue Saurashtra from 134 for 6 in the first innings. In the second innings, he made a crafty half-century and combined with Vasavada and Prerak Mankad to overturn a 128-run deficit. And he still wasn't done. Bhut ended the game with a five-for as Punjab folded to give Saurashtra a win that seemed improbable.
Then there's Chirag Jani and Mankad, their seam bowling allrounders, who along with Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, have lent flexibility to Saurashtra, allowing them to play an extra bowler or batter when the need has risen. These contributions, all at different times, were worth their weight in gold.
It all seemed too surreal for Unadkat. He had been part of four finals. In the first two, he saw Saurashtra blown away by Mumbai. He saw them blown away by stage fright and intimidation. That same team is the one that's here now, having grown so big that it is the one dominating Indian domestic cricket.
"The middle order, the way they have stood up, has been incredible," Unadkat said. "The way Chetan survived that first hour yesterday was amazing to see. In the last four-five years, we have been able set the tone, for guys to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves and the team. This is a team achievement in the truest sense. Glad to win this for everyone who has worked hard behind the scenes - the association, selectors, coaches and our families."
What about his own performances? In 2019-20, when they won, Unadkat topped the bowling charts with 67 wickets, the most by a fast bowler in a single Ranji season. That sowed the seeds of his India comeback, 12 years after he debuted as a teenager way back in 2010. Now, Unadkat is a mature 31-year-old, at the peak of his prowess.
His three-for on the opening morning of the final blew Bengal away. And then, when they fought back, it was Unadkat once again who calmed things down with an outstanding exhibition of reverse swing bowling to finish with 6 for 85.
"That was the need of the hour," he said. "I was here to do a job. I love playing for Saurashtra. This team is so close to my heart. Whenever the situation arises [where he can play], I feel there's a bit of zest from inside, an adrenaline rush. I feel I should step up and do it for the team."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo