Exactly a week ago, the Saurashtra camp was hit by a slew of illnesses. Two days prior to the Ranji Trophy final, Dharmendrasinh Jadeja
, the left-arm spinner, Arpit Vasavada
, a batting mainstay and Cheteshwar Pujara
, their No. 1 batsman, were all sick. Jadeja and Vasavada were running temperatures while Pujara had a throat infection and bouts of dizziness.
Three big players not participating in their training session two days ahead of a big game may have given a jolt to most teams. Saurashtra had back-ups and prepared them to be match-ready, even though they hoped the sick trio would be match-fit. And so, two days prior to the game, the reserves underwent a longer than usual hit out at the nets under Jaydev Unadkat
's supervision. The team channelled whatever mild panic they might have felt in a productive way.
After victory was achieved on the fifth day of a dreary final that was decided on the basis of a first-innings lead
, Pujara revealed how he had to battle against his own body to be ready for an occasion he simply didn't want to miss.
He eventually came out to bat at No. 6 in the first innings, but retired hurt after spending just 30 minutes at the crease. It was only on the second day, after a night's rest and some medicines, that a "half-okay" Pujara returned to the crease. He then defied the bowling to play "probably one of my slowest knocks (laughs)". He faced 267 deliveries for his 64, putting on 142 with Vasavada to set the tone for a sizeable first-innings score.
"I had a blackout like feeling when I went in to bat," Pujara said, with the Ranji Trophy beside him. "It was tough on my body. I was down with fever, throat infection so it wasn't easy. It was frustrating when I couldn't come out to bat at my usual No. 4 position for Saurashtra because I knew runs on the board was key and we had won a crucial toss.
"On this wicket I thought if I can walk in early, I can start dominating later. The first day is the best time to bat, but I'm happy that I could play my part [later]. I wanted to respect the conditions. On day two when I walked in, it was not easy. I felt a blackout [again], so it was tough. But you have to be motivated and lead from the front and set a good example. We had to set a platform for the bowlers, and that partnership with Arpit (who made a 287-ball 106) gave us a lot of confidence. Once we had 350-plus, we knew with our remarkable bowling attack, we were in a good position.
"If someone takes 67 wickets in a season, I don't [think] a performance can get bigger than that. There has to be lot of importance to Ranji Trophy performance to get picked for the Indian team and I will be surprised if he is not picked in the Indian team."
Pujara on Unadkat's Ranji season
"It was a tough pitch," Pujara continued. "The ball wasn't coming on nicely, it was slow, so yes I didn't want to bother about conditions. I needed to put my head down and play a crucial knock, ultimately we needed a good total for the bowlers."
With the ball, the onus was on Unadkat to strike. He came into the match with 65 wickets, needing just four more to break Ashutosh Aman's record for most wickets in a Ranji Trophy season. As such, no other fast bowler has taken these many wickets in a season. Unadkat came in to a tense final day with no wickets to his name. Bengal needed 72 runs and Saurashtra four wickets, and Unadkat rose to the occasion when his team needed him the most.
"It was very draining emotionally and physically to be out there for couple of days and fighting for the coveted trophy. The guys put in everything that they had," Unadkat said. "Though the energy levels were down a little at times, I think the way we won the semi-finals gave us self-belief. It gave us a marker that there one twist was left in the game and we will have to work hard for it. That hope and belief helped us sail through."
Unadkat finished the tournament with 67 wickets, and Pujara, his best friend, couldn't have been happier. "If someone takes 67 wickets in a season, I don't [think] a performance can get bigger than that," Pujara said. "There has to be lot of importance to Ranji Trophy performance to get picked for the Indian team. Jaydev was modest that he would not be thinking about the Indian call but I will be surprised if he is not picked in the Indian team.
"The guys believed in each other and all of us were contributing towards one goal."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo