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Brick by Brick, the Men from Vidarbha Build a Formidable Fortress

Sidhanta Patnaik |Cricketnext |February 8, 2019, 9:12 PM IST
Brick by Brick, the Men from Vidarbha Build a Formidable Fortress

After Vidarbha beat Saurashtra by 78 runs to successfully defend the Ranji Trophy title, an emotional Umesh Yadav, who had missed the last final because of the tour of South Africa, told the broadcaster. “Ek pehchan mili hai Vidarbha cricket ko.” His words struck a chord with the viewers. Earning one’s pehchan (identity) is the underlying motivation for a lot of people to be their best in what they do.

Only hardcore followers of domestic cricket knew about Aditya Sarwate in the past, but now the world knows him as the man who dismissed the virtually impossible to dislodge Cheteshwar Pujara for 1 and 0 twice in three days. During his Man of the Match performance of 11 for 157, he became the first bowler to take 50 or more wickets in a season for Vidarbha and only the sixth bowler to record a ten-wicket haul in a Ranji final.

No batsman had top scored for his team from No.8 or below in a Ranji final since 2001-02. Akshay Karnewar’s unbeaten 73 in the first innings after Vidarbha were in a spot of bother at 139 for 6 gave them the first impetus in a game that swung like a pendulum.

Ganesh Satish scored a match-winning century for Karnataka in the 2013-14 Ranji final, but joined Vidarbha as a professional next season in pursuit of new challenges. He would have pondered his decision after Karnataka defended the title next season. He now knows how that feels.

Akshay Wadkar is way down the pecking order among wicketkeepers considered for higher honours, and that has made him more resolute. He scored a century in the last Ranji final, and has been a guiding voice from behind the stumps. He ended as the team's third-best batsman this season.

Rajneesh Gurbani, Vidarbha’s highest wicket-taker in 2017-18 including a hat-trick in the title clash against Delhi, did not bowl a single over in the second innings of this season’s final. He, however, played his part with the bat in crucial tenth-wicket partnerships of 13 and 22 in two innings. Subtract those 35 runs and the equation could have been completely different.

Playing cricket is the only thing Wasim Jaffer knows, but the possibilities of him returning to the ground looked unlikely after an injury. He worked on his fitness and diet, and offered to play for free for Vidarbha last season. He hit the winning runs in 2017-18, and finished second on the overall batting charts this season with 1037 runs at 69.13. Set to turn 41 on the scheduled last day of the upcoming Irani Cup, he became the first batsman to touch the 1000-run milestone in a season twice. He is now the fourth player to appear in ten or more finals and win on all occasions. Also, he is only the second batsman after Ashok Mankad to tally 1000 or more runs in Ranji finals.

Faiz Fazal thought he had done enough in the only One-Day International he played in Zimbabwe to merit a longer look, but that door has not opened for almost three years now. In the meantime, he has become only the 11th captain to win back-to-back Ranji titles. He also has the Irani Cup and Duleep Trophy to embellish his captaincy credentials. He was Vidarbha’s best batsman last season, and second-best this season.

Chandrakant Pandit lost his job as Mumbai coach in 2017 despite doing little wrong. Vidarbha gave him a new purpose and he has now coached the side to three titles including the Irani Cup last season. The old fox still has many years left in him.

Each individual’s search for a purpose has given Vidarbha a collective identity that will be hard for national selectors to ignore. They are now only the sixth team to defend the Ranji title.

This search for identity is a big thing in Indian cricket where for a long time it was overwhelming for the smaller centres to find and then retain their originality in front of the robust structures of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.

Vidarbha

There were few upsets along the way, but they were always considered as “fluke” and rightly so because the ‘smaller’ teams did not have the machinery to sustain the momentum. The narrative started to change with the emergence of a certain Mahendra Singh Dhoni from Ranchi, and then came the Indian Premier League in 2008 which levelled the playing field. No more was any cricketer an island, and everyone had equal right to dream big.

This is the reason why Rajasthan, Gujarat and Vidarbha have won the Ranji Trophy five times in the last ten seasons, and Uttar Pradesh, Baroda, Saurashtra and Maharashtra have made it to the finals on six occasions. Other state associations who have endured the struggle with a positive intent have also reaped rewards.

“The kind of cricket we have played over the last three-four seasons...it took us a bit of time, but we knew the day these guys reach here with the experience of 20-25 matches, the work that has been put will show,” Umesh said. “When we used to play in the past, our motivation used to be down because we did not have what we wanted, but in the last three-four years the boys have got the maturity of how to handle the game.”

Vidarbha have now extended their unbeaten tally to 24 first-class matches. Pandit credited Prashant Vaidya, the former India pacer, for his stellar work behind the scenes that has ensured that Vidarbha are dominant in age-group competitions also.

As is well documented, Vaidya’s vision got the backing of Shashank Manohar, who is from Nagpur, more than a decade back, and there was no looking back after that. In his first tenure, Vaidya put the structure in place and focussing on building a strong academy under the leadership of Neil D’Costa, who counts Michael Clarke and Mitchell Starc among his students.

Vaidya lost the support of the association and returned to the setup as vice-president after the implementation of the Lodha Committee recommendations in 2017. In his second tenure, he signed Pandit as senior team’s coach and resumed the work at the academy.

This vision separates Vidarbha’s success from that of Rajasthan in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Rajasthan had three strong professionals in Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the captain, Aakash Chopra and Rashmi Ranjan Parida. They unfailingly delivered under crisis and moulded a team of promising cricketers. But the strucutre collapsed once the trio left and the association got mired in internal politics before a mini revival this season.

Vidarbha have their heart at the right place. They also have a home-grown captain who has still many years of cricket left in him, and the professionals have given shape to the aspirations of a young unit.

“When you win once, it could be fluke. Many people told me that you will have to do it again. There was pressure to retain the title, but we just focussed on the process and not think too much about retaining the title,” Pandit told the broadcaster. “It’s important to get the support from the association and selection committee. In the last two years, we have kept about 12 experienced players (out) and given chance to youngsters. We are motivating (them) to see how they will play for next ten seasons.”

‘Next ten seasons’ is the operative phrase in what could be the start of a special journey for Vidarbha.

(Sidhanta Patnaik has reported on six ICC men's and women's tournaments. He is the co-author of The Fire Burns Blue - A history of women's cricket in India. @sidhpat)

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