"If they don’t allow themselves to be overawed by the fact that they are playing a Ranji final, I expect Gujarat to be extremely competitive,” said Shitanshu Kotak. © Wisden India

“If Gujarat don’t allow themselves to be overawed by the fact that they are playing a Ranji final, I expect them to be extremely competitive,” said Shitanshu Kotak. © Wisden India

The final of the 83rd edition of the Ranji Trophy is in many ways similar to the title tilt of January 2013. The perennial powerhouse of Indian cricket pitted against a lesser light from the same zone, looking for its first slice of glory in the first-class game.

In that January 2013 final, Mumbai swept a feeble challenge from Saurashtra aside at the Wankhede Stadium, winning by an innings and 125 runs with plenty to spare. That Mumbai side included, among others, Sachin Tendulkar, Ajit Agakar and Wasim Jaffer.

In this January 2017 title clash, the 41-time champions run into another West Zone counterpart, Parthiv Patel’s Gujarat. This time, there is no Tendulkar, no Agarkar, no Jaffer. Not even a Dhawal Kulkarni. And yet, in many quarters, there is a sense of the inevitable – that no matter what the names in the Mumbai set-up, the juggernaut will take some stopping.

Shitanshu Kotak was an integral part of the Saurashtra side that made the January 2013 final. The veteran left-hand batsman had a forgettable game – he only made 14 and 0 while opening the innings – as Mumbai won inside three days, but he insisted that more than nerves, it was the gulf between the teams that was the decisive factor.

“But not this time, I don’t think so,” Kotak told Wisden India as he reflected on Gujarat’s prospects. “I expect a close contest, because both the teams appear very well balanced. Mumbai don’t have the same star cast as in the past, they have several newcomers as well, and Gujarat are a strong side playing good cricket. Further, they have two very experienced and street-smart players in Parthiv and RP (Singh).

“Of course, the absence of Jasprit Bumrah is a setback for Gujarat, because he has been such a key performer for them this season, but all-round, I sense great depth in their side. If they don’t allow themselves to be overawed by the fact that they are playing a Ranji final, I expect them to be extremely competitive.”

Like several others, Kotak has suggested that Gujarat take this as just another match, not a Ranji final and most certainly not one against Mumbai. “You have to play the opposition, not the name of the opposition. It is similar to what we tell batsmen – play the ball, not the bowler,” stressed Kotak, who has 130 first-class caps under his belt and coached Saurashtra to the final against Mumbai last season, where Jaydev Shah’s men went down by an innings. “I know it is easy to say don’t think about who the opposition is, but there is no other option.

“Why would you want to put extra pressure on yourself by being intimidated by the fact that you are playing Mumbai? The Ranji final is a big occasion, no matter how much you might want to look at it as just another game. That is a given, but when you look past that, you must reflect on what it is that has brought you to this stage, and why you must continue to follow the same process if you are desirous of a favourable result.”

Kotak was adamant that even though he didn’t have a great game with the bat in the final four seasons ago, it had nothing to do with extraneous factors. “I had already played nearly 20 years of first-class cricket by then, and I had the experience to take the game at face value,” he said. “It could be difficult for the younger guys because they probably haven’t been exposed to such situations before. But the more you play, the more you realise that cricket is played as much in the mind as on the field. Once you make that mental adjustment and once you understand how you must approach the game, a lot of things automatically fall into place.

On Mumbai’s dominance in the final: “Just the culture of cricket that they have. They are fiercely competitive, they never give up, and they have a rich legacy of cricket that they are very proud of and very keen to emulate. They have had a steady stream of world-class cricketers, India internationals who spend time with them and who inspire them more through deeds than through words.

“At the risk of repeating myself, I expect a hard-fought, competitive final. I like the look of Gujarat, but Mumbai is Mumbai – they know how to win matches, especially finals, and they won’t just lie down and allow themselves to be rolled over. You have to beat them, they won’t beat themselves. I just hope the toss doesn’t become a crucial factor in the match. I think it will be a good final.”

Almost before you finish asking him why Mumbai are so tough to beat in the final – they have won 41 of the 45 Ranji finals they have contested – Kotak was ready with the answer: “Just the culture of cricket that they have. They are fiercely competitive, they never give up, and they have a rich legacy of cricket that they are very proud of and very keen to emulate. They have had a steady stream of world-class cricketers, India internationals who spend time with them and who inspire them more through deeds than through words.

“I have played competitively in Mumbai for more than 20 years, mainly for Bharat Petroleum, my employers, and I know how hard and tough the cricket there is. No one takes a backward step, no one likes to lose. And that automatically extends to the higher levels of cricket that they play. You can see that from their record in the finals – if I remember right, they have only lost four finals. It is almost as if once they are in the knockouts, they are practically invincible. They can be beaten, of course – as is evident from the four finals they did not win! – but they know how to close out deals, how to get the job done once they are in the knockouts. The onus will be on Gujarat to try and stop them.”