© Sunny Shinde

“This year we decided, we don’t want to just qualify, we want to be champions,” said Bumrah. © Sunny Shinde

“We’ve always been there and thereabouts. We’ve just missed out by a point in the last three-four years. We decided that winning the Ranji Trophy will be our main goal, but we’re not going to put ourselves under pressure, we’ll take it game by game. Everytime the chips are down, we’re going to remind ourselves that we want to win it. If we don’t believe we can win it, then there’s no point playing.” – Parthiv Patel, Gujarat captain.

“We’ve been doing well in the limited-overs format for the last four-five years I would say. The only thing lacking was Ranji Trophy. We were not qualifying and just missing out. So this year, we decided we don’t want to just qualify, we want to be champions. So we will plan according to that, we will have the belief that we are no less than any other team in the country.”Jasprit Bumrah, leader of Gujarat’s attack.

“In the last few years, we have been T20 champions twice and one-day champions once. So whenever we used to speak as a team, we would think, ‘How can we become champions in the Ranji Trophy?’ And two of the years we missed out on the knockouts very narrowly. So before starting this season, we had just one goal: to be the champions.”Priyank Panchal, Gujarat’s highest run-getter.

“If you have followed Gujarat cricket, you would have seen that over the last three seasons, we were just missing out on a knockout spot. So before the last season, we had a one-to-one talk. We sat with players and analysed our last two seasons. Where did we miss the chance to get a point? Where did we let a game slip when momentum was with us? Every game that was crucial in the last two seasons was analysed.”Vijay Patel, Gujarat coach.

Listening to the core of Gujarat speak about their campaign so far in the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 really brings home the cliché of ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Wisden India can confirm that when Parthiv, Bumrah, Panchal and Vijay made those statements, none was within earshot of the other. They weren’t even made on the same day. But looking at the words and their import, it’s clear that every person in the Gujarat camp is united in vision and belief.

The only other explanation, tongue firmly in cheek, is that they’ve been passing around a sheet of ‘what to say when the press comes asking’ at practice sessions.

Burying the past

I personally feel that we have the team that can lift the title,” praised Parthiv. © Wisden India

“I personally feel that we have the team that can lift the title,” praised Parthiv. © Wisden India

From the beginning of this Ranji campaign, the Gujarat mantra has been ‘11 matches’. Not qualifying for the knockouts, but playing 11 matches in the season, i.e. reaching the title round after eight league matches and three knockouts. It’s been a theme that Gujarat have stuck with through every tough situation, and they are now about to play their first final since 1950-51. They take on Mumbai in Indore from Tuesday (January 10).

It’s only apt that their final hurdle is against Mumbai, considering recent history. In 2013-14, their last league match was against Mumbai. Gujarat had 26 points to Mumbai’s 23, and a first-innings lead would have been enough to take them through. They got a 99-run lead but were bowled out for 147, chasing 175. In 2015-16, Gujarat had 23 points and a net run-rate of 0.028. They could get only one point against Mumbai in their final league match and also saw the net run-rate fall to -0.092, marginally below Madhya Pradesh – who put their own near-miss heartbreaks of seasons past behind them by squeaking though with -0.059.

Those near-misses aren’t forgotten. They are the triggers that spurred the turnaround.

Also read: Keeping diaries and topping Ranji run charts: All in a season’s work for Panchal

“We always knew we are a good side, a better one than the results we got in Ranji Trophy in the last three-four years,” says Parthiv. “Earlier, we have had guys who get 500-600 runs. But before the season started, we said, ‘We want someone to make it really big, like what Priyank did, getting more than 1200 runs.

“See, we are a batting heavy side, there’s no doubt about it,” continues Parthiv. “So we need runs on the board to give support our bowlers and that’s what we’ve got. The bowlers have put their hands up too. They might not be at 30-35 wickets, but they’ve been there whenever needed. Bumrah’s spell against Mumbai (6 for 71), or Hardik’s 11 against Uttar Pradesh (11 for 143). In the semifinal when the chips were down, RP Singh came in and got wickets. We’ve believed that we can make a comeback from any situation. We’re not going to let the game go till it is finished.

“There was belief that we can win Ranji Trophy. The side of six-seven years ago, I wouldn’t have said that we will win. But now I personally feel that we have the team that can lift the title.”

For Panchal, who has set the season alight with his batting feats, the shift in mindset has been most important. © Priyank Panchal

For Panchal, who has set the season alight with his batting feats, the shift in mindset has been most important. © Priyank Panchal

For Panchal, who has set the season alight with his batting feats, the shift in mindset has been most important. “It really matters to us and will be a matter of great pride,” he says about winning the title. “Even in practice, whenever we spoke, it was in terms of winning the championship and not just reaching the quarterfinals. And not just the team, our coaches, physios and trainers too talked in terms of playing 11 matches.

“I think mindset was key. We were playing well for seven matches and stumbling in the eighth earlier. It was not a question of mental fatigue or pressure, but we were giving more importance to the eighth match.”

Parthiv doesn’t shy away from admitting that Gujarat’s tactics have revolved around the batsmen going big in one innings and the team then using scoreboard pressure.

“That’s been the plan,” he nods. “I don’t think it’s negative. Honestly, the main plan is to bat first. That itself is a positive statement. On any kind of wicket, even in Lahli, we won the toss and batted. I personally feel scoreboard pressure is very big. And this year, it has a lot to do with the kind of wickets we have played on. We played on a lot of flat wickets in Belgaum, Hubli, Jaipur. And on those wickets, to push our bowlers and ask them to get 20 wickets was very difficult. It would have been for any team.”

That doesn’t mean outright wins haven’t come, of course. Gujarat beat Uttar Pradesh and Railways in the league stages, then won by 123 runs against an in-form Jharkhand team in the semifinals, despite conceding the first-innings lead.

The bond

© Sunny Shinde

A happy team is a successful team. Gujarat embody that. © Sunny Shinde

A happy team is a successful team. Gujarat embody that. “Most of us have played a lot of cricket together, from Under-19 onwards. So there is a good bond in the team. We are united, we are happy for each other,” explains Bumrah.

“When you are around for two and a half months and you are not happy with someone who is with you, it won’t put you in a proper frame of mind,” is Parthiv’s take. “I let them be. Even in the dressing room, if I see three-four guys are mucking around and having fun, I’ll just pass by so that they can be themselves.

“We start well and then lose momentum. That’s where I thought team bonding is very very important. If the bond is strong, if I’m not performing also I will be happy seeing someone else do well. If next game I perform, someone else will feel happy for me. If I’m not happy seeing someone else perform, then it’s not a team. I’m happy they all recognised that.”

Off the field events strengthen the friendship. For instance, the entire team went to Goa for a couple of days after their match against Mumbai in Hubli. They were completely free to do their own thing. All they were told was that they had to be back in Belgaum by November 27, two days before their next match against Punjab. The only one who didn’t go was Parthiv, even though his bookings were already made – and that was because he had been called up to the Indian Test team.

Batting against Bumrah is the best practice for the top order, because a good shot is invariably followed by a bouncer. © BCCI

Batting against Bumrah is the best practice for the top order, because a good shot is invariably followed by a bouncer. © BCCI

The banter flows freely too. “In Surat, they have a different accent, they pronounce ‘t’ and ‘d’ with a hard sound, never a soft sound,” smiles Parthiv. “So people will make the Surat guys (Hardik Patel, Mehul Patel, Chirag Gandhi, Bhargav Merai) talk in such a way. If they want an umbrella, the Surat boys will be asked to procure one. And they will say, ‘We want a chatta’ (instead of ‘chata’). And they don’t mind it either, they say it happily so that everyone else can join in the fun.”

So what would Parthiv Patel – recently back in the Indian camp where he also had a terrific time – do if the Indian Test team plays against Gujarat and he has to choose a dugout to sit in? “I would be the umpire!” he laughs.

The banter finds competitive edge in the nets. Panchal shares a story about how batting against Bumrah is the best practice for the top order, because a good shot is invariably followed by a bouncer.

“No, no… they have hyped this story a bit, because I don’t do that everytime,” laughs Bumrah.

Then he says, “Okay sometimes I do it. In the end I’m a fast bowler and nobody likes to get hit, isn’t it? But you know, I just bowl a bit faster so they think I’m going to bowl a bouncer whenever they play a good shot. This is just for fun.”

Another pause. And then, “Okay yes, it happens. If they’ve hit a good shot, the next ball could be a bouncer, yes.”

The wide grins have never left their faces.

The Mumbai factor

The team standing between them and ultimate glory is Mumbai. © Joshua Veernathan

The team standing between them and ultimate glory is Mumbai. © Joshua Veernathan

It’s poetic. Now that Gujarat have finally broken through their long-format jinx, the team standing between them and ultimate glory is their bogey team. In fairness, being 41-time champions, Mumbai are probably the bogey team for a whole lot. But right now, it’s Gujarat who must face them.

What will help enormously is the knowledge of what happened in Hubli in late November, when Panchal’s 232 took Gujarat to 437, and Bumrah’s 6 for 71 quelled Mumbai’s challenge at 422, giving Gujarat three points to Mumbai’s one.

“Beating Mumbai or just getting a lead against them is very big for Gujarat,” admits Parthiv. “We’ve never had that, we were pushovers for them. To do that is I think a breakthrough performance.”

Over to Bumrah, the bowling hero of the game. “We have always given them a tough fight. In the limited-overs format we have beaten them too. This year we were determined that if there is a chance, we won’t to lag behind. In the past, something or the other would happen on the last day and we would just miss by a little bit.

Also read: Gujarat’s formidable whole greater than the sum of its parts

“I didn’t try to do anything special. The wicket over there was a black soil one and was on the lower side. It had a dry outfield as well, so the ball was reverse swinging. So my basic plan was to try and use that, and bowl in short spells to get wickets and be fresh as well.”

The match also gave Gujarat a dose of self-belief, which should come in handy in the final.

“Since the last couple of years, Gujarat has been a force to reckon with. I’ve been around the team for the last 15-16 years and seen the days when people would wait to play Gujarat because they thought they’ll finish the match easily and win,” chuckles Vijay. “We worked on ourselves, worked on getting a transparent selection system, worked on players – and now it’s paying off.”

***

It’s Mission almost Accomplished this season. Only the final hurdle remains. Whatever happens though, Gujarat will be secure in the knowledge that this team has done something special that generations before didn’t, and sown the seeds for a brighter future.