Feb 9, 2015, was a dark day in Saurashtra Cricket. After dominating the first innings against Odisha in the latter's home base in Cuttack, a late order resistance saw the Jaydev Shah-led Saurashtra team suffer relegation to Group C towards the fag end of the day.
The entire Saurashtra team, who had the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Sudeep Tyagi, Siddharth Trivedi and Jaydev Unadkat, was left dejected as Basant Mohanty hit the winning shot to deep mid-wicket of the Barabati Stadium. Odisha saved themselves from the embarrassment of losing a game to the bottom-placed team at the home venue but in a way, cricket changed for the team based out of the once-cricketing-hotbed of India, Rajkot. There started a tale of belief and determination that flew through the veins for Saurashtra's second consecutive final appearance in 2020 - their third final after relegation to the lower-tier in 2014-15.
How much of it is down to the hurt and disappointment of the 2014-15 season is left to understand in phrases, but the systematic planning and the belief in themselves in the two years that succeeded the relegation has been the fulcrum that Jaydev Unadkat, the current skipper, who for the second year in running, is so proud to call his own. It is the product of sticking around and then landing the sucker-punch at the most opportune of time - they did it against Karnataka in the last year’s semi-final in Bengaluru and replicated the same against Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat in the Quarters and semis respectively this season to secure a final berth.
“Most of the success needs to be down to the team and players because these guys do not really get a lot of games to play apart from the season. We don’t even have the district tournaments to play so I think it is only down to the players’ hard work that they have been able to prove themselves at this level time and again. It is not easy to go into a tournament without any match practice and still have that pressure to perform but I think these guys have done it time and again. Guys like Arpit (Vasavada), Sheldon (Jackson) and Chirag (Jani) and all of them. So with the limited opportunities that they get, they have been doing a really great job,” Unadkat told SportsCafe in an exclusive interview, in a mighty proud tone.
While discussing the role of Jaydev Unadkat in building this team, it is also important to take a look at various other factors that shaped Saurashtra Cricket as a whole. Jaydev Shah, the current president of Saurashtra Cricket Association and son of former SCA boss Niranjan Shah, was the longest-serving captain of a Ranji team in India, despite having despicable numbers to his name. Averaging 29.91 across 120 first-class cricket matches, it was surprising that Shah captained his state team in over 100 matches.
But that was only half the story. Under his watch, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, and Unadkat himself went on to play for India while many set stall for India A positions. Sheldon Jackson emerged as one of the state’s finest batting talents and Dharmendrasinh Jajdeja, a fine all-rounder. When Shah retired mid-way from the 2018-19 season, the role of skipper landed on Unadkat’s shoulder and how brave he has been so far in leading the side to a resurgence. And he believes it is the way both the eras culminated for a singular vision that played a huge part and both the captains successfully mingled their own philosophies for the betterment of the team.
“Saurashtra cricket has come up in the last 10-12 years because of the individual brilliance that we have had,” Unadkat said. “I think players have been coming out having that talent. It’s not that the cricketing culture here is great, it’s just that the cricketing talent here is great and that is why the team has started doing well. That is when the team environment started building and we started believing that we are a strong team and we can beat other teams on the domestic circuit as well.
“I think these are different eras now that I have taken over captaincy. There are some players who have been playing since the last 5-6 years while there are some that have just come up in the team or made their debut last year. So it’s a different era altogether. He (Jaydev Shah) did his job fairly well and I will do my job fairly well. As I said it is down to the cricketing talent that we have in our region,” the current skipper of the side added.
Sure enough, Unadkat’s stature as a player and the belief that he has been able to inculcate talked a lot about the team’s character, one he has led the side with surgical precision in the absence of many international stars. Cue this year for example - he stamped his authority with the ball, picking as many as 65 wickets this season, the highest by a pacer in a season of Ranji Trophy. That he achieved that despite bowling mostly at the Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) Stadium in Khandheri, on the outskirts of Rajkot, a venue known as a batting paradise, made it enviable in the truest sense.
Not the fastest bowler around, Unadkat used his skill as a swing bowler to extract reverse swing from the surface. It might sound like the easiest process but a pacer knows the repercussions of bending the back for a minimum of five games in a season. Unadkat did that and much more with admirable clarity.
“Reverse swing does play a big role but it is not the only thing. I think it is only half of it. Since Rajkot is a batting surface the only motivation as a bowler is bending your back. If you cannot do that then you are not going to get wickets. So that is one thing that I have come to terms with. This is my home ground and I am going to play all my home games here till the end of my career. I will have to find ways and bend my back all the time and bowl number of wicket-taking deliveries than on any other bowler-friendly surface because the more wicket-taking deliveries you bowl here, the chances are that much more. I think it has got the best out of me in many ways.”
“Obviously you need to have those fitness levels to be a fast bowler but I think you also need to have the skills to find ways to take a wicket. That is one thing that needs to be present. A fast bowler can become stronger with time and persistence in terms of bending his back and bowling throughout the day but if you don’t know the way to take wickets, which is a skill in itself, then I don’t think you can be successful. That is one skill that has to be there even if there is any sort of pitch that you are bowling on.”
With due respect to their achievements, it is a fact worth noting that the other leading pacers in the country - the likes of Dhawal Kulkarni, Vinay Kumar, Pankaj Singh, Ashoke Dinda, Basant Mohanty, and Shardul Thakur - have done that in more helpful pitches than Rajkot. For the majority of his career, Unadkat faced the exact opposite of it but does that take a toll on his confidence? For the high-on-adrenaline Jaydev, it doesn’t matter a bit. Rather, it acts as strong motivation to put in the hard yards in, on a regular basis.
“It has only been motivating factor for me and that is the way that I have started seeing it from the past 5-6 years. I have been learning the challenge. There is nothing wrong in having to face a bigger challenge than someone else and still succeed. The confidence level is a notch higher when you know you are better than the others now that you are actually finding ways to get wickets on difficult wickets. So I think all of that is now imbibed in my game and I don’t feel demotivated or frustrated about it at all.”
As Saurashtra brace themselves to lift their first-ever Ranji Trophy after three failed attempts in the final, they will need their skipper now more than ever. Despite the presence of Cheteshwar Pujara in the batting line-up against spirited Bengal, Unadkat will have to run in hard once again and deliver goods like he has been doing all season.