Ranji Trophy 2017-18: The rise and rise of Vidarbha
Drama! Emotions! No script writer could have written a better script. Vidarbha entered the finals of Ranji Trophy for the first time beating the mighty Karnataka team.
Karnataka had lost 7 wickets at the end of 4th day. Skipper Vinay Kumar, Gopal and Mithun kept the match alive. Everyone literally were on the edge of their seats. It was a thriller! Gurbani provided them the first breakthrough of the morning with the wicket of Vinay Kumar and then took the final wicket to create history. The expressions of Vidarbha players, their celebrations said it all. Rajneesh Gurbani ended the match with 12 wickets.
Everyone contributed when it mattered the most. Sarwate made a valuable 47 in the first innings. Followed it up with another sensible 55 in the second. Neral made inroads in the second innings. Tail-enders chipped in with runs. Satish batted exceptionally well. And then it was the young man Gurbani's best performance that blew away Karnataka's batting.
One team: Won the title many times. For the other: semi-finals were a distant dream.
Vidarbha, after winning the toss, found themselves in a difficult situation with Mithun and co. bowling a deadly spell. Karnataka despite losing 2 early wickets were in total control and set for a huge first innings total and eventually a place in the finals. Did Vidarbha lose the plot after winning the toss? The situation was grim, they chose to fight back.
Vidarbha in their second innings:
36/2 and then 245/8 with a lead of just over 100 and Binny bowling a brilliant spell, it looked like Karnataka would win on the 4th day. What did Vidarbha do? Surrendered? No. They fought back. Their tail-enders hung in.
Like the first innings, Sarwate once again played street-smart cricket with the support of tail-enders.
Karnataka 2nd innings: 81/3 with two in-form batsmen- Nair and Gautam at the crease. With the target of 198 within their sight. But Vidarbha once again made a comeback with Rajneesh Gurbani leading the fight.
Even 6-7 years back, it was a dream to see the Vidarbha team play consistently against the bigger teams. To be a part of the elite group. For the majority of the time, they played in the plate group.
3-4 years back, it was a dream for all Vidarbha fans to see the team in the knockouts. A place in the knockouts or even the distant possibility of them qualifying was discussed seriously by their fans but mocked by others.
Vidarbha tried but failed to qualify, often undone by someone's brilliance from the opposition or succumbing to the pressure.
At times, it was frustrating for fans to see flashes of brilliance from their team and players not being converted to favorable results.
One thing remained constant in all these years.
They didn't stop dreaming.
They didn't stop believing.
Fans stood behind the team.
In 2014-15, they qualified for the quarter-finals. But with the likes of Vijay Shankar, Murali Vijay, Dinesh Karthik scoring heavily for Tamil Nadu, Vidarbha didn’t qualify for the semis. In 2015-16, they again qualified for the quarter-finals where they faced Saurashtra. Vidarbha lost by an innings and 85 runs. Next season, they didn't qualify for the knockouts.
But the long process of reviving Vidarbha cricket and competing well against the stronger teams had started. Wheels were set in motion. With the player transfer policy, they had the services of vastly experienced veterans, Subramaniam Badrinath, Wasim Jaffer, Ambati Rayudu, Ganesh Satish at some point or the other. They guided the youngsters. Along with these players, the arrival of Paras Mhambarey as a coach has also been instrumental in the team’s success. Subroto Banerjee has also been working with the young bowlers.
Vidarbha had not produced any Test players of note in recent years. When Umesh Yadav was selected for the Indian team, there was jubilation, celebration. India always had the problem of finding a bowler who would rattle the opposition with express pace. Yadav began with raw pace as his strength, although wayward, does not take away from the fact that he is a fast learner.
When Faiz Fazal, the pillar of Vidarbha's batting, was awarded for his brilliant consistent performances with a call to the Indian ODI team, fans didn't care if the opposition was Zimbabwe. All they wanted to see was the local boy in blue colours who had worked hard.
So, when Vidarbha started winning matches in this season, it was no surprise for the ardent supporters. But the manner in which they went about their business surprised many. The intent was there. They didn’t want to win the battles (just a few matches) this time; they wanted to win the war.
The success of the team has not been due to one or two players performing, it has been a result of the combined team effort with every player putting their hands up and taking the responsibility when it mattered. Belief shown in the youngsters has also benefitted the team. The team has shown faith in th new generation of fearless cricketers Jitesh Sharma, Apoorv Wankhede, Akshay Karnewar, Sanjay Ramaswamy.
The manner in which they have qualified into the semifinals speaks volume about the team. Only once they conceded a lead in the league stages. With each victory, they were signalling their arrival in the tournament, a warning for the opposition not to take them lightly. Twice they won by an innings margin, once by 10 wickets against the strong Bengal side and then a huge victory in the semifinals over Kerala.
Vidarbha already bettered their record of progressing to the semifinals for the first time. On Wednesday, at the iconic Eden Gardens, they may well take one step closer towards the dream. A dream which may soon become reality with their never say die attitude, determination, grit and discipline.