Sometimes, just sometimes, life imitates fairytales. For well over five decades, Vidarbha was an unknown, and unfancied, entity among India’s cricketing royalty. In fact, this backward region, in the otherwise powerful state of Maharashtra, was ridiculed for producing more BCCI officials than quality cricketers. And in the old Zonal Ranji Trophy format, Vidarbha was much maligned as Central Zone’s favourite whipping boys, who were condemned to finish at the bottom of the table year after year, as a matter of routine.
However, in recent years, something changed drastically. The investments at the grassroots level started paying dividends, as cricketers from poor, humble backgrounds found a better way of expressing themselves and came up the ranks. Cricket gave them a level playing field, and performing well gave them a much needed release.
Thus dreams and determination blended finely as Vidarbha became a unit, where youth was guided by experience, with Wasim Jaffer doubling up as friend, philosopher and guide and skipper Faiz Fazal raising the bar for his colleagues with his own achievements. The 32-year old Faiz led by example with his strict diet and fitness regime. A month of rubbing shoulders with Team India was both an exhilarating and learning experience for the Vidarbha skipper; what he picked up from the highest level of professionalism was duly passed on to his boys.
Coach Chandrakant Pandit, much like Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Chak De India’, himself had to prove a point or two to people in his own hometown. Accordingly, the former India stumper devised his own methods which were embraced by the team, be it his practice sessions or off the field activities for team bonding. Soon, the team jelled well. Every player in the side gained strength from each other, and courage was rewarded, as it usually is. That Pandit had a ‘Dronacharya’ like stature in the Vidarbha side was clearly evident in the way most players would touch his feet soon after scripting a David vs Goliath kind of victory, in the two big games against Karnataka (semifinal) and Delhi (final). He brought with him Mumbai’s ‘khadoos’ culture, which made the difference.
Vidarbha have been lucky to have a Mumbai hand for the last eight years – it was Sulakshan Kulkarni who started the transformation, eight years ago. He was the first one to work on players’ attitudes. When he left, Vidarbha brought in professionals like Sairaj Bahutule, Shiv Sunder Das and Hemang Badani. All three had lots of experience, which they passed on to the young guns in the side. When Paras Mhambrey took charge in 2014-15, he took Vidarbha cricket to newer heights. Vidarbha qualified for the knock-outs after 19 long years, and then repeated the feat next year too. In 2015-16, Vidarbha topped the group in every format.
For the bowling coach Subroto Banerjee, it was yet another moment of déjà vu. The former India pacer wisely drew upon his wealth of experience and helped fine tune the skills of his young, promising bunch of bowlers, like Lalit Yadav, Shrikant Wagh and, of course, Rajneesh Gurbani, who ought to be his special fancy after a certain Umesh Yadav.
Blessed with a body similar to that of Ajit Agarkar – and an ability to make the ball talk like Bhuvneshwar Kumar – Gurbani had a massive impact in the semifinals and finals to be the deserving Man of the Match. The icing on the cake for Gurbani – a civil engineer who comes from a well educated family background – was a hat-trick in the final.
In contrast, Aditya Sarvate’s father has been bedridden for the last 25 years, while wicketkeeper Akshay Wadkar didn’t even have money to pay for his coaching fees. These young cricketers were supported by their academies, and they duly repaid the debt of gratitude, putting on 169 runs in the final, which sealed Delhi’s fate.
There was, of course, a method in their madness. Right from the first game, each thumping victory against a fancied team was like a sign post to the future, which showed that Vidarbha was very much enjoying the ride on their road to glory. To win seven games out of nine underlines their consistency. Also, apart from the 5-run semifinal victory, the fact that each of their victories was hugely convincing speaks volumes of their dominance this season.
Then again, to beat two powerhouses of Indian cricket (Karnataka and Delhi) in the two big games is proof enough of the Vidarbha players showing enough resolve to rise to the occasion and look at their opponents in the eye. The fact that star pacer Umesh Yadav wasn’t even available for key games also underlined their bench strength. Thus, young Aditya Thakare, who is now doing duty for the Indian Under-19 team in the World Cup, made his debut in the Ranji Trophy final and, instead of being unnerved by the big occasion, he bowled a brilliant first over, knocking over the Delhi opener Chandela. Faiz Fazal was a hands-on leader, who was an overwhelming presence at the top of the order. In the fitness of things, the captain was leading from the front, reeling off five dazzling tons this season to finish as the second highest run-getter, with 912 runs at an average of 70.15.
A lot of credit should also go to the powers that be in the Vidarbha Cricket Association, when they decided to set up a Residential Cricket Academy in 2011. Former India pacer Prashant Vaidya, who took over as its director, brought in the likes of Neil D’Costa, childhood coach of former Australian skipper Michael Clarke, the late Philip Hughes and pace sensation Mitchell Starc, along with former Mumbai stumper Sulakshan Kulkarni and Subroto Bannerjee. There was a systematic programme in place, and for the first time, the VCA adopted a professional approach. Thus, quality physios and trainers were given the job of keeping the boys fit, and no less than nine players from the academy were part of Vidarbha’s Ranji Trophy-winning squad. It also helped the senior pros like Faiz Fazal, Akshay Wakhare, Shalabh Shrivastava and Shrikant Wagh to have some quality practice.
Faiz’s opening partner R Sanjay, also a product of the academy, scored 775 runs at an average of 64.58, with the help of three centuries, and was among the top five run getters in the country. Allrounder Aditya Sarvate (330 runs and 29 wickers) also had a huge impact in key games. On their part, the professionals too pulled their weight in the side, with Ganesh Satish (638 runs) and Wasim Jaffer (595 runs) standing up like a rock. More than just that, they were also guiding the others around them. Vidarbha’s top four batsmen had over 3000 runs, while three bowlers — Rajneesh Gurbani, Akshay Wakhare and Aditya Sarvate — took more than 25 wickets each, and were among the top ten wicket takers in the country. Vidarbha’s triumph was a perfect example of team effort – and they had different heroes in every match.
Looking back, it may sound outrageous that the new coach actually talked about ‘what happens to the winner’s cheque’ on his first day in office, and the captain talking about his urge to play the Irani Trophy even before the all important final. Surely, they made a mockery of oft repeated phrases like ‘one game at a time’, ‘not getting ahead of ourselves’ and ‘living in the present’. So, was it their supreme confidence, or self-belief, or was it just karma at work?
Whatever it was, the end result had the entire country sitting up and taking notice of Vidarbha’s sensational ride to victory. It was nothing less than a miracle; if one is to draw a cricketing parallel, it was much like Kapil’s Devils winning the 1983 World Cup, or like Leicester winning the English Premier League. Whoever said fortune favours the brave must have had Vidarbha in mind.
VIDARBHA’S DREAM RUN
*Beat Punjab by an innings & 177 runs.
*Drew with Chhattisgarh. Conceded innings lead.
*Beat Services by 192 runs.
*Beat Bengal by 10 wickets.
*Beat Goa by an innings & 37 runs
*Drew with Himachal Pradesh
*Beat Kerala by 412 runs in quarter final.
*Beat Karnataka by 5 runs in the semi final.
*Beat Delhi by 9 wickets in the final.