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One small step for Vidarbha

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Ranji_Trophy_India_CricketWhen cricket was more a British sport in India, in the early years of the 20th century, various tournaments were held in Bombay (now Mumbai). It all began with a Presidency Match played between European members of the Bombay Gymkhana and Parsis of the Zoroastrian Cricket Club. After a while, when these two sides were established as regular teams in cricket in India, Hindu Gymkhana entered the tournament and gave rise to the Bombay Triangular series. The tournament that eventually spread cricket across the country was Bombay Quadrangular that also involved Muslims of the Mohammedan Gymkhana.

By 1920s, the success of Quadrangular tournament led to the development of cricket in various parts of India, including Nagpur. Apparently, Nagpur regularly hosted a tournament called the Central Provinces Quadrangular. The city produced India's first Test captain, CK Nayudu. At least three generations of the Nayudus played cricket. When CK was born, his grandfather had organised a cricket match as a celebration. CK played seven Tests and 207 First-Class matches in a career that lasted as many years as that of legendary WG Grace - 47.

However, Nagpur has failed to produce a significant cricketer since CK. Nagpur, the winter capital of Maharashtra, was once a bustling city but eventually lagged behind Mumbai and Pune economically. Similarly, it did not live up to the expectations in the field of cricket. The Indian team played its maiden Test at home in 1933 and the venues associations did not include Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA), Nagpur. Although the VCA Stadium had begun to host domestic matches from 1929, it broke into the bigger picture of Test cricket only in 1965.

Meanwhile, Nagpur's domestic team, Vidarbha, played its maiden First-Class match in 1957-58 season. Having played almost six decades of India's premier domestic tournament, Ranji Trophy, Vidarbha's best finish had been in the quarter-finals of the 1970-71, 1995–96 and 2015-16 seasons.

 

“Better late than never,” is a phrase Nagpur has lived. The city's breakthrough in cricket happened, but a bit late.

 

Enter, Shashank Manohar: one of India's finest cricket administrators. He stepped into cricket politics when he took charge of the Vidarbha Cricket Association in 1996 and went on to become the BCCI chief in 2008. He had a huge role to play in the rise of Nagpur into one of India's significant cricket centres. Post 2008, Nagpur inaugurated a new cricket stadium, New VCA Stadium, replacing the old Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground as the city's main stadium. In an attempt to promote and develop quality cricket, the city set up a Cricket Academy in 2009.

Gradually, steadily, the VCA has made progress in the competitive domain of cricket. It is now a notable Test venue. Since CK, the Nagpur cricketer who has been in the Indian side for the longest time is fast bowler Umesh Yadav. Perhaps he is not as remarkable as CK, but Umesh has made a name for himself and his cricket association. Having played 71 ODIs and 36 Tests, Umesh has 101 international wickets under his belt. In the time since he made his First-Class debut in 2008, Vidarbha has reached the knockout stage of Ranji Trophy only twice. This edition was the second time.

 

The current Vidarbha side is led by 32-year-old Faiz Fazal, who has almost 14 years of First-Class cricket experience and has played an ODI (in 2016) for India. Until 2015, Vidarbha had only one player who had played for India – Yadav. What then happened was one of the best moves by the management: deciding to sign Ranji Trophy legend Wasim Jaffer.

 

The veteran played for Mumbai and dominated as a batsman for almost two decades. He was offered a contract by several teams when he was at his peak but he always chose his home state. Prior to the 2015-16 season, he finally opted to switch because he didn't want to deny a promising batsman a place in the Mumbai side. Out of all the sides in Ranji Trophy, he thought he would be handy in Vidarbha as the team was lacking an experienced member.

When Vidarbha locked horns with eight-time champions Karnataka in the semi-final of Ranji Trophy 2017-18, hardly anyone expected Vidarbha to go through. This particular match is testimony to the Jaffer’s influence in the team. The season favourites, Karnataka, bowled Vidarbha out for a mere 185 runs in the first innings. When it was Karnataka's turn to bat, their best batsman Karun Nair delivered on the crucial occasion with a brilliant 153 off 287 balls. That ensured Karnataka earned a healthy first innings lead.

At the end of the second day, Vidarbha had a quiet and sulking dressing room. Many thought a win for Karnataka would be a cake walk, despite their efforts. The same dressing room included Jaffer, the man with the most Ranji Trophy titles to his name. He was determined to not let the boys lose confidence.

 

Vidarbha all-rounder Aditya Sarwate revealed that Jaffer gave a pep talk to the team to lift the morale ahead of a vital third day. According to Sarwate, Jaffer recollected the 2010 Ranji final between Mumbai and Karnataka at Mysore, where Ajit Agarkar led Mumbai's fightback to win a thrilling contest.

 

Jaffer was successful in changing the attitude in the side and a charged Vidarbha XI came into the field to resume play on the third day. They allowed Karnataka to add another seven runs to their overnight score of 294 and Karnataka finished their innings at 301. Vidarbha then set Karnataka a target of 198 runs with almost one and a half days left in the semi-final.

In the morning session of the final day, Karnataka needed 18 runs to end the dream run of Vidarbha in this Ranji Trophy. On the other hand, Vidarbha were just two wickets away from their maiden appearance in a Ranji Trophy final. At drinks break, it was time for Jaffer to give out a firm speech yet again.

 

"I still believed things could change. I told them if they need to score 18 runs, we need to make sure they at least play 30-35 balls. They are not going to get those runs in four or five deliveries. And we need to bowl just two good balls, which is quite possible. Luckily for us, that is what happened. [Abhimanyu] Mithun played a bad shot and [S] Aravind was the last man caught. They [Vidarbha] have realised now that things can happen," Jaffer said after the match, regarding his speech during the team huddle.

 

While Kolkata went on to witness one of the most dramatic and zealous Ranji Trophy matches, Vidarbha boys are not celebrating anymore as the job is unfinished yet. They entered the knockout stage as dark horses and dark horses they remain as they are about to face seven-time Ranji Trophy winners Delhi.

This Vidarbha team has not been about just one player; they have had heroes whenever required. Their skipper Fazal has been in a terrific form as he stands second on the runs table, the semi-final hero Rajneesh Gurbani is the joint fifth wicket-taker with 31 wickets so far, and their senior player and mentor Wasim Jaffer might not be at the top but still, at an age of 39, he has piled up 500-plus runs.

Moreover, Vidarbha is being coached by former Indian wicketkeeper Chandrakant Pandit, who joined Vidarbha ahead of this season. The 55-year-old was in charge of Mumbai for the last two seasons, taking the side to their 41st Ranji Trophy title in 2015-16 and the final in 2016-17, where they lost to Gujarat.

The Indian domestic circuits have had enough of Karnataka, Mumbai and Delhi. If the golden combination of Jaffer and Pandit somehow manages to pull off a win in the final, it will not only do wonders for them but also to Indian domestic cricket - Ranji Trophy will have a second consecutive new trophy-holder.

 

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