Vidarbha's title-winning Ranji Trophy campaign that concluded with a fabulous victory over Delhi in Indore was no less than a fairytale. A team that wasn't even considered among the probables to make it to the semi-finals prior to the tournament, not only made it to the finals but also went on to win it. And the fact that it was their maiden title, coming as it did after a long wait of over five decades, made the occasion even more special.
What a journey it was!
It was the victory in the first match of the season against Punjab " by an innings and 117 runs " that made them realise that they could actually go the distance. Most of their players showed superb form, belief and confidence in the first match itself. Their belief grew stronger with a thumping victory against a strong Bengal side in the group stage, and the thrilling five-run win over the unstoppable Karnataka in the semi-finals, even after conceding a first innings lead, showed they had the nerves to last in big matches.
The most fascinating part about their journey this season was that they didn't depend on one individual performance. In fact, each and every member contributed at some stage of the tournament and played his part.
It began with the 22-year-old Ramaswamy Sanjay and the experienced Ganesh Satish's twin centuries against Punjab in Mohali. The Vidarbha pace trio of Lalit Yadav, Rajneesh Gurbaani and Siddesh Neeral also showed their class as they skittled Punjab for 161 in the first innings. And the spin duo of Akshay Karnewar and Akshay Wakhare wrapped things up in that match, sharing all ten wickets between them in the second innings with Karnewar finishing with a haul of six wickets for 47 runs.
A hard-earned draw against Chhattisgarh followed in which skipper Faiz Fazal embarked on his fabulous run of form, stroking a classy 125 in reply to the visitors' massive first innings score of 489. They got back on track in the very next match against Services. While Fazal scored another century (136), it was the experienced Wakhare's five wicket-hauls in both innings that powered Vidarbha to a 192-run victory over Services.
However, their main highlight of the group stage was their win over Bengal in their den. Fazal went on to score his third century on the trot with another masterpiece of 142 runs while the young Sanjay jumped on to the bandwagon once again, scoring fine 182 runs. Bengal were bowled out for 207 and 306 in both innings and Vidarbha finally notched up a 10-wicket victory.
While it was the self-belief of the youngsters such as Rajneesh Gurbaani, Ramaswamy Sanjay, Akshay Karnewar and others, it was the positivity imbibed by the veterans like Wasim Jaffer and Faiz Fazal that worked wonders for them this season. Both of those qualities combined to create a consistency that no other team could match throughout the tournament.
Once they gained the momentum against Bengal, they never looked back. That win had a positive influence on everyone. The experienced Wasim Jaffer also produced his best of the season " an innings of 158* " in this match. Wakhare once again continued on his wicket-taking spree, claiming nine wickets in this match.
However, it was the match against Kerala that saw the emergence of two new heroes once again. They were Rajneesh Gurbaani and Akshay Wadkar, whose fabulous performances in the final stages won everyone's heart.
The 24-year-old Gurbani was, no doubt, the stand out performer for them this season. The way he steamed in and bowled some memorable spells was absolutely mesmerising to watch. His spell of 5/38 in the second innings against Kerala in the quarter-finals marked his rise, and three consecutive five-wicket hauls in the semi-finals and the final followed, making him their most lethal bowling weapon.
He won the semi-final against Karnataka single-handedly, claiming 12/162 in a thrilling five-run win. His hat-trick in the final will also be remembered for generations to come for which he was also adjudged the Man of the Match. And in the end, his efforts saw him soar to the second position in the top wicket-takers' list in the season, having claimed 39 wickets in 6 matches at an average of just 17.12.
Wadkar, a 22-year-old, also showed tremendous resolve scoring fighting fifties in both innings in the quarter-final against Kerala. And when he scored his maiden century " a fighting knock when the chips were down " in the all-important final, he had surely proved his talent and potential.
However, the main reason behind such good performance of the youngsters was the positivity imbibed by their coach Chandrakant Pandit, a five-time Ranji Trophy-winning coach and two-time Ranji winner as a player, and their seniormost campaigner Wasim Jaffer, the man with nine Ranji Trophy titles to his name, including the latest one.
Pandit is referred to as a hard taskmaster in Indian domestic cricket. His arrival to Vidarbha from Mumbai turned out to be one of the biggest gains for the victorious team as he showed them the way with his best efforts. The way he got the team together in such a short span of time was commendable, and he did that by being truthful and honest to the players.
Everyone in the domestic circuit knows how things work when Pandit is in charge. He likes to get things done in his own way and results show his ways have mostly been successful. His approach at Vidarbha after switching from Mumbai was no different. He dealt with the players with discipline and also encouraged them to rise above their best.
"We have been following our routine and that's the best part, we have done. All credit goes to the players as they have put in the hard work. I am very happy with the way they have respected me, and the players have never ignored the system we have followed. That is one of the major things," Pandit said after yet another title to his name.
The way Pandit praised the support staff and the groundsmen showed the class of the man. More importantly, it showed why he is one of the most respected figures in domestic cricket.
"They have worked hard and Prashant (VCA vice-president Vaidya) has been a big support to us. I am thankful to both of them. The groundsmen at the VCA also played a great role because without them we cannot perform.
"The way they have been preparing the pitches, they have given us nets every time we asked. They also deserve to celebrate," Pandit said proudly.
Jaffer also had helped the youngsters in more ways than one. Sanjay, who had been in a pretty poor run of form prior to the start of Ranji Trophy this year, got a lot of help from Jaffer to understand the mistakes in his batting technique and rectify them.
"He walked up to me and said 'what's wrong with you? Why won't you talk to me and seek some help. That's why I am here, to help youngsters like you," recalled Sanjay in an interview with the Indian Express back in November 2017. He spent the next seven hours working with Jaffer on his technique in the indoor facility at the VCA Complex.
"We were there between noon to 7 pm. I had developed this troublesome trigger movement where both my feet were going back and across leaving m alignment in a mess with no clue where my off-stump was. His suggestion was to do it with my back leg and ensure the second movement is only after the ball is bowled. I must have faced some 600 balls that day and Wasim bhaiya stood there through the day passing on tips," Sanjay added.
That's how the two 'Khadoos' men from Mumbai, Pandit and Jaffer, acted together as a catalyst to bring out the best of the youngsters' untapped potential.
With this triumph, Vidarbha will no longer be touted as a team that never stood a chance. In fact, they have shrugged off the disappointment of being called so and are the champions now. As they begin their title defence next year, they would wear the badge of being the defending champions with honour. Let's hope it's just one small step for Vidarbha for many more such triumphs to come.