"I'm always asked about the IPL auction, about how many crores I've gone for, am I happy or sad at my price tag, retained, not retained. Now, it's pleasant to be giving interviews because of our Ranji Trophy exploits. This is about team Saurashtra, so it makes me that much more happy and I have been delighted to take time off to speak about our journey."
Jaydev Unadkat's "take time off" reference is no joke. He may have picked up 65 wickets this season. Four more wickets and he will have the record for most wickets in a Ranji Trophy season ever, but his role at Saurashtra has gone far beyond just plotting dismissals. He's Saurashtra's captain, a bowling mentor, and also the team's de-facto trainer.
While not at the gym or in his room, on non-match days, Unadkat plans net sessions, monitors his bowlers' workloads, analyses videos to devise plans for the opposition, talks to players he thinks may not fit the XI for the upcoming game. And, texting his best friend, even if he is across in New Zealand playing Test cricket, to discuss plans and strategies.
"Chintu [Cheteshwar Pujara] has been like an elder brother of this team, (and) we've been best of best friends," Unadkat says. "He cares about the team as much as I do. He feels it's time he gives back to the team. He also knows that our players don't get the guidance or other facilities to develop and become better cricketers. So he understands the lessons will have to come from someone who is playing at the highest level. Because his nature is such that he wants to help people, they feel free to talk to him whenever he's around. There can't be a better person to fit into the role. He knows the game in and out, knows the players very well, and he wants them to grow as players."
"One big performance is all we need, but even that, we aren't stressing about like we did two or three years ago" Cheteshwar Pujara
Unadkat, 28 now, has witnessed Saurashtra's evolution over the last 12 years as a player. He comes from the port town of Porbandar, known worldwide as Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace. For all the development of facilities in Rajkot, the biggest city in Saurashtra, the other centres have remained ignored. The lack of cricketing infrastructure hampered players during the off-season, but Unadkat didn't want that to become an excuse as they prepared for the 2019-20 season.
Luckily, Unadkat has carried forward the traditions established by his seniors - former captain and domestic stalwart Sitanshu Kotak and Pujara - to guide the players. "We belong to a region where there isn't a lot of cricketing infrastructure. There are people from Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Porbandar. These guys don't even get enough match practice," Unadkat points out. "District cricket structure isn't in place most of the time. When it happens, it happens during Vijay Hazare Trophy or Mushtaq Ali Trophy. So the guys don't get any match practice outside our domestic set up. There are no big fitness training camps.
"So from there, to handle the pressure and grind of a domestic system, you have to have a support system. That system is each other. Sitanshu Kotak did a great job in the last four-five years, he used to guide them during the off-season. Now, he's with India A, so the players do take a lot of help from me. The bowlers will come and ask me about their fitness methods, training methods, etc. The batters will go to Cheteshwar and ask him about how they want to go about working on certain things, like trying to tune your mind to a specific shot or countering bowlers on certain type of pitches. Apart from that, the guys support each other. I sense that isn't the case with many other teams."
In this day and age of professionalism, it's hard to believe that Saurashtra don't have a trainer in their support staff. Unadkat has had to bank on his experience of working with trainers with the Indian team and at the IPL to help make plans. Juggling several roles has been challenging for Unadkat, but he has thrived in that position.
"I'm enjoying it now, but it did get intense at some point," he reflects. "During this season, I felt I lost a bit of balance, but I am enjoying the responsibility. Not everyone will be as fortunate as I am to have so many responsibilities."
Earlier this season, the association appointed former India bowler Karsan Ghavri as the head coach. However, Ghavri, a Mumbai resident, was more of an outsider, forcing Unadkat to become the pointsperson.
"In our team, in the culture that we have, I do have a free hand at those things, about how to plan training sessions, fielding sessions. Kotak was there last season, and Karsan bhai joined after four games. He's also new to the circuit, so the responsibility I have, I'm used to it. I want things to be under my control types, I like it when people get the benefit of the good work that I put in, the energy I put in to plan a session. When those guys come and tell me that this helped them, I feel motivated. That helps bring the best out of me.
"My personal schedules are set, I have been working on them in the off-season; I know a lot about my body and bowling, so I don't need to devote much time, it's set. I just need to fine tune, more energy goes into how well I can plan for the team so that everyone gets something out of it. Thinking of XI, talking to guys not playing, involved in training of guys not playing - those things I enjoy. I sleep well at night because of all this."
'Not just a team that has Cheteshwar or Ravindra'
This will be Saurashtra's fourth Ranji Trophy final in eight seasons. Jaydev Shah was the captain until midway through the previous season (2018-19), but retired and is now the president of SCA. He is the son of Niranjan Shah, a former Saurashtra player and one of the oldest cricket administrators in India.
Jaydev Shah has seen Unadkat go from being a wiry teenager in the trials in Porbandar in 2009 to the bowler he is today, and only has words of appreciation.
"People used to say, 'oh, he's getting ten crore in the IPL, he's not interested here', or 'he's not taking wickets'. But if they've seen Unadkat this season, the effort he has taken to go out of his way to not just work on his game but also on the team has been incredible," Shah says. "He has Pujara's support. They are great friends and he asks for inputs from time to time. They feed off each other. Ravindra (Jadeja) is consulted when he is around too."
For all talks of the administration being run by one family, the SCA resonates vibes of a close-knit group. And the president's closeness to the players by virtue of him having led many of them for half-a-decade or more - he captained in 110 games over 12 years overall - has helped bridge the gap somewhat.
"Anyone can walk in anytime," Shah says. "Now that I am away from the dressing room, I don't disturb them too much. I don't like to disturb cricketing intuitions. If Jaydev takes a call, it's his call. If he makes a mistake, he will know, he will learn. We don't judge or hold them to ransom, asking why you did this or that. That comes with trust.
"I've never seen a Saurashtra team being this clinical in my ten years as a first-class cricketer" Sheldon Jackson
"If you see our selection also, we believe in giving players a long rope. Three games they fail, no problem. You will never see us make five-six changes. The seniors are as important as juniors. If you see over the years, if one senior goes away, one junior comes in. Sheldon Jackson spent four seasons on the bench before he got his chance. Today, he is a senior player. Kotak retired, Arpit Vasavada took his place. He handles the middle-order and gives Jackson the freedom to express himself.
"We aren't just known as a team that has Cheteshwar or Ravindra. No one has mentioned that this season. For that, credit goes entirely to the team. We've developed a good combination. It's a homely atmosphere, with no rules. I believe the captain needs his space to plan. That is how it was when I led. I don't see it changing now."
Jackson has seen Saurashtra struggling earlier to even compete. In Mumbai, where he played corporate cricket, he sensed there used to be a perception about Saurashtra, of being bullies at home but poor on the road. He's seen them slowly shed that tag. Last season, they beat Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka away in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. This year, they beat Baroda in Vadodara for the first time in 15 years. They beat Himachal Pradesh on a green top in Dharamsala without a score of substance from Pujara. For this, Jackson credited a change in mindset.
"With both Jaydevs [Shah and Unadkat], there is no pressure," he says. "If we win, it's the best thing. If we don't, it's totally okay. You can't let one bad patch or one bad session undo the good work done through the season. That is the bottom line. In the semi-final, we were 15 for 5. Our No. 11 [Chetan Sakariya] was promoted up the order, he batted expertly. Our lead spinner - Dharmendra Jadeja - got two wickets on a dead track where the ball wasn't turning at all.
"Our captain comes from nowhere and suddenly cracks open a game we all were slowly beginning to worry about. For this, you have to credit the management for their selection consistencies. Yes, there are changes, but they aren't drastic. When players feel secure, they are confident. Their way of moving around and interacting with you is totally different.
"Why do they stress on family? Because they know no matter what mistakes you make, your family won't throw you out. That is the feeling we get with this group now. I've never seen a Saurashtra team being this clinical in my ten years as a first-class cricketer."
Such freedom and clarity in selection and thought process has lent a relaxed vibe to the dressing room. Players aren't bound by rules too much, there are unwritten laws that everyone abides by. They aren't big on team activities for the sake of it, but respect individual space. Which is why two days before a final, five players can enjoy a movie, a few others can step away to meet friends, and others can X-box away, when they could well be asked to attend compulsory team meetings or team dinners.
"I was part of the team for five games, before I left for the New Zealand tour. Now also, I see that same excitement and enthusiasm," Pujara says. "There is no tiredness, no nerves, no anxiety. Everyone is confident in their own space. One big performance is all we need, but even that we aren't stressing about like we did two or three years ago."
'This final won't be only game that matters in our life'
For Unadkat, winning would be the best thing, but it isn't the end goal. "Winning would be the icing on the cake, but icing on cake is a small metaphor for how big it would be for us," he says philosophically. "This is a state that actually has produced greats like [KS] Ranjitsinghji.
"The cricketing culture is great, the legacy is great. I keep telling them to not have this worry of 'oh, what if we don't win'. This is the group that will do it for a number of years to come, so I tell them, we are going to win, but that won't be our ultimate goal. Even if we win, we want to sustain it next year, and continue it for five years to come. Saurashtra has never had a better team, but this final won't be only game that matters in our life."