The last time Faiz Fazal played a tournament final, he scored a century, took the Man-of-the-Match trophy and finished on the winning team when he represented India A in the Deodhar Trophy last year. With hardly any experience of playing finals until then, Fazal put his hand up at the crucial juncture, much like how his team Vidarbha has done in the Ranji Trophy this season.
Vidarbha were the underdogs when they qualified for the quarter-finals, they were the underdogs against heavyweights Karnataka in the semi-finals, and now, eight matches later, they are still unbeaten after six wins this season. Are they the underdogs heading into the final against Delhi?
“I don’t know actually,” captain Faiz Fazal said on the eve of the match. “We have six-seven outright wins so … but we don’t mind. In our minds we have to think that we don’t care even if we are called the underdogs. We don’t mind anything because ultimately winning this game is important for us.”
Vidarbha’s spirit, courage and attitude have shown that they may not be the underdogs anymore. They are up against Delhi who last played a Ranji final in 2007-08, under Gautam Gambhir’s captaincy. Delhi hardly have an edge because they have only one player left from that Ranji win 10 years ago. If Delhi won three of their six league matches, Vidarbha earned four wins and topped their group. If Delhi won the quarter-final by beating Madhya Pradesh by seven wickets and the semi-final by an innings and 26 runs against Bengal, Vidarbha hammered Kerala by 412 runs – the biggest margin by runs in Ranji history – and beat all odds to edge out Karnataka in a thriller in the semi-finals.
Fazal believes apart from veteran Wasim Jaffer’s wisdom and acumen in the dressing room and new coach Chandrakant Pandit’s philosophy, it is the discipline in the team that brought the best out of them.
“The way we played the semi-final as a whole unit, it showed our character,” Fazal said. “We all believed we could win this game and we always thought that this is our game, we can’t lose this game. Even when they needed nine runs and we needed two wickets, we never thought that we are going to lose the game. We were really positive and focused because we needed only two good balls to get them out.
“The discipline in the team, the way the routines and preparations we had before coming into the Ranji Trophy,” Fazal said in response to what changed their fortunes this season. “Except the nets, the match simulations we did, and one more thing is that we are a really happy unit. We all are really happy and we are enjoying our cricket very much. We always used to enjoy but I don’t know why we all believe that this season the trophy is ours. As I mentioned earlier, after quarter-final or the semi-final, that I want to have the feel of the trophy in my hands. I want to have that bite of success so let’s see.”
Fazal exudes conviction and clarity when he talks. Unlike the 20-year-old Delhi captain Rishabh Pant, who was succinct and not too revealing in the pre-match press conference, Fazal was at ease, with the experience of 14 years of domestic cricket behind him.
When asked about Vidarbha’s memorable season, Fazal went all the way back to their first match – against Punjab in Mohali, where the hosts were bundled out for 161. Vidarbha kicked off their season with an innings win and carried that form and confidence into the subsequent matches, to beat Services, Bengal and Goa in the group stage.
It spilled over in the knockouts too, when they had already taken a first-innings lead against Kerala and were placed on a solid 431 for 6 in their second innings, with a massive lead of 501, with a day left in the game. Instead of batting on and on, they declared on the last day and then rolled over Kerala in just over 52 overs, led by left-arm spinner Aditya Sarwate’s 6 for 41, to take home another six points.
“The way we won against Punjab, they had all the stars in the team and we got seven points in that game,” Fazal said. “That start was really important for us. The way we’ve been playing the whole season, we always want to win the game, not only take the first-innings lead like we played in the quarter-finals.
“We could have batted the whole day and we could have just walked away. But we thought that let’s make a game out of this. We already had plans to declare after lunch and then give two sessions to them and the way we played then for the outright win, this is the way we’ve been planning to play this season and hopefully we’ll continue like this.”
Starting on Friday, Fazal will now hope the team’s dream streak stretches for one more match, the players don’t buckle under the pressure of the big occasion and the law of averages doesn’t catch up with them so that he can actually taste success like never before.