I felt anxious all night long

On the night before the biggest day of his career, Rajneesh Gurbani could barely let his eyes close. It was the “woke-up-worrying-it’s-late” experience that most of us have endured at some stage. Except that for Gurbani, it wasn’t just another day at the office.

Gurbani was playing the biggest match of his life. His body had already been through a hellacious lot, having sent down 49 overs. Gurbani had taken his team to the brink. But there was still a job to do. This was his chance to not only witness history but make it happen.

Sleepless and weary, the events that unfolded after Gurbani took the field at Eden Gardens on Thursday could well have been a dream. Except, it wasn’t. For four whole days and a bit, the match continued to swing both ways. But throughout, there was one constant: Gurbani never ceased to tantalise. Resolute and courageous, he kept Vidarbha’s dream alive.

“Anxiety. I felt it all night long,” he said. “I woke up at 12.30am thinking it’s 6. I wanted the match to start then and there and finish the whole thing off. For the first time, I was ready at 6am with my clothes on and ready to go.”

Once he took the field, the nerves only got worse. It made him change his angle repeatedly, at one point doing it four times in an over. Karnataka weren’t going to go down without a fight. But Gurbani wouldn’t buckle. Blessed with a keen sense of understanding of his strengths, Gurbani continued to bowl the best way he knew: being consistent with his lines and lengths and try to force an error from the batsmen.

The plan worked. Vinay Kumar poked at a wide one. Abhimanyu Mithun miscued a big hit. And S Aravind edged one that shaped away from him. In each of those deliveries, Gurbani had managed to find subtle movement. As the last of those wickets fell, Gurbani sank to his knees, with team-mates jumping on him. He then acknowledged a thinly scattered crowd by flashing the match ball. Some of Vidarbha’s players were in tears, but Gurbani was moved when he saw the emotion on coach Chandrakant Pandit‘s face.

“All the credit to how I’m bowling goes to Chandrakant Pandit sir and Subroto Banerjee sir,” he said. “Both of them supported me well and brought about some skill changes. Chandrakant sir used to make me bowl at one spot for an entire day. He used to make me bowl on demand: a whole day of inswingers, a whole day of outswingers or hitting the off stump. This sort of match simulation meant that when I came out, I could bowl any of these deliveries at any instant.”

Outswing is Gurbani’s natural weapon. He can swing the ball in the air and get it to move off the deck. He manages skiddy pace, which makes him a dangerous bowler in front of the stumps. Gurbani has a smooth run-up. The action flows from the time he runs into the crease, at an easy pace. The wrist position is accurate as he tilts back and the movement is supple when he bends his back.

“We were obsessed with becoming champions, because becoming champions is what is going to give us our identity.”

“He has worked on the incoming delivery,” Prashant Vaidya, the former India pacer and the VCA’s incumbent vice-president, told ESPNcricinfo. “He was very consistent with his length, his line used to be very good and he was essentially a very good away-swinging bowler. But this year, he has improved greatly in bringing the ball back in. So if that starts happening, even his strength, which is the ball moving out, becomes more lethal. When you can move the ball both ways, it puts the batsmen in two minds. And he has improved in pace, which has made him more effective with the natural swing he has.”

Gurbani’s ability to read situations and recognise his strengths stand out. Though shy off the field, his willingness to take initiative and bowl in any situation impressed Vaidya. That quality came through in Vidarbha’s quarter-final, when Gurbani ripped through Kerala with four wickets in four overs and gave Vidarbha a substantial first-innings lead. For Vadiya, that spell in the quarter-final was still a more accurate reflection of the improvements Gurbani had made.

“These are favourable conditions to seam bowling, but the spell he bowled to Kerala in the quarter-final, that was out of nowhere,” he said. “In four overs, he turned the entire game on its head. I think that really stands out for me.

“If I have to compare him to somebody in India team, he is in the mould of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. I would not hesitate to put him in that mould. He puts the ball consistently in that corridor and has the ability to swing it both ways.”

The technical side apart, a lot of the pre-season work for the lithe and wiry Gurbani went into building himself up physically. “It was all about pushing myself to run that extra mile or the extra session or two in the gym,” he said. “But through all of it, the goal was to become champions. While lifting weights in the gym, I used to have guys come up to me and say, ‘Guru, put on 10 kilos; Vidarbha needs you to be strong’.

“So it was about working harder and pushing yourself harder for that extra spell. We were obsessed with becoming champions, because becoming champions is what is going to give us our identity.”

For Vaidya, work still remains on the fitness front. “As you go to higher levels and play more cricket, you need to complement or balance it with physical fitness,” he said. “Because he is going to play longer seasons, more cricket. You need strength.

“He’s a very wiry person. I don’t want that to change because that’s his strength. That gives him that momentum and agility. But you need the strength to bowl longer and play longer seasons.”

Having a coach who thinks like him has reconfirmed what Gurbani wants out of this sport. “When Chandrakant sir came into the side, we all wondered how he is,” he said. “And we were all advised that he will either make you do it or make you leave cricket.

“It was in sync with how I am personally – either I grow in cricket or I leave cricket. I don’t want to be stuck in between. Of course, he shouts at me, and I want him to shout at me so I don’t get too carried away. Watching his emotions when the team doesn’t perform – he can’t sleep. Though performance is not in his hands, seeing him being so involved and invested inspires us.”

Where Gurbani goes from here is anybody’s guess right now. But whether he grows in cricket or leaves cricket, for the hand he has played in Vidarbha creating history, he has made his name synonymous with the state’s cricket for the next few years at least.

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