Each of the five Gujarat bowlers took at least one wicket. © Sunny Shinde

Each of the five Gujarat bowlers took at least one wicket. © Sunny Shinde

Chintan Gaja is someone Mumbai might have known very little about going into the final of the Ranji Trophy 2016-17. The 22-year-old medium pacer, in his first season of first-class cricket, had played just two of Gujarat’s nine matches with modest returns, but chose the most opportune stage in the biggest match of his career so far to make a telling impact at the Holkar Stadium.

On Tuesday (January 10), the first day of the five-day title clash, Gaja provided the control that Parthiv Patel so craved, as well as the breakthroughs Gujarat so desperately wanted, to make himself a most valuable cog of a versatile bowling wheel in which each of the five bowlers took at least one wicket. And, he was only playing this match owing to the unavailability of Jasprit Bumrah.

Vijay Patel, the Gujarat coach, had likened Gaja the previous day to Abhishek Nayar, the Mumbai allrounder whose greatest virtue as a medium pacer is to keep the ball on or just outside off, and wobble it around just that little bit. Essentially, feeding off the batsman’s impatience by not giving away any freebies. Gaja showed on Tuesday that those words weren’t an exaggeration.

He didn’t set the venue on fire, returning figures of 2 for 46 from 16 overs in Mumbai’s 228 all out, but his two sticks were huge names and Mumbai’s two most prolific run-scorers this season. He drove Shreyas Iyer to ragged frustration with his discipline outside off, forcing the normally attacking batsman to try something different in order to correct the anomaly of 14 from 33 deliveries. Iyer obliged by charging his 34th delivery and playing an ambitious waft at a wide ball which he only feathered to Parthiv Patel behind the sticks.

Chintan Gaja (left) celebrates the dismissal of Shreyas Iyer with Bhargav Merai (centre) and Samit Gohel. © Wisden India

Chintan Gaja (left) celebrates the dismissal of Shreyas Iyer with Bhargav Merai (centre) and Samit Gohel. © Wisden India

Then, with Suryakumar Yadav purring along like a Rolls Royce, Gaja induced him into pulling from outside off, the ball skewing off the toe end to mid-off and making sure that the only other batsman apart from Iyer with more than 600 runs for Mumbai this season didn’t go beyond 57.

Those were huge successes for a young man whose only previous first-class wicket was B Indrajith, caught and bowled in the league game in Belgaum last month.

“I think he was very patient,” said Manprit Juneja, the middle-order batsman who is now in his sixth season. “And he just kept bowling on the third-fourth stump throughout the day. That’s where they lost their patience probably and played a couple of loose shots. Credit goes to him for bowling in the right areas.

“He played a couple of matches this season. He is a good allrounder. He has been doing well in junior cricket. He has been with the team throughout this year. He played a couple of matches as well and he contributed decently. Since didn’t we have Bumrah, we thought of going with Chintan as he could be helpful with the bat as well.”

Gaja is among the Gujarat bowlers fortunate to feed off the experience and wisdom of RP Singh. The left-arm paceman sent down 21 overs for returns of 2 for 48, but he was worth more than those numbers with his guidance and mentoring as Gujarat bounced back from seeing Mumbai, put in, reach 92 for 2 at lunch.

“He has been magnificent. In fact, he is the one who has been leading from the front,” gushed Juneja about the former India international. “Obviously, Rush (Kalaria) has been doing a great job as well. The thing with having a person like RP in the team is, it is very good for the youngsters that they get good guidance as to how they can adapt to situations and to different wickets. Say, in between you want to change plans or you are trying to do something else, RP is a great guide. And he is always there at mid-on and mid-off, guiding the bowlers. I think he has done a terrific job for us, and for the young bowlers specially.

“Initially, our bowlers were having problems with the landing area. Once that was a little sorted, we were pretty much in the right areas. Post-lunch, we wanted to stick to the plan of bowling in just one area, making them score runs on one side of the wicket and not both. We were better prepared after lunch and we came back stronger. It’s a decent start. I think we had some help from the wicket. I am glad we could make use of it.”

“He did have a word with the bowlers at lunch. In fact, before having lunch itself, I saw RP standing with all the bowlers and talking to them about what we have done and what we need to do and I am sure that it was a good pep talk because they came back really strongly.”

Juneja said as a team, too, Gujarat had reassessed the situation at the lunch interval. “They batted well in the first session. The wicket was pretty helpful for the bowlers in terms of it was seaming around a bit. They did bat well in the first session but we always knew that on such wickets, you always got to keep some patience and keep hitting right areas and then things fall in place. And that’s what happened for us.

“Initially, our bowlers were having problems with the landing area. Once that was a little sorted, we were pretty much in the right areas,” added Juneja. “Post-lunch, we wanted to stick to the plan of bowling in just one area, making them score runs on one side of the wicket and not both. We were better prepared after lunch and we came back stronger. It’s a decent start. I think we had some help from the wicket. I am glad we could make use of it.”

Gujarat, two without loss in reply, would target a big first-innings score without trying to overreach, Juneja revealed. “We should take one session at a time, till one drinks break and then another. We don’t like to plan way forward or we don’t like to go out with an entire day’s plan. Things can go in your favour or may not go in your favour. I think it is better to take it in short periods and work on it.

“There was life in the surface throughout the day but obviously, the nature of red wickets is that as the days progress, it gets a little better for batsmen and then followed by a bit of turn at the end of the fourth day and the fifth day. That is what we are expecting from any red-soil wicket, I guess.”