Before the start of this season's Ranji Trophy semifinal, the talk was all about a clash of unequals. Odds heavily favoured an all-round Karnataka side that had a fine balance of experience and youth. Vidarbha, tagged underdogs, were expected to offer a stiff fight and little else. However, at the conclusion of a thrilling contest, R Vinay Kumar's men were blown away by an unexpected storm called Rajneesh Gurbani.
The lean 24-year-old doesn't come across as an imposing medium pacer. Be it his gentle run-up or a simple action, Gurbani doesn't offer an image of a lethal speedster. But his shrewd operation with the ball and commendable discipline makes him a dangerous customer. Gurbani's 12-wicket haul for the match in the last-four clash was an extension of his fine form and he fittingly bagged a hat-trick in the final against Delhi to play a key role in Vidarbha's maiden title triumph. Gurbani was the toast of his team with 39 wickets from six matches, emerging as an exciting prospect.
"The match against Karnataka was the biggest of my life. It was our first ever semifinal and we were all charged up," says Gurbani, underlining the importance of the match. "I am glad I was able to contribute in my team's victory. I told myself before the game that I will not try anything different and will continuously bowl in the right areas. My plan worked," he recollects. The Karnataka batsmen had no answers to his outswingers and their championship hopes went up in smoke.
A striking feature of Gubarni's performance this year has been his ability to bowl long spells. Into his second Ranji season, Gurbani's gruelling fitness programme before the start of the tournament was pivotal in his transformation from an unknown name to a future prospect.
"Batsmen usually decide to play out the five-six over spell from good bowlers in order to stay longer in the middle. I decided if I have to make a difference I have to bowl long spells. I went up to the trainer and asked him to design a three-month fitness schedule that would help me increase my stamina. I wanted the first and last ball of all my spells to have the same impact," he explains.
That was to prove crucial as Gurbani could come back and attack even when he wasn't successful early on. The big haul of wickets helped him to climb to second spot on the wicket-takers' table this season, behind Kerala's Jalaj Saxena.
Cricket wasn't Gurbani's first love. In fact, his entry into the sport was purely accidental. Once the captain of his school's football team, Gurbani also was a good athlete. "I was one of the best athletes in my school. I would win prizes in both track and field events. Though I watched a lot of cricket I wasn't actively involved until my physical education teacher wanted a fast bowler for the school team. He had observed me bowl when I played cricket with my friends and felt I could do a good job. Once I started playing cricket regularly, I became passionate about it," says Gurbani, who has 52 wickets from 10 first-class games.
Gurbani's engaging story received the biggest boost when he decided to go for the Fast Bowling Talent Hunt programme held by the Vidarbha Cricket Association. "There were 500 bowlers and only top 10 were to be selected as 'net' bowlers for the Vidarbha Ranji Trophy team," he says. The Nagpur boy was one among the 10 to be selected and that result catapulted Gurbani into bigger spotlight. Progress into the State side was the next logical ste.
As he sets sights on new targets, Gurbani doesn't forget to mention the important role played by his coaches. While he credits Prashant Bambal for adding variety in his armour during his age-group days, Gurbani thanks former India bowler Subroto Banerjee for helping to have the right mindset for a fast bowler. Under Vidarbha head coach Chandrakant Pandit, he gained knowledge on the different facets of the game.
"Chandu sir's inputs are like gold. It helps a lot when we listen to him. When we aren't playing a match, he is more like a friend but he always keeps speaking about cricket and he has vast knowledge about the game. After working with him, I have improved on handling pressure situations," he says.
Gurbani, whose father is a engineer with Indian Railways, aspires to play for the country and there are a couple of bowlers who he looks up to from the current Indian side. "When I was a 'net' bowler for the Ranji side, Umesh Bhaiya (Umesh Yadav) spoke to me and it was so nice to interact with an international player. Among the swing bowlers, I admire Bhuvi bhai (Bhuvneshwar Kumar). Both these bowlers are my favourites," he said.
His upcoming performances will be closely watched by the cricketing fraternity. Gurbani though isn't putting too much pressure on himself. "I can't stop people from having expectations and forming opinions. I will remain focused and do what I have been doing well. I don't want to put unnecessary pressure on myself. Whenever I speak to my coaches or former cricketers they ask me to be grounded and that's how I will be," he says.
The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy will be Gurbani's next big assignment. "We are ready for our next challenge. All of us are extremely happy to have made our city proud. We received a hero's welcome when we returned with the Ranji Trophy and it was such a great feeling." For what could well be a career-defining show, Gurbani, indeed, deserves every bit of praise.