A month ago, I stood in one of Ahmedabad’s famous optician stores. I observed the customers as I waited for a friend. One of them, a fit-looking vaguely familiar young man, tried on a few glares quietly. He was dressed casually – unfussy faded jeans and smart slippers. He looked relaxed, quietly buying a pair of glares and walking away. “Ranji Trophy batsman,” my friend whispered to me. “Remember him? Manprit Juneja. Plays for our Gujarat.”
Of course, I remembered the name. He had captivated some imaginations around 4-5 years ago, being touted as the ‘next big thing’ from Western India – even making quite a splash with his IPL selection at a young age. Much like Pujara’s name exudes an aura of solidity, Juneja’s name bridges the gap between old-school and modern batting.
Nobody else recognized him at the shop that day. I asked my friend why I hadn’t heard of him for so many years. Apparently, Juneja’s dip was accompanied by a nagging eye problem, which affected his confidence on the field too. Later on, on the eve of the final, I read that he had asked Champion billiard player Geet Sethi to ‘advice’ him out of his slump.
What I wasn’t aware of, though, at the point in December was that he had been one of the unsung driving forces behind Gujarat’s Ranji team’s progress through the year’s tournament. Sure, it was led by 31-year-old veteran and captain Parthiv Patel, headlined by bowler Jasprit Bumrah and openers Priyank Panchal (top scorer) and Samit Gohel – but 26-year-old Juneja had quietly been Gujarat’s ‘crisis man’ for the last six months.
I wondered that morning how Juneja had gathered the mental strength to hit back after tasting early success before becoming one of India’s many ‘fallen’ prodigies. They had just come off a numbing draw against Tamil Nadu in their last Group A match, with their next game against Odisha being a quarterfinal – a stage where they had fallen quite often recently. A lot of things may have been swirling though Juneja’s mind at that point – he had not quite built upon a promising start to the season, where he had scored an unbeaten double century against Baroda in October. After that, his batting position at 5 and 6 limited him to only two fifties, while the openers and Patel had feasted on bowling attacks all over. Both the openers had scored triple centuries later.
The 2016-17 Ranji Season has been remarkable for many players – and in general, too, for Gujarat winning their first-ever title, as well as chasing down the highest score ever in a Ranji final. Yet, Juneja’s two fifties in the final, both scored in iffy situations when the team was in trouble, is right up there with some of Gujarat’s most remarkable achievements of the year. His 77 in the first innings, followed by a gritty 54 in the second after coming in at 89/3 while chasing 312, was eventually overshadowed by Patel’s Herculean big-hearted performance – 90 and 143, along with captaincy and wicketkeeping in the heat for more than 200 overs in the field. He led the way, and even shot a heroic message to the selectors – demanding that his test spot remains as a keeper, ahead of first-choice Wriddhiman Saha (who had been injured in the England series), simply on merit. It was his 25th first-class century, but he made it a point to acknowledge that the unlikely victory wouldn’t have been probable if not for Juneja’s last-day innings.
That it came against 41-time champions Mumbai, despite not capitalizing on a 100-run lead in the first innings, made it all the more sweeter. Batsmen like Panchal and Gohel will be on the radar of selectors over the next year, as will Mumbai’s diminutive teenaged opener Prithvi Shaw, but as of now, Juneja will be quietly confident of his chances. He doesn’t score runs by the bucketload, but a confident day-saving Juneja – just like an incandescent V.V.S. Laxman at 6 – is arguably as valuable as a prolific Parthiv or an aggressive Karun Nair in the middle order.