It took 23 years for tears of heartbreak to change to tears of joy for Chandrakant Pandit at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.
Pandit, as captain of Madhya Pradesh, was on the verge of making history, dominating Karnataka for the best part of the 1998-99 final before Vijay Bharadwaj stole victory from the jaws of defeat, picking up 6 for 24.
Pandit, as coach, would have felt similar nerves when Madhya Pradesh were 2/1 in pursuit of a small target of 108 in the 2021-22 final. But nobody in the Mumbai ranks could do a Bharadwaj and, Madhya Pradesh, led by Aditya Shrivastava, could not be denied, winning their maiden title.
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Very little is known of Madhya Pradesh’s journey to their first victory, for the coach has ruled this unit with an iron fist. He has made severe demands of his team, called for sacrifices, and ensured that none of the players takes to social media to post their stories or speak to the media.
Such was Pandit’s grip on the team that when Srivastava decided to get married, he asked this Pandit, not the one who might conduct the wedding ceremony, what date he could set aside. And even then he was given only two days off from training.
A lot of the focus is on Pandit, rather than the team, and this is because of his track record as coach. He has won titles with Mumbai, then back-to-back trophies with Vidarbha (their first and second wins) and now repeated the feat with Madhya Pradesh.
More on Pandit in a minute, but take a look at the players who got the job done. From the squad that played the final, only two featured prominently in the Indian Premier League — Kuldeep Sen and Rajat Patidar. Typically, when you look at a team that has won the Ranji Trophy, it is stacked with players who are India A regulars, pushing for places in the Indian team or have already played for India.
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In this Madhya Pradesh set-up, the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole. Kumar Kartikeya, the left-arm spinner, who favours wrist spin, was told in no uncertain terms that he would have to revert to orthodox finger spin, and he took on the challenge, made the adjustment and operated with the new ball at will. He ended up the second highest wicket-taker in the season, picking up 32 wickets from only six matches.
Similarly, in the run-scoring stakes, Patidar finished second, his 658 runs coming at 82.25 with a hundred in the final ensuring that Mumbai were pushed onto the back foot and had lost the game as a contest by virtue of conceding the first-innings lead, as early as halfway into the game. Patidar may have made waves for Royal Challengers Bangalore, but no Indian cricketer will believe his CV is complete without Ranji Trophy success, and this box was emphatically ticked.
Himanshu Mantri was the very definition of hard work in this season, both behind the stumps and at the crease. Tidy and efficient with the big gloves, Mantri put as high a premium on his wicket as was humanly possible, forcing bowlers to earn his wicket each time he batted. In the semifinal, against Bengal, Mantri batted for seven hours and eight minutes across two innings and kept wickets then for 154.4 overs.
Yash Dubey and Shubham Sharma both topped 600 runs and while Patidar may get all the limelight, it is this pair that was the engine room of the Madhya Pradesh batting. Shubham, with four centuries, provided the consistency needed at the top of the order and Dubey ensured that opposition new ball bowlers did not simply rock up and make early inroads.
India’s fast bowling stocks are so good at the moment that neither Anubhav Agarwal nor Gaurav Yadav have realistic chances of an elevation to higher levels at the moment. But, like so many journeymen cricketers before them, they were indeed good enough to do the job in the Ranji Trophy. They were good enough to follow the plans that were handed down to them to the last letter.
And this brings us back to Pandit. His coaching method is not magic, it is not rocket science. Rather, it is following in the tradition of those who coached him, from Ramakant Achrekar to Ashok Mankad to Polly Umrigar, all from the Bombay tradition, the school of hard knocks.
A feature of Madhya Pradesh’s play through the season was the 12th man running out to the middle to pass on a message to the captain or the batsmen out in the middle. So much so that the Mumbai team got irritated with the Madhya Pradesh player and words were apparently exchanged.
Physically, it was the 12th man doing the running, but in many ways Pandit was the 12th man of this team, running things from his nervous perch in the dressing-room.
This was evident even in the manner in which Pandit praised his captain. “I’ve worked with many captains and many associations but the rapport I have with Aditya is completely different. He’s the only captain who has spent hours and hours in my room. He’s too concerned about the team,” began Pandit. “All through the season, whenever we have put together strategies, he has implemented them perfectly. He has a mind of his own, of course, but when we send a message with a plan, he does not hesitate in executing it.”
History will remember Shrivastava for being the first Madhya Pradesh captain to win the Ranji Trophy, but you can bet that the Pandit name won’t be too far behind when their glorious summer of 2022 is discussed.
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