MP Ranji win: It took Chandrakant Pandit 23 years to realise his dream

While coach Pandit must take a great deal of credit for work off the field, no praise can be too high for how wonderfully well the players implemented team plans on ground

Ranji Trophy Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh players and coaching staff pose with the Ranji Trophy. Photo: Twitter

Nearly 23 years ago on a warm April evening, Chandrakant Pandit bawled inconsolably at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. Having lorded the 1998-99 Ranji Trophy season final against Karnataka for 14 sessions, the Madhya Pradesh captain couldn’t digest the fact that the hosts pulled off a remarkable 96-run victory against all odds in the final session of the final day on the back of a mesmerising spell of off-spin from Vijay Bharadwaj.

On Sunday (June 26), life came full circle for the most celebrated coach in Indian domestic cricket. All these years, Pandit felt he owed Madhya Pradesh cricket a title. That dream was realised when, as head coach, he saw Madhya Pradesh lads pull the rug from under the fancied Mumbai’s feet in a final they dominated from the go. Pandit shed copious tears again, but these were tears of joy, of delight, of ecstasy.

Arrival of MP

The day will go down as a red-letter day in the history of Madhya Pradesh cricket. As Holkar, they had dominated the domestic scene in the 1940s and 1950s, but as Madhya Pradesh, success was elusive, a distant pipedream. There was a dearth of self-belief, and even though they did produce the odd international such as Narendra Hirwani, Rajesh Chauhan, or more recently, Venkatesh Iyer and Avesh Khan, they didn’t have the collective depth required to mount a serious challenge in a tournament as demanding and long-drawn out as the Ranji Trophy.

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In a masterstroke that met a logical denouement, they turned to Pandit for salvation in March 2020, and Ranji success came at the first time of asking – there was no edition of the first-class tournament in the 2020-21 season. Pandit has a well-earned reputation as a hard taskmaster who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. His CV includes Ranji Trophy titles as player with Mumbai, and as coach with Mumbai (thrice) and Vidarbha (two seasons in a row). For a so-called ‘lesser’ side like Madhya Pradesh, he was the ideal candidate to mould the fortunes and the future of young players with stars in their eyes and dreams in their hearts.

Pandit isn’t averse to cracking the whip, quite literally. One of the first things he did was make it clear to his wards that there could be no compromise on work ethic. He demanded complete and total commitment to the cause. Those who didn’t buy into his philosophy were superfluous; he had no use for them. The team would play the kind of cricket he espoused, and while there was scope for individuality, if they didn’t put team before self, they could see themselves out of the door.

His methods might appear extreme, but who’s to argue with results? Admittedly, his style may not appeal to everyone and is unlikely to be embraced with open arms by the ‘bigger’ teams, with superstars and attendant superstar egos. But give him the raw material, a free hand and the licence to chart his own path, the contours of a crack outfit will inevitably begin to take shape.

Pandit’s trusted template

Like it happened with Vidarbha, an unfancied cricketing outpost for the most part. Brick by carefully crafted brick, Pandit laid out a roadmap alongside former India and Mumbai opener Wasim Jaffer, who was roped in as captain. Gradually, Vidarbha shed their diffidence, the players plunging whole-heartedly into the exercise of setting themselves up as champion material. To no one’s surprise, they won the Ranji title in the 2017-18 season and backed it up with another success the following year to prove that the previous success was no flash in the pan.

Sticking with his trusted template, Pandit has now worked his magic with Madhya Pradesh, who had to make do without Iyer and Avesh for the entire season and lost the services of experienced paceman Ishwar Pandey during the knockout stages through injury. But there was enough quality in the ranks to overcome those losses. While Pandit must take a great deal of credit for the work off the field, no praise can be too high for how wonderfully well the players led by Aditya Shrivastava implemented the plans on it, without fanfare or fuss and with no hint of panic, pressure or nerves.

In Rajat Patidar, MP have an absolute class act. It needed his heroics in the IPL for Royal Challengers Bangalore for fans — that have little interest in and time for first-class cricket — to sit up and take notice. But Patidar has been a faithful servant of Madhya Pradesh cricket for a long time. His confidence at an all-time high after his heroics that outshone such marquee names as Virat Kohli, Glenn Maxwell and Faf du Plessis, Patidar carried his glorious form into the knockouts and specifically the final, where he buried Mumbai under a mountain of supremely pleasing runs.

While Patidar and the classy Shubham Sharma, who made four hundreds in six games, swept the aesthetics stakes, opener Yash Dubey provided the rock around which the foundation was built.

Madhya Pradesh’s bowling wasn’t intimidating, but it was efficient and effective. Just how well they performed can be gauged by the fact that they won each of the three knockout games outright, defeating Punjab, Bengal and Mumbai in the quarters, semis and final, respectively, with a reasonable degree of comfort.

Reducing gulf between teems

Like Vidarbha’s twin triumphs which were sandwiched between maiden crowns for Gujarat and Saurashtra, respectively, Madhya Pradesh’s success is a reaffirmation of the dwindling gulf between the established sides and the less heralded ones. The days of single-team dominance – Mumbai as Bombay won 15 titles on the trot from 1959 to 1973 – are well and truly over.

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Primary among the reasons for this heartening development is the proliferation of infrastructure across the country and the exposure that players from the ‘lesser’ states get in the IPL. If even one player from a state breaks into the 20-over extravaganza, it inspires the others to follow suit. Equally significantly, for all the fears over the waning interest of the younger lot in days’ cricket, there are encouraging signs that those concerns are exaggerated and not with a whole lot of basis.

As Mumbai coach Amol Muzumdar pointed out, these smaller states have now thrown the gauntlet and are challenging the usual suspects to up their game. That can only be good news for Indian cricket because unless the domestic base is solid and vibrant, international success can’t be achieved.

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