“You’re asking him in front of me? Obviously he’s going to say good. No choice.”
Ever the hard taskmaster, Chandrakant Pandit butting in on Faiz Fazal was the source of no little mirth for the horde of reporters gathered at the Eden Gardens on Thursday. In his first season with them, Pandit has taken Vidarbha to the final of the Ranji Trophy for the very first time.
It was the latest achievement in a hugely successful coaching career that has seen him thrive with several different teams. Pandit coached Mumbai to successive Ranji Trophy wins in 2002-03 and 2003-04. In his second stint with them, Mumbai under Pandit lifted the Ranji Trophy for the 41st time in 2015-16 and made the final the following year. Pandit has likewise had success as player-cum-coach with Madhya Pradesh, and more recently as director of the Kerala Cricket Academy, where he was responsible for bringing up new players such as Sanju Samson and Basil Thampi.
Coming from a team known for its khadoos players, Pandit inculcated the values of a good hard fight into this Vidarbha side. The lessons came through in a nail-biting finish to their semi-final against Karnataka. “I belong to a culture and a state that has a different mindset, which I wanted to inculcate in this team. And they have accepted it well,” he said. “More than anything, I think I always strived to lift the team and made sure that we enjoyed each other’s performances and stayed together for every activity the team does. I was probably instigating them to win matches. To bring in that self-belief was very important.
“From day one, we were dreaming of this, and thanks to God and the players’ efforts, we are there. Cricket is not played from inside, from the boundary lines. Whatever we spoke and planned, they were keen to execute it. The courage they showed to fight, I think that was very important. Every individual has understood that. We are not celebrating; we are just expressing our joy at the way the team is playing. My team has played the toughest cricket in the entire season.”
Vidarbha had taken out seven Karnataka wickets on the fourth evening. But Karnataka bat deep. Vinay Kumar has over 2500 runs and two first-class centuries. Shreyas Gopal averages 36 and struck his career-best score of 150 not out in the quarter-final against Mumbai. Even S Aravind, Karnataka’s least proficient batsman, has two half-centuries in first-class cricket.
“It was a 50-50 game,” Pandit said. “In such a game, whoever shows desperation is going to lose and whoever shows patience is going to win. Making each individual understand his role is very important in such a situation. The kind of spirit they showed was tremendous. Making history at this ground, of course, will always be remembered.”
When Aravind played into the hands of gully to finally settle a topsy-turvy clash – by a margin of five runs – there was to an outpouring of unadulterated joy from the Vidarbha camp.
Just moments earlier, they had been bracing themselves for the eventuality of a semi-final exit. This could so easily have been a story of so close yet so far. “When the ball left (Aravind’s) the bat, it took me back to the shot Mahi [MS Dhoni] played in the 2011 World Cup and the silence that ensued until it crossed the boundary,” Fazal, their captain, said. “I felt that silence when the edge was drawn. In such high-pressure situations, performing simple tasks becomes very difficult.”
Fazal has been an inspirational leader through this remarkable journey. A cursory glance at his first-class career will show you an average of 41.58 after 97 games. But what it doesn’t tell you is the quality of his runs; he scores them in tough, sometimes unplayable conditions. It is this ability that made the selectors turn to him to take over from S Badrinath as Vidarbha captain in 2016-17. Now, with 843 runs, Fazal is three short of making this his most productive Ranji season ever.
Trailing him, and quite closely at that, is Sanjay Ramaswamy, his younger and very promising opening partner. The 22-year old had a solid debut season in 2016-17, but this year, he has racked up 735 runs at close to 67. He and Fazal are responsible for eight of Vidarbha’s 12 centuries and have been the most prolific opening combination in 2017-18.
Both batsmen are excellent in defence, and pride themselves on being technically correct. But the similarities end there. “We’re absolute opposites, to be honest,” Fazal said with a laugh. “Like they say, opposites attract, and that’s going on in the middle. I’m enjoying his company and he is enjoying mine. Our minds have changed and our thinking has become very clear this season.”
This clarity of thought has been one of the biggest takeaways from Pandit’s stint. Understanding why each player is in the side has given them a greater sense of purpose. Vidarbha opened with an innings-and-117-run win over Punjab. In all, they have won six out of eight matches this season, and barring the semi-final, each of the victories has been by a hefty margin. It is the sort of ruthlessness that hasn’t been associated with this team before.
“It’s not just about being mentally tough, but also mentally clear,” Fazal said. “People were mentally tough earlier also, but it’s made a difference now because we’re clear in our heads. Sometimes, you need someone to run behind you with a stick, but the results are there for you to see now.”
Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.