Manoj Tiwary is a man on a mission. At 37, he is leading Bengal’s charge for a third Ranji Trophy title and the first in almost 33 years. Tiwary came close to winning it on three occasions as a player, when Bengal finished runner-up in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2019-20. More than 18 years after making his First-Class debut, he is now confronted with the unique challenge of captaining Bengal in a Ranji Trophy final against a familiar foe – Saurashtra.
Bengal lost to Saurashtra in the 2019-20 final after conceding a slender 44-run first-innings lead in a drawn match. But Tiwary believes Bengal has what it needs to go the distance this time.
“Last time, we were unlucky not to win the trophy. This year, I have a gut feeling we are going to win. The way in which every individual in the team has contributed to the success and the consistency and discipline they are showing on the field, that gives me the confidence that we are going to lift the trophy this time,” Tiwary told Sportstar after Bengal thrashed Madhya Pradesh in the semifinal by 306 runs at the Holkar Cricket Stadium in Indore on Sunday.
Tiwary’s men already know what it takes to shake off the demons of the past as they avenged last year’s semifinal loss to the defending champion away from home.
“We had a long discussion about what the opposition will bring to the table. We know how Chandrakant Pandit (MP coach) uses his tactics and sudden surprises during the game. I am a very keen observer of his tactics and planning. I knew something would come. We saw that in the first innings when he sent Saransh Jain up the order. But we were ready. We knew that if we stick to our discipline, in bowling and batting, we could win. Our bowlers bowled really well to get them all out for 170 in the first innings. That made a big difference. From there on, it was very difficult for them to come back,” Tiwary added.
The Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports in the West Bengal government has also introduced off-the-field methods to keep the team motivated. The players are greeted with cut-outs of the Ranji Trophy in the dressing room, they walk out with the Bengal flag fluttering at the dugout, and impassioned chants of ‘Joi Bangla’ emanate from the team huddle ahead of every session.
“We have introduced Ranji Trophy pictures in the dressing room. I realised the slogan ‘Joi Bangla’ is making a deep impact on our emotions. We, Bengali people, are emotional. It’s a slogan which is bringing everybody together and making them realise they are representing Bengal. Our dream is to win the Ranji Trophy. When the posters are in front of your eyes, and you’re looking constantly at the trophy. You realise you’re playing this game to win the Ranji Trophy. It inspires a winning mentality. The flag is outside the dressing room. Whenever we are coming out, we look at the flag and get motivated. We don’t need extra motivation, but sometimes when you are low and down, and a session doesn’t go your way, you point to the flag, and the players get charged up. As human beings, you might get drained out physically and mentally, and there has to be something that will push you that extra bit,” Tiwary explained.
Having led Bengal last in the 2018-19 season, Tiwary assumed the leadership role again for the 2022-23 Ranji Trophy campaign as Abhimanyu Easwaran would have missed the first two games due to national commitments.
“Since Abhimanyu was not available for the first two games, I took it (captaincy) up. A couple of years ago, the association had asked me to lead in only T20s and 50-over format. I requested them not to give me captaincy in the shorter formats and give Abhimanyu Easwaran the captaincy for all three formats. That would be better for him. If there is too much change in captaincy, players will hesitate, not respond nor respect the leader completely,” he said.
While the veteran has no qualms in making way for youngsters, Tiwary firmly believes that experience has no substitute, especially in multi-day cricket. Anustup Majumdar, at 38, has walked the talk with 790 runs at an average in excess of 65 to emerge as Bengal’s top run-scorer this season.
“Experience counts. If you are physically fit and scoring runs consistently, then there is no point in looking past the senior players. In days matches, experience is required. In the shorter formats, you can try all the youngsters. But in days matches, whoever is consistently performing, there is no question of letting them go. All the senior players have been contributing. Abhimanyu also, he looks young, but he has played more than 70  games, so he falls in the senior bracket too,” Tiwary said, while also acknowledging the role of youngsters in Bengal’s consistent success.
“We are lucky that the youngsters have also stepped up, like Sudip Gharami. He has been a very solid No. 3. That spot has been a question mark for a long time with Bengal. Earlier, Sudip Chatterjee was there, but he wasn’t performing, of late, and then chose to go to Tripura. Gharami has taken that slot brilliantly. Abishek Porel, as wicketkeeper-batter, has been fabulous as well. A good mix of both seniors and juniors performing has taken this team through.”
The youngsters have also benefitted from the security and assurance Tiwary and head coach Laxmi Ratan Shukla have given them. “We have a conversation with the youngsters. We tell them not to worry about getting dropped. We tell them that no matter what, they will get a minimum of six innings. Just go out there and play the way you have been playing. In those innings, if we notice something, we give them suggestions. But we normally leave it to them because we don’t want to change their skillsets too much,” the captain said.
Tiwary and Shukla, who retired in 2015 and appointed coach ahead of this season, have shared the goal of winning the Ranji Trophy as teammates for more than a decade. Tiwary believes that the relationship has translated seamlessly into captain-and-coach dynamics.
“We are both very like-minded. Our thought processes are the same. So, he handles the dressing room, and I handle the players on the field. Not many instructions come from outside the field to me... He asks me to go ahead with my gut feeling. That freedom is very important.”
Life has come full circle for Tiwary. He struck a combative century in a losing cause against Madhya Pradesh in last year’s semifinal with an injured right cartilage amid excruciating pain. Cut to Sunday, Tiwary overcame the same opposition as the captain, playing with 95 per cent damage in both knees.
“Last year, I took two injections in both knees. One worked really well, and the other didn’t work. I was struggling last year and had to tape both knees a lot. This year, both injections have worked. That’s why you can see me running around like a youngster (chuckles). There is no struggling as such. But hopefully, nothing happens before or during the final.”
Bengal would hope for the same, and for Tiwary, playing his first Ranji Trophy title clash at home in Eden Gardens, “a hundred in the final will be the icing on the cake”.
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