Three-and-a-half-year-old Rozina still could not understand why her father, Faiz Fazal, was receiving so many phone calls on this Tuesday morning. After staying away from her father, the little one thought she would finally be able to spend some quality time with papa , but the morning started with hundreds of phone calls.
So, when her father — Fazal — started talking to Sportstar at a plush Indore hotel, Rozina walked up to listen to what the stranger ‘ chachu’ was talking to her father. After a while though, she decided to give up and chose to tag along with her mother for some shopping.
Relieved, Fazal — who was yet to come terms with the fact that Vidarbha had won its first-ever Ranji Trophy title — decided to walk down memory lane, in this freewheeling chat. From what worked for his side to the development of Vidarbha cricket, the captain spoke at length on all the issues.
You have been asked this question for a while now, but then again, how do you see Vidarbha’s success this season?
The journey started a couple of months back when we started our camp. The match simulations that we did off session were really important. With Chandu (Chandrakant Pandit) sir coming in, he decided to just not focus on regular nets sessions (he rather opted for match simulations). That helped in changing things. From there, everyone started thinking positively. The roles were clear for each and every one. That made the difference. Everyone started thinking in one direction — to achieve the goal of winning the Ranji Trophy. If each and every member of the squad thinks that way — including the support staff and administration — then there’s no holding back. By God’s Grace, we did it.
You said, a lot of new things were done this time. What were the things not done earlier?
We were doing almost everything. Now that we have won the Ranji Trophy, I can say that we were not doing this or that earlier, but that’s not the case. Things fell at the right place, at the right moment. That was it. Playing that kind of (attacking) cricket against Punjab and then winning it, made the difference. We started believing more in ourselves and the confidence was much higher. It was not easy to beat Punjab in its home. With Yuvraj Singh around, Punjab was tough. Winning there definitely made the difference. But as I said, everyone was clear about their roles.
Being the skipper, coming into the tournament, what were the things you personally worked on to ensure that you led by example?
Chandu sir and I get along really well. The day I came back from England, the first thing we spoke about was how to win the Ranji Trophy. That was always in our mind. I spent a lot of time with him at the nets, before batting sessions. Sometimes, we would even chat before and after fielding sessions. I was always trying to learn each and everything, and always wanted to know what he was thinking. Chandu sir has such vast experience in coaching. He has won so many trophies during his stints with Mumbai, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan — he has got wide experience. So, I was learning from him every day.
What were the things that he introduced?
He would always ask the bowlers to keep it stump-to-stump. This is a very basic thing but we tend to forget this. We think of variety to dismiss a batsman, but that line is the most difficult to play. We have won seven games outright, out of the nine games. It is not easy to get so many wickets in every match, but we did it. Earlier, the Vidarbha team never had so many outright wins. That was the difference.
In terms of batting, he would say, “always think how to score runs. Because in the end, runs on the board matters the most.” Every player has a different style of play, so one had to back oneself but be positive in his mind. Even if you defend or leave the ball, there should be a positive thing to it. That made a difference. Playing at the first-class level, it is important how you think. Sometimes in Ranji Trophy, if you don’t perform well initially, it gets tough. I did not bat well against Punjab but I did not allow negativity to creep in. Normally in such cases, you tend to doubt yourself. But that’s not the time to doubt yourself. This is a team game, so a poor individual mindset should not affect the team.
What doubts are you referring to? Were there such instances in the team?
Self-doubt is the biggest enemy. But thankfully, our team never had that problem. We never doubted ourselves. Personally, I had a bit of doubt when I did not get off to a good start. Unnecessarily, I would start thinking too much about my technique. Later, I realised, nothing happens if you think too much. It is a waste of time.
Why did we choose to play cricket? That’s because the game itself is so interesting. This was our hobby. We made a career out of our hobby. We are actually very fortunate to have turned our passion into profession. How many people like the job they do? We love our job. We are also very fortunate to have this pressure. How many people get the honour to play for the state and have the pressure to perform? We are lucky that way. After the first match, where things did not go my way, I realised there was no point in doubting yourself.
This team has a mix of seniors and juniors. With players like you and Wasim Jaffer around, how did you people take things in your stride?
Wasim (Jaffer) bhai and I did not do well in the first game, but Ganesh (Satish) and Sanjay (Ramaswamy) did well. We are quite experienced and Wasim bhai is a legend. He knows how to go. We were batting well, it’s just that we could not convert it to big totals. We knew this was a long session, and things would improve. In the end, only three or four people play well in every match, the rest play a supporting role. Both of us did not do well but we were happy for Sanjay and Ganesh getting centuries because ultimately we won that match. That was our main target. We wanted to win the match, the rest was secondary.
The side has a lot ofinexperienced players. What was the one thing that you never encouraged in the dressing room?
We never encouraged negative talk or loose talk in the dressing room. Even if people were not performing, we would not talk about it inside the dressing room. We did not even discuss about what went wrong. We knew the players would be able to bounce back. All of them worked hard, and everyone had a clear idea about their roles. None of the seniors liked loose talk, and this time, we were closely knit. Earlier also we would be together but unfortunately, things never clicked that time. We were in the building process, and it took time to come this far. The winning percentage was not this high, slowly players came in and the team building process started. That process led to this victory. The mental frame was very good. We had happy faces.
What do you mean by happy faces? What did you do to develop team bonding?
We had quite a few committees in the team. Each player belonged to a committee. There were food committees, entertainment committees. Then there was also a travel committee. (Laughs) I was the head of the food committee, there were two-three other members with me. The entertainment committee was headed by Karn Sharma. They were in-charge of leisure activities. The travel committee members would take care of hotel check-ins and other things during tours. Similarly, being the head of the food committee, I would book tables, ask for menu cards and then inform the team when and where to gather. The idea was to ease the pressure on the manager. This was Chandu Sir’s idea, he used to do similar things in the Mumbai team also.
Didn’t Rajasthan Royals too have a similar strategy during Shane Warne’s time?
I have played in Royals, there was a similar concept. Warnie (Shane Warne) introduced the concept of Pinky doll, where players were given respective tasks. Warne’s cricketing mind was different altogether. Such things help you know each other better. Game and life are inter-related. Your game is defined by your character. Our committee concept makes life easy and also eases the pressure.
You talked about backing the players, but in the season, Vidarbha had changed three wicketkeepers. What was the reason behind it?
First Jitesh Sharma was playing but unfortunately he did not get enough runs. He was given three-four opportunities, but runs were not coming. Then we brought in Siddhesh Wath. He batted really well last season against Rajasthan, so we gave him a chance. But he did not click and was looking very low. If you had played him more, Wath’s confidence would have gone further down. Finally, we settled for Akshay Wadkar. He played really well. That century in the final was good, but the half-centuries in the quarterfinals too were very important. All of them have worked hard, and this is certainly not the end of the road for anyone.
In the past, teams like Gujarat and Rajasthan have also won Ranji Trophy titles from being absolutely no-hopers. What will be the key to sustain for your team?
We will follow the same routine. We were always striving for success and now that it has come our way, we want to keep that going. A player, who represents India always thinks how long he would sustain. That’s the main thing. Even in Ranji Trophy, you can’t just be playing for participation. You have to maintain the legacy. We will give everything to maintain this form. We have to be honest with the job.
What does this victory mean for Vidarbha cricket in general?
Earlier, nobody took the Vidarbha cricketers seriously. Now at least that trend would change. It is very important for the youngsters. Now, if a U-14 or U-16 cricketer comes up, he will also have something to play for. They would be hoping to achieve success. They have seen us work hard, and I hope, every player will take this forward and more and more cricketers will come up in the next few years. This will be a motivation for hard work.
Chandrakant Pandit had spoken about creating a pool of players for the future. What is the strategy?
Yes, we will groom players. Even if they don’t get chances initially, staying together with the team will help the youngsters. They will be living in that environment, so one day, when they get a chance to feature in the playing XI, the environment would not be new for them. We will continue promoting young guns.
Vidarbha had major injury issues before the final. Wasim Jaffer was in pain, even you had a stiff neck. But despite all that, both of you played a fearless brand of cricket. How did that happen? Was it just determination or was there something else?
For Wasim bhai , determination is the main thing. An elbow injury has been bothering him for a while now. Last season also, he could not play much. This time, before the match against Chhattisgarh, he suddenly felt some uneasiness in his elbow. Recently, it has been learnt that there is a tear in the elbow. He continued playing after strapping it up. Even our team doctor — Neeraj Karamchandani — worked really hard to get him fit. Before the final, I suddenly had a stiff neck during a training session in Nagpur. That was right after the semifinal. After training, I realised there were spasms in three muscles, so I was not sure whether I would be 100 per cent fit for the final. Even during the match, I was feeling uneasy in the neck, while fielding in the slips. Even though I bowled an over, the natural flair was not there because it was hurting. But our doctor really helped us.
Taking a cue from you, even the youngsters put up a brave show. How do you see this?
This is a very positive and big thing for cricket. A team like Vidarbha winning the title for the first time, has given hope to all. We were earlier not rated highly. Now, every team can feel that winning the title is not impossible. Not just fans in Nagpur, people living overseas have also congratulated me for the success. I think this would not have happened without the Almighty. God wanted us to win, or else why would everything fall in place at the right time? Everything was clicking for us. In the semifinal, we were always behind Karnataka, but even then, we had the last laugh.
Did you really feel at that time that you would be reaching the final?
I was relaxed at that time. I was confident. I don’t know why but even when Karnataka needed nine runs and we required two wickets, I was thinking that we can’t lose from here. This is our game and we can’t let it go. That belief was always there. I knew it was just the matter of two good balls and Karnataka had massive pressure. I was really thinking positive. I even told Rajneesh Gurbani and Umesh Yadav not to look at the scoreboard. That would have been the biggest distraction. So, I remember telling Rajneesh only to think about his bowling and which areas to bowl at. Deep inside, I was praying. But I always had the belief of winning the game.
Would this win also give a face value to the youngsters, who are not quite known names?
The doors will open now. After this, even the legends of the game will look at us differently. We have created a reputation, and now the youngsters will have to keep it going. Now, we will play the Irani Cup, and then these players will again be put to test. Then there is IPL, India A. If you play at a higher level, a new legacy would begin.
Despite bringing in spinner Karn Sharma as a professional player this season, why was he left out of the crucial games?
He was doing really well before coming to Ranji Trophy. But this season, things went a bit low. Akshay was doing well, Aditya was doing well, so we thought of going ahead with them. There were pitches where you could not play three spinners, so it was a tough decision. Personally I felt bad to have not been able to field him in the playing XI.
Where would you like to see Vidarbha cricket in the next three years?
The immediate target is to do well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament. There would be a few changes. We would keep a few players exclusively for the longer format. Vidarbha was always doing well in the shorter format, but the longer format was the main problem. By God’s Grace, that has also been solved. Let’s see how Vidarbha does in the next few years. As a captain, I would want to reach the final every year. As a cricketer, I would like to play the final every year. There were no titles in so many years, now that one has come, let it flow.
Nagpur has always had a great cricketing culture. Then why did it take so long for Vidarbha to clinch a Ranji Trophy title?
(Laughs) I don’t know. Nagpur is laidback. We were happy with small things. Now, the hunger has gone up. We want to keep the momentum going for the cricket fans of Nagpur.
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