Boys to men

Surendra Bhave…“The match against Mumbai changed the mindset of the Maharashtra players.”-PTI

What was unique about Maharashtra, the runner-up in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy, was its hunger to win. “This group is fearless. The reputations of rivals don’t matter to these players,” says the Maharashtra coach, Surendra Bhave. By Nandakumar Marar.

Courage was a distinctive feature of the Maharashtra team in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy season. It defeated Mumbai in the quarterfinals at the Wankhede Stadium, the match lasting five days. The young bunch then tamed Bengal inside three days in the semi-finals at the Holkar Stadium before being elbowed out by Karnataka in the final in Hyderabad.

For coach Surendra Bhave, who was the captain of Maharashtra the last time it made its appearance in the Ranji Trophy final (in 1992-93 against Punjab), the hunger to win stood out, as Maharashtra was back on track. From Group C, it became the number two team, topping the second tier and upping its game against the established sides.

“This group is fearless; it wants to win. The reputations of rivals don’t matter (to the players). Maharashtra batsmen watch the ball; they don’t bother about who the bowler is. Similarly, our bowlers aim to beat the defence by hitting the right areas, they don’t look at reputations of the batsmen,” said Bhave.

The 21-year-old stroke-player, Ankit Bawne, defines the team’s positive outlook. Compact and efficient at the crease, he accumulated runs against Karnataka in the final (89 and 61), Bengal in the semi-final (89) and Mumbai in the quarterfinal (84).

The pressure was always on Bawne as he stood up to Zaheer Khan (Mumbai in the quarterfinals), Ashoke Dinda (Bengal, semi-finals) and Vinay Kumar (Karnataka, final). He aggregated 731 runs (average: 66.45) from 11 matches this season, scoring one century and seven half-centuries.

Bhave singled him out for special mention. “Ankit has always been a solid cricketer with a good defensive technique. Look at his front-foot stride. I don’t see anyone with a front-foot stride as big as his against fast bowlers. He middles everything, the sound of the ball hitting the bat is sweet and gives the line-up solidity,” explained the Maharashtra coach.

“The match against Mumbai changed the mindset of the (Maharashtra) players. I keep going back to that remarkable match. Mumbai won four sessions in a row, but we won the next five sessions to pocket the match,” Bhave said.

Maharashtra overcame a first innings deficit of 122 runs to hand the 2012-13 Ranji champion a stunning defeat by eight wickets.

On a roll…Kedar Jadhav of Maharashtra celebrates his century against Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals. With 1123 runs from 11 matches, Jadhav is the highest run-getter in the 2013-14 season.-VIVEK BENDRE

Talking of his squad’s tendency to dream big and back it up with good performances, Bhave pointed to the success of Maharashtra in the BCCI age-group tournaments over the years. “These boys have been winning titles as juniors for Maharashtra. As people back home started wondering if these same players could perform in first-class cricket, this was the chance.

“Maharashtra was the Cooch Behar champion in 2005-06; it also bagged the Vijay Merchant Trophy (2006-07), Polly Umrigar Trophy (2007-08) and Vinoo Mankad Trophy (2008-09),” said Bhave.

The seniors tasted their first success in 2009-10 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 Championship (conducted by the BCCI), defeating Hyderabad in the final. Rohit Motwani, the skipper of the Maharashtra Ranji team, batsman Sangram Atitkar and swing bowler Samad Fallah were in the squad that won the Mushtaq Ali T20 final at the Holkar Stadium in Indore.

Promising talent... Vijay Zol is a batsman who is tough and has the endurance to play long innings.-VIVEK BENDRE

“We grew up winning together in the U-14, U-17 and U-19 tournaments. Vijay Zol led the India Under-19 squad. I want to do more in first-class cricket,” said Atitkar.

Atitkar hails from Kolhapur district, while Bawne is from Aurangabad. India Under-19 captain and opening batsman Zol belongs to Jalna, seam bowler Srikant Mundhe is from Nanded and Anupam Sanklecha is from Ahmednagar.

Maharashtra Cricket Association’s (MCA) headquarters, Pune, where most of the academies are based, has contributed captain Motwani, opener Harshad Khadiwale and Kedar Jadhav. Hyderabad-born Samad Fallah (204 wickets in first-class cricket from 51 matches) also played most of his cricket in Pune.

Bhave drew attention to the policy decision taken eight years ago by the MCA president, Ajay Shirke, to spread the game to the districts. “It was to provide equal opportunities to each individual in the jurisdiction of the MCA. The wider the net, the better the chances of picking the best possible state team,” he said.

Impressive performers ... Ankit Bawne and (below) Sangram Atitkar.-VIVEK BENDRE

For players from the interior, making adjustments is the tough part, but ambition and courage are never in short supply. “The roles of the district and city players are equally important in a state team, with both types bringing their own skill sets, mental and physical, and work ethics to the squad,” Bhave said.

According to the Maharashtra coach, Atitkar, a number three batsman, was asked to go in at No. 7. He responded with a century — his fourth in first-class cricket — in the semi-finals against Bengal.

Zol is rated as a promising talent, a batsman who is tough and has the endurance to play long innings. Run-machine Kedar Jadhav, named among the India probables for the World T20, is the highest run-getter in the 2013-14 Ranji season with 1223 runs (average: 87.35) from 11 games. He also figured in the Rest of India team for the Irani Trophy.

According to Bhave, cricketers from rural areas benefited when the barriers were removed. “Traditionally, the invitation league used to be played among Pune clubs. Only a few good ones from the districts could be accommodated. As a policy change, we introduced a team from each district. With 15 existing Pune clubs also competing in the revamped league, everyone wishing to play for Maharashtra can compete for places.”

Apart from Jadhav, Bawne and Zol, Bhave rates Srikant Mundhe, Khadiwale, Fallah and Sanklecha as big-match performers. He is also excited about young talents such as Nikhil Naik and Rahul Tripathi from the U-25 group.

VIVEK BENDRE

“India has some amazing talent at this point in time although the sight of a tearaway fast bowler is still a rarity,” Bhave said. “Batters are exceptionally talented but need to work on becoming good players on all surfaces, including seaming and turning tracks.

“If you follow the scores of the Ranji games where turners were provided, you will notice that the batsmen were not very comfortable. Hence, I feel we should not lose out on our strong point, which is producing champion batsmen on turning tracks.”