Alex Ferguson of Indian domestic cricket.
That’s how Chandrakant Pandit was hailed in the last week of June when Madhya Pradesh — with Pandit as its head coach — won its maiden Ranji Trophy crown since making its Ranji debut in 1950-51.
The diminutive Pandit has enjoyed unprecedented success in domestic cricket and perhaps it would be better suited to compare him with new-age genius football coach — “Pep Guardiola of Indian domestic cricket” than the Manchester United legend. Sir Alex’s triumph was in his continuous reinvention of the United team during his 27-year reign.
Guardiola, a member of the Barcelona Dream Team in the 1990s, as a coach first guided his alma mater to glory and then repeated the story with Bayern Munich in Germany and Manchester City in the Premier League.
Pandit’s career path has been quite similar. A product of late Ramakant Achrekar’s factory of shrewd cricketers, Pandit excelled as a typical Mumbai cricketer. Despite dominating the domestic circuit as a batter-wicketkeeper, he never really cemented his place in the national setup.
But post retiring as a cricketer in 2000-01, after a two-decade career, Pandit found his true calling in coaching. And the results are for everyone to see. Over the last two decades, Pandit has been the head coach of six Ranji-winning teams with three different State units. He has been at the forefront of leading the underdogs’ movement in the Ranji Trophy.
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Just like Guardiola, he tasted success with his home team, helping Mumbai win successive Ranji titles in 2002-03 and 2003-04. After sowing the seeds of success in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Kerala, Pandit returned as the Mumbai head coach to help the domestic giant lift its 41st title in 2015-16. That season revived the Pandit magic. Including that final, Pandit has now been involved in five of the last six Ranji finals. He has won four of those five finals — the rare loss came in the 2016-17 final that Mumbai lost to Gujarat.
His legacy is underlined by the fact that after leading Vidarbha — considered among the also-rans of domestic cricket till then — to successive titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Pandit has repeated it with Vidarbha’s neighbouring outfit Madhya Pradesh.
It was surreal to see Pandit at the helm of Madhya Pradesh’s march to victory after he had failed to cross the line as the MP captain in its only previous final in 1998-99.
“The first team meeting he did (in 2017-18) and everyone realised it would be a different ballgame. He has a trademark style to start the season. ‘I see too much groupism in this team’. That’s his patent dialogue”Akshay Wakhare, Vidarbha spinner
The 60-year-old is among the very few old-fashioned coaches who are still around in the domestic circuit. .Despite not holding any coaching certifications, he has embraced modern-day techniques of analysing the opposition to precision.
Pandit is perceived as a hard taskmaster with his unique methods of preparation. He seeks full control over cricket affairs and no selector or administrator has any say in the running of the team. He pushes the players out of their comfort zone, at times even upsetting the seniors. “No one is bigger than the game and no individual is more than the team” is his simple philosophy.
“The first team meeting he did (in 2017-18) and everyone realised it would be a different ballgame. He has a trademark style to start the season. ‘I see too much groupism in this team’. That’s his patent dialogue,” says Akshay Wakhare, the veteran Vidarbha off-spinner.
“And later in the same meeting, he set the goal that not many of us could actually think of. He spelt it out that we may have several short-term goals, but the ultimate goal is to win the Ranji Trophy. Once it was made clear in the very first meeting, there was no way the whole bunch could have thought any other way.”
To make smaller teams believe that they can win the Ranji Trophy — the ultimate prize for a domestic cricketer — is not the same as converting it into a reality. Once he seizes control, he has the knack of reassigning roles for the benefit of the team by optimising a player’s potential.
The majority of unambitious domestic teams have a few seniors who are happy to go through the grind and stick to their place every season. Just like he did with Vidarbha, even in Madhya Pradesh, he got rid of such cricketers.
With Madhya Pradesh, he promoted Venkatesh Iyer to open the innings in limited-overs formats and Iyer is now playing international cricket. In Ranji Trophy, he switched Shubham Sharma’s preferred batting position to No. 3 this season and asked Yash Dubey, a middle-order batter, to open the innings midway through the season.
The result: Sharma notched up four centuries while Dubey blunted Kerala to score a career-high 289 in a crucial league game and repeated his heroics with a patient hundred in the big final against Mumbai.
Effectively, the players have to surrender themselves to Pandit and his methods. Be it training in the dead of the night amidst heavy rainfall in Indore or sharing a room with a team-mate assigned by the coach.
“As much as the coach must put his foot down, it’s also paramount that the whole team supports the team. Once it happens, the rest of the aspects are taken care of. I haven’t seen anyone else apart from him to make it happen swiftly,” says Wakhare.
Pandit is also reputed to be a strict disciplinarian. If a player is found online after the “lights-off” timing set by the coach, even now, he is greeted with the “flowery” language in front of the whole group.
More of the same follows if someone throws his wicket away, or deviates from the devised plan.
“His coaching mantra is different. He wants everyone to follow the same set of rules, processes, and routines. Times have changed, so it does get awkward at times but still, the bottom line is he puts the team ahead of everyone. And that formula still works for success”Aditya Tare, Mumbai wicketkeeper
“His coaching mantra is different. He wants everyone to follow the same set of rules, processes, and routines. Times have changed, so it does get awkward at times but still, the bottom line is he puts the team ahead of everyone. And that formula still works for success,” says Aditya Tare, who was the Mumbai captain during Pandit’s last stint with the team in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
“I never found it difficult to deal with him. I never found that he was trying to pressurise me. In fact, over the course of the season — since we went back a long way ever since he was the academy director early on in my career — he was open to suggestions as well. I could tell him to take it a little easy about off-the-field matters like deciding room-mates and he was open to the seniors handling it.”
Not all captains and players have enjoyed such liberty. Aditya Shrivastava, the MP captain, has been unable to enjoy his honeymoon and was allowed a two-day break for his wedding in June 2021.
Having laid his hands on the prized possession that no other MP captain — including Pandit — could do earlier, Shrivastava has no complaints.
Shrivastava and all other members of this successful squad have been raving about Pandit’s contribution.
The MP bunch is not alone. Indian cricket, including the stalwarts of yesteryears and the present lot, has been in awe of the Pandit method.
The debate whether he is the Ferguson or Guardiola of Indian domestic cricket will linger on, but the man himself will be least bothered about it.
Already planning MP’s title defence, Pandit is just happy to have made his revered guru proud. Soon after Pandit was appointed the Mumbai Under-19 coach for the 2001-02 season, Achrekar had assigned Pandit to “carry on” his “mantle of grooming youngsters”.
The shishya (disciple) hasn’t fared badly at all.
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