For Madhya Pradesh, the stars appear to be aligning. Qualifying for its first Ranji Trophy summit clash since 1998-99, it has found its groove to the extent that a maiden title will be at stake for the team when it takes on 41-time champion Mumbai in the final at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru from June 22.
As MP coach Chandrakant Pandit put it, “this is the moment you dream of”. However, the celebrations after a resounding 174-run win over Bengal in the semifinal were muted. The players shook hands and bumped fists. Pandit’s message to them is very clear: “One game at a time is more important. Celebration is one, and that is after winning the final. That is the only celebration in cricket. There is happiness, yes. I didn’t ask anyone expressly to not celebrate but the boys understand my method by now.”
Pandit has won the Ranji Trophy before, with Mumbai and Vidarbha. “For us, it’s about winning and continuing the winning culture. It is an area I have focussed on with all teams. Of course, having a very good bunch of talent has helped.
“When I was with Mumbai, the mindset was ‘it was a good season if we won the title, if we didn’t then it wasn’t.’ That’s the culture I’ve tried to pass on.”
No team operates in a vacuum. No player improves on his own. MP is a motivated squad galvanized into more than the sum of its parts. One hour into Day 1 of the semifinal against Bengal, we saw it in action.
MP had just lost its captain Aditya Shrivastava with the score at a precarious 97 for 4. That’s when Himanshu Mantri and Akshat Raghuwanshi came together for a 123-run stand to steady MP. While Mantri struck a maiden first-class century and ended the day unbeaten on 134 off 280 balls, Raghuwanshi hit a swift 50 as MP moved to 271 for 6. Mantri was all of five when MP last made it to the final and Raghuwanshi wasn’t even born. And here they were, piloting MP’s Ranji Trophy dream.
Kumar Kartikeya is another one who has honed his game further under Pandit’s tutelage. These past couple of months have been an incredible ride for the 24-year-old left-arm spinner from Kanpur. From plying his trade in the IPL for Mumbai Indians to championing red-ball cricket, Kartikeya is ‘living the dream’. Having picked six second-innings wickets against Punjab in the quarterfinals, he snapped up five second-innings wickets against Bengal to power MP into the final.
Pandit attributes the coming together of these match-winners to the bonhomie within the team and his equation with the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association [MPCA]. “It’s a totally different time and generation [than when he used to play for MP] but I think it is the system, the culture which remains the same, which I went through during my six years playing for them. That makes a difference because people who are looking after cricket in MP are people I played and trained with. So, that helps me in not only developing the team but also getting whatever I need vis-a-vis the facilities. They know the method and style of my functioning,” Pandit said.
As a coach, Pandit is against the laissez-faire attitude and regards active participation as the key to the improvement of a team. “This is how I function. It’s not only my demand. It is a demand of the state. Ultimately, any state would like to win the trophy. So let us go through my method, from picking the players, and I am thankful to the selection committee. Even Vidarbha was outstanding in this regard. These are very supportive guys. I never spend more than 10 minutes in any selection meeting. That shows the confidence we have in each other.”
Pandit returns to Chinnaswamy Stadium for yet another Ranji Trophy final with MP, this time as the coach. He was the captain all those years ago when Karnataka beat MP to lift the trophy. “I don’t know what God is expecting,” Pandit said with a smile. “He is definitely taking us there for some reason. He gave it to Karnataka [23 years ago], maybe he wants to return it to us now.”