“The silence after Mahi’s last shot in the 2011 World Cup till it cleared the fence – that silence I felt before the edge landed in the gully fielder’s hands.”
Faiz Fazal, Vidarbha’s captain, was referring to the emotion that stirred in him following the dramatic five-run victory over Karnataka in Eden Gardens in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy semifinal.
Vidarbha had reached the quarterfinal in two of the last three Ranji seasons, but both times they failed to progress further. In fact, the game against Karnataka was their first Ranji semifinal ever.
After setting a target of 198, Vidarbha had reduced them to 141 for 8 before Shreyas Gopal and Abhimanyu Mithun revived the chase with a 48-run stand for the ninth wicket.
It looked like Vidarbha’s plans might fall through, but Rajneesh Gurbani removed the last two wickets to end with match-figures of 12 for 162 and help his side book a berth against Delhi in the final, starting from Friday (December 29).
It was a victory of Vidarbha’s resilience, and their new-found belief under the guidance of Chandrakant Pandit, their coach for this season. After conceding a first-innings lead of 116, it was not an easy task to bounce back against mighty Karnataka.
“I was instigating them to win the match,” tells Pandit. “Everybody wants to win, it’s not like they didn’t want to win. But how they can win that was more important for me. To tell them and keep on insisting that we can win this game, to bring that kind of self-belief was very important.”
Before moving to Vidarbha, Pandit was in charge of Mumbai and had taken the side to their 41st Ranji title in 2015-16 and the final in 2016-17, where they lost to Gujarat. Earlier, he had also coached them to back-to-back titles in 2002-03 and 2003-04.
He definitely brought some of that Mumbai khadoos with him.
In Pandit’s own words: “I belong to a culture and a state that has a different mindset which I wanted to inculcate in our team. I think they accepted that immediately. From day one, we were aiming for this. Thanks to God, thanks to their efforts because ultimately they played the best cricket because cricket is not played from outside the boundary line.”
In the sporting world, a successful team is one in which players enjoy each other’s success and stick together in the hour of need. On the surface, Pandit’s modus operandi sounds very simple but somehow he seems to have found a way to build team spirit.
“I have kept my same routine, didn’t do anything else,” Pandit puts it plainly. “We always go step by step, one day at a time. But more than anything else, I always try to lift the team. Whenever we play, we make sure we play as a team. That’s what we are getting the results of. We enjoy each other’s performances. We try to stay together for every team activity. And we always work for the process rather than the result.”
Fazal too feels Pandit has managed to create such an atmosphere in the dressing room and got the players together to play as a unit. “It’s a very simple sentence that we are playing as a team but it’s really applied here,” feels Fazal. “Chandu sir coming into the team has been a great benefit for us. We have very simple planning. We enjoy each other’s performance and we are staying together. We are always there for anyone who is unfortunately not performing. So that gives the confidence to the other player to come back in the next game.
“We are very clear now. People were mentally tough earlier as well. I am not saying we were not tough, but getting clear is really important; clear about our roles, why we are playing in the team, what’s my role in the team. You should realise that very soon.”
Pandit is someone who is famous as a hard taskmaster in the domestic circuit, but the captain feels that’s exactly what his side needed. “Sometimes you need a hunter to guide the horse,” says Fazal. “That’s necessary and you can see the results now. The whole team is performing now, not only with the bat and the ball but in the field as well.”
Gurbani, the team’s leading wicket-taker, backs his captain’s statement. “When we got to know Chandu sir has been appointed as the coach, we heard the stories that he will either make you do it or will make you leave cricket. I wanted someone like this only because I don’t want to stay in between.”
“The emotions he shows motivates me so much,” says Gurbani. “He would say ‘How can we lose? We have to win only.’ And that gives so much inspiration that the coach, who doesn’t have anything in his hands, is doing so much. We have everything in our hands and that motivates us to give our best.”
Vidarbha have won six of the eight matches they played this season, while two have been draws. In a format, where sometimes only the first-innings lead is sufficient, Vidarbha have almost always pressed for a win.
Without going into any detail, Fazal revealed that the preparation for that had started much before the tournament commenced.
“Even before coming into the tournament, we had many match simulations,” says Fazal, giving a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work. “We could have batted the whole day in the quarterfinals (against Kerala) when we were batting third. We could have said let’s bat, and make it a draw, anyway we have taken the first-innings lead.
“But we thought to have another victory. The victory thing always puts the other team under pressure. Winning is a habit and we are getting into that.”
Gurbani, who had played just four first-class games before this season, also narrates an interesting story how he kept himself motivated off the field. “When we used to have the endurance day in the gym, we used to motivate each other while lifting weights by saying, ‘increase ten kilos (weight) more, imagine Vidarbha need one more spell from you to reach the final’.
“The aim of our whole group is to win the final. Whenever I practised pre-season as well, I used to think we have to become the champions. That gave me a lot of motivation.”
But one last hurdle – or two as Fazal puts it – is yet to be crossed.
“We still need one more win, it’s a very crucial game and if we win that we will play Irani (Trophy) as well. So actually, we are looking for two more games,” exudes a confident Fazal.
“The aim is yet to be achieved, so we are still very grounded. Going into the finals, we are very clear-minded. The pattern of playing, the planning is very simple. The five days will be really crucial for us. How we play, how we show our character … showing that courage will be really important.”
It was their courage and character that saw them home against Karnataka. They’ll hope for an encore against Delhi.