Minutes after Madhya Pradesh won the Ranji Trophy, a tweet by India cricketer Dinesh Karthik went viral. It was a simple congratulatory message but the last line was telling, where he termed Chandrakant Pandit as ‘Sir Alex Ferguson of Indian domestic cricket’. Ferguson was arguably one of the greatest managers in the history of club football. Someone, whose tactical nous made Manchester United a global brand in the satellite television era. Karthik was trying to create an analogy with Pandit’s ‘Midas Touch’, which transformed a middle-rung domestic team like MP into national champions.
So what went into making MP a formidable domestic side? Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither did Pandit have a ‘magic wand’ that changed things overnight.
It was two years of meticulous planning, understanding the structure, securing co-operation from the establishment and last but not the least – successful implementation of ideas.
Few years back, former India Test wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta — one of Bengal’s finest captains (led the state to back-to-back Ranji Trophy finals) — said something about success at the Ranji level which fits perfectly with Pandit’s modus operandi.
“Ranji Trophy is very different from Test cricket although it might look structurally the same. There is a very specific code of how teams win Ranji Trophy. Once you crack that code, you will always be playing semi-finals, finals or even win the trophy as Chandu bhai did with Vidarbha,” Dasgupta had said back then.
Ranji Trophy is like CBSE board exam where you need to get a few areas right — three standard batters, one solid spinner, preferably left-arm and a good new ball pair. Even if you don’t win the championship, you are there or thereabout.
Test cricket is like IIT JEE or CAT (where you need to score 99.9 percentile) in order to get into the coveted IIMs.
For all those who think that Pandit with his enviable CV would have worked wonders at international level, it may not be the case. He is cut out for domestic cricket and with teams that do not pander to superstar culture.
He changed MP’s fortune based on three guiding principles.
One is his understanding of ‘history’ and state’s cricket culture. He knew what needed to be done in present, keeping an eye on future.
Madhya Pradesh might have won the title in 2022 but it was in 2010 when the MPCA State Cricket Academy in Indore became functional that things started changing.
It was former BCCI joint secretary and national selector Sanjay Jagdale, a former domestic player of repute and the heart and soul of MP cricket, who tried to bring in professionalism.
Indore was always the heartbeat of state’s cricket with its competitive club culture but it was Jagdale who understood that decentralisation was needed to tap more talent and one needs to spread the game beyond Indore and Bhopal.
With BCCI’s annual grants, MPCA constructed full sized grounds in places like Sagar, Rewa, Jabalpur and Hosangabad with a lot of age-group level tournaments.
“The best of the talent were then absorbed by the state cricket academy which took care of their cricketing expenses and exposure along with quality coaching,” Jagdale’s voice had a sense of satisfaction although he is no longer part of administration.
The likes of Rajat Patidar, Venkatesh Iyer, Avesh Khan along with the Yash Dubeys, Shubham Sharmas, teenager Akshat Raghuvanshi, Gourav Yadavs, skipper Aditya Shrivastava, Anubhav Agarwals are all products of the system.
MP was a good team but it was Pandit, who brought about changes that were required to transform it into a champion team, after joining as coach in 2020-21 season.
There was solid resistance from some quarters against Pandit’s appointment as he is believed to be a “stubborn man” and “autocratic” as some would allege.
“Actually, some people thought that a guy like Chandu, who has no baggage or agenda will stall everyone with vested interest and hence didn’t want him. But better sense prevailed,” said Jagdale, who did have a role in convincing the .
The first thing that Pandit did was to co-opt himself in selection committee meetings, from senior to all age-groups. He made it clear that he will watch matches of U-19, U-25 along with his core assignment of Ranji Trophy team.
This was for trying to understand the history and present.
MP teams over the years have been plagued by internal association politics which became detrimental to choosing a solid team.
There would be five or six quality players but selectors would succumb to request of officials and include players of inferior quality which affected the team balance.
Pandit took the team sheet and red-marked all those players who have played less than 10 matches in the last five seasons.
“If you are playing six games in six seasons and happy to just carry the drinks, sorry boss, you are not in my scheme of things. I removed all such players, who are happy to be in the fringes. I wanted players, who are always ready to play in the eleven,” Pandit said.
So the solution was to sit in the selection meetings and not to disrespect selectors, Pandit would come with a sheet of paper and give 15 names he felt can play any game at any time. That was the second guiding principle.
Did it hurt selectors’ egos? Of course it did but for once they swallowed it for the greater good of the state team and result is there for everyone to see.
How did this work? Well, MP missed four frontline pacers – Avesh Khan (national duty), Ishwar Pandey (injury), Puneet Datey (literally out of semis and didn’t play final) and IPL sensation Kuldeep Sen (not fully fit before final).
Gourav Yadav and Anubhav Agarwal were basically fifth and sixth choice seam bowlers, who choked Mumbai in the final.
This is the bench strength he created getting rid of below-average players.
The third principle was about creating a future and he found a young captain in Aditya Shrivastava, who was ready to become a sponge and soak in all information and implement his tactics to the ‘T’.
In a bigger team, the skipper would apply his own mind but here but Aditya was ready to surrender.
It was his eye for talent that got him an 18-year-old Akshat Raghuvanshi during an age-group trial game where he decided to become an “umpire”.
Raghuvanshi was plumb leg before during the match but a few of his shots had impressed Pandit so much that he didn’t give him “out”.
He wanted to watch him more and by the end of the game had decided that he is ready for Ranji Trophy.
Raghuvanshi is already a part of U-19 NCA and if there is an India U-19 assignment this year, he would be a part of that set-up.
Also MP is a team that doesn’t have superstars. Avesh, Venkatesh or star in the making Patidar have serious potential but they aren’t prima donnas yet.
At the Ranji level, you need a committed bunch of reasonably decent cricketers to stay with you for the whole season and ready to listen to every word that coach says. The association just needs to trust.
Vidarbha did that and now MP has done that for Pandit. That’s why Delhi, which has produced so many India cricketers, has not won the blue riband tourney for a dozen years.
Chandrakant Pandit is always ‘madness’ but there was always a method to his madness.
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