Pandit's vision for big prize fuels Vidarbha's dream

Vidarbha players hoist their head coach Chandrakant Pandit on their shoulders PTI

Soon after arriving in Nagpur and signing the contract to take over from Paras Mhambrey as Vidarbha's head coach at the start of the season, Chandrakant Pandit asked the state association's vice-president Prashant Vaidya: "What happens to the prize money?"

Vaidya thought he hadn't heard Pandit right and asked: "Kaunsa prize money [what prize money]?" Pandit was clear in his head and told Vaidya he was referring to the prize money the Ranji Trophy champions are entitled to. His planning of winning the Ranji Trophy had begun even before he had met the players.

It started in his head, in his attitude, in his thinking. He had already won the title with Mumbai as a player and coach, but this Vidarbha team hadn't even reached semi-finals in their past 60 attempts. Pandit knew the Mumbai khadoos attitude was not going to be enough, he had to be bloody-minded.

"I started believing [that we could win the trophy] on the first day he [Pandit] came to Nagpur," Vaidya recalls. "When he asked me about the prize money on the first day, I said, 'Of course we will share the prize money'. This man was already thinking of winning the trophy, so I thought Vidarbha will definitely have a good season."

The seeds of Vidarbha's success, however, were sown many years ago, right at the grassroots levels. The efforts took time and included chasing Pandit for "six-seven years".

After a forgettable Ranji Trophy campaign in 2013-14, in which they managed just a solitary win in eight matches, Vidarbha made it to the quarter-finals for the next two seasons. The encouraging results had a positive effect on their junior cricket too: in January 2017, Vidarbha's Under-16 side lifted the Vijay Merchant Trophy at the same venue where the senior side would go on to lift their maiden Ranji Trophy crown.

"The process takes time," Vaidya says. "We started somewhere in 2009, when we got the residential academy working. Last year we did well with the juniors, this year as well. Of course, Chandu's presence has got us here. I have been after him for six-seven years. For some reason or the other we could not get him. This year fortunately we got him and the results are there."

Pandit had been occupied throughout. He spent the last two seasons coaching Mumbai, the 41-time champions. He helped mastermind their most-recent title success, when they beat Saurashtra inside three days in the final in February 2016. He was replaced by Sameer Dighe for the want of "fresh faces and fresh outlook" after the side finished runners-up last season. While he stayed on to coach the side for the limited-overs competitions, a decision had been made.

The sacking was ironic because his approach led to the unearthing of a number of talented cricketers. During his stint as Director of Cricket Operations at Kerala, Sanju Samson and Basil Thampi came through the ranks. When he moved to Mumbai, teen sensation Prithvi Shaw burst onto the scene, making a century on first-class debut during the 2016-17 Ranji semi-final against Tamil Nadu. Shreyas Iyer too hit the high notes with Mumbai, becoming the highest run-getter in a victorious 2015-16 season.

Now with Vidarbha for the first time, he handed 19-year-old Aditya Thakare, the fast bowler, a first-class debut in the final. Thakare, who was named as one of the reserves in India's Under-19 World Cup squad, stepped up with a wicket in his first over with an outswinger. When the pitch eased out in the second innings, Delhi were showing signs of taking a bigger lead. Even though Thakare picked up no wickets this time around, he bowled with the new and old ball with precision and conceded only 14 runs in his 12 overs, including six maidens.

"I would say that the credit for Aditya Thakare goes to Prashant Vaidya," Pandit says. "He was talking to me about Thakare for maybe the last two-three games and I was not very keen, to be honest. Being an Under-19 boy, giving him an opportunity in the knockout phase would have probably put pressure on him.

"But he [Vaidya] told me: 'Why don't you take him to the final and have a look at him?' It really motivated me after looking at his performance for two days in the nets. Then I spoke to Faiz [Fazal, the captain] and he was also very impressed and said, 'Sir, we should go with him'. The same type of history that you are talking about with Prithvi Shaw. Milind Rege, who was the chairman of the Mumbai selection committee, did the same thing that Prashant did. That clicked, so I thought this will also click. That is why I said let's go [with him]."

Vidarbha needed a fast bowler in the final because Umesh Yadav had to leave for South Africa after his subdued performance in the semi-final against Karnataka. Rajneesh Gurbani had already given them an edge with his match-winning performances of 12 wickets in the semi-final and seven in the quarter-final. He usually delivers better once the SG ball gets older. Now they needed a bowler who could move the new ball around too. Vidarbha had the option of going back to Lalit Yadav, who played seven out of their eight matches before the final, but Fazal thought Thakare had the "x-factor" they needed.

Along the way, Pandit also laid emphasis on team unity and bonding. Ganesh Satish, a professional who came over from Karnataka after scoring a century in the final that they won in 2013-14, feels the transformation in their focus on excellence and not tolerating mediocre results has also helped.

"I think apart from bringing in the discipline, the relaxed nature was thrown out of the dressing room," Satish says. "Nobody could relax anymore, everyone had to be focused and determined, and everyone had that one goal of winning the trophy. Mediocre performances were not tolerated and everyone had to deliver."

Pandit firmly believes a team needs to stick together for several reasons, whether it shows in the results or not. "Basically, every team success is because of unity," Pandit explains. "When you don't do well, people say there is no unity. But it is not that way. The support staff were also equally contributing. Subroto Banerjee, the bowling coach, helped a great deal. If you look at the performance of the bowlers, especially fast bowlers, Gurbani has been taking so many wickets. That has also helped us in the dressing room.

"Wasim Jaffer, Ganesh Satish, Karn Sharma, these are senior players, they have been role models in the dressing room. Akshay Wakhare is also there, [Akshay] Wadkar has peformed, [Aditya] Sarwate has performed. All these senior cricketers are in the dressing room and they pass on this very positive energy. They [the young players] have been watching them playing. We are grooming the youngsters.

"I am very thankful to the [VCA] president and Prashant for giving us three extra players in the squad to groom them for the future. They can share in the experience of the dressing room, the captain can groom them. You see the young boy Thakare coming through. You could see the change, that a young boy is playing in the Ranji final. That makes a lot of difference."

Satish was the third player in the dressing room to have won a Ranji title earlier, apart from Pandit and Jaffer. These three and Banerjee combined as the senior forces this time, to work out how to take them past that quarter-final barrier. The coaching staff assigned specific roles to the players, Jaffer worked with the bowlers and not just with the batsmen, match simulations were held to tackle the pressure situations.

"They [the coaching staff] were very clear in terms of what roles were given," Satish says. "This year there was something different. I felt definitely this team had something special in it - especially when we won that game against Bengal in Kalyani, we beat them at their home ground, I thought then that we had something different this year. If you see the previous years, our away performances were not that great but this year, beating Punjab in Mohali and then Bengal at their home ground... that gave us a lot of belief that we could beat the top sides."

Vidarbha ended the season in such fashion that they had three batsmen among the top 10 run-scorers of the season: openers Faiz Fazal and R Sanjay in second and third positions respectively, and Satish at eighth. On the chart of top wicket-takers, Gurbani shot up to second place, offspinner Wakhare was fourth and left-arm spinner Sarwate at 11th.

Pandit knows his task is not over yet. Apart from winning the Irani Cup - played between the Ranji champions and a rest of India side - next, he wants to stretch this winning habit and make it sustainable season after season. He wants Vidarbha to become a force to reckon with.

Vaidya said: "About the future as such, it's more about consistency, that is what personally we would like to achieve. And see that there is constant flow of cricketers coming through and graduating to higher levels. That is the process we have started and that is the structure we want to build."

Vidarbha will now continue to dream with the clarity Pandit has given them. The state association, meanwhile, can think of what needs to be done with the prize money they win.