How the 'Alex Ferguson of the Ranji Trophy' moulded Madhya Pradesh into a title-winning unit

The winning moment: Madhya Pradesh players are ecstatic after winning their maiden Ranji Trophy title PTI

"Maybe this was God's way of telling me that I deserve it after 23 years."

An emotional Chandrakant Pandit reflects on Madhya Pradesh's maiden Ranji Trophy title win, the morning after. He narrowly missed out on lifting the coveted trophy as captain in 1998-99, and the feeling of winning it as coach at the same venue of that heartbreak hasn't fully sunk in yet.

But, instead of waking up at 2.36am, like he did on the fifth day of the Ranji final on Sunday, a relaxed Pandit has woken up after sunrise. A disciplinarian when it comes to keeping time, he is ready at 8.45am sharp, the time of our meeting.

Entering Pandit's hotel room feels a bit like entering the school principal's office. If someone is summoned, even at short notice, they are expected almost immediately.

"I never ask a player, 'can you come to my room if you're free'," Pandit says as he sips his morning coffee. "If we're on a mission, I expect them to be fully committed. That was a routine we had throughout the season."

The vibes post the Ranji triumph are different, though. There are no traces of notebooks, whiteboard, stationery and everything else you'd associate with Pandit's team meetings in the drawing room of his hotel suite.

The party from the previous night, where Pandit let the boys "enjoy freedom for a change", hasn't had a spillover effect on his schedule though. Meetings are lined up through the day with several Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA) officials, even as he is continuously flooded with calls from journalists and well-wishers. In the evening there's a flight to catch to Indore, for a grand reception.

Does he really have a chance to put his feet up and rest?

"We'll first ask Chandu sir to laugh out loud," a beaming Aditya Shrivastava had said at the post-match media conference on Sunday. "He's at work at any given time of the day or night. If any of the boys are eager or need help, he's always ready. Full intensity. We'll ask him to enjoy with us today."

Much of the narrative surrounding MP's success has revolved around Pandit, and understandably so. Dinesh Karthik called him the Alex Ferguson of the Ranji Trophy. Irfan Pathan wondered if Pandit's sixth Ranji title as coach would translate into an IPL coaching gig. Abhinav Mukund felt he has a magic wand.

Pandit has quietly soaked all of it in, knowing fully well his methods work only because his unheralded teams - that is, unheralded barring Mumbai - buy into his methods wholeheartedly, even if it isn't easy.

"Aditya [Shrivastava] was supposed to get married last year and asked me, 'sir, which date should I pick?' I told him only in June and that too only for two-three days, you will not get time to go on your honeymoon because we had started our preparations." Chandrakant Pandit's methods might not be for everyone

Pandit won the Ranji Trophy as coach with Mumbai in 2002-03, 2003-04 and 2015-16, then shepherded Vidarbha to their maiden Ranji title in 2017-18, and then incredibly helped them defend it 2018-19. He was also director of cricket at Rajasthan when they defended their title - again, only their second ever - in 2011-12.

His journey as MP coach began in 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. He was mulling offers from three teams when MP joined the queue. The itch to banish the ghosts from 1998-99 - something that comes up regularly during our chat - had him sign up with his old state side.

"I was at my village in March 2020 when Sanjeev Rao, the MPCA secretary, called me," Pandit remembers. "Someone had told him I was taking a break after my stint with Vidarbha. I thought why not go back to MP. After all, I'd played six years for them. Then the thought of missing out on winning the Ranji Trophy in 1998-99 came to me. Maybe it was God's way of telling me to accept the offer."

He signed up, with a few terms and conditions clearly laid out. Among them were being given a free hand in selection and total freedom to run the show his way.

When he got down to work, he interviewed every single MP probable. "Around 150 for Ranji," he says. These interviews would add up to days, weeks even, but it was a vital building block for Pandit. His impressions of each of the players he spoke to are all neatly tucked away in his office at the Holkar Stadium.

In it are details such as his first impressions of the players, how they had progressed as cricketers, and the road map ahead. I ask him if any players have turned his early impressions of them wholly around. He cites the example of Venkatesh Iyer, whom he found hesitant to begin with.

"Iyer used to bat at No. 6 and invariably score 20 not out, 24 not out," he says. "I kept telling him in between he's good enough to be an opener.

"He asked, 'if I fail what happens?' I said while I'm around here, nothing will happen. Then he asked, 'what happens once you go?' I said by then you will cement your place. Now, he's with the Indian team and it's all his efforts."

The move up the order worked wonders for Iyer. He topped MP's T20 run charts in the 2020-21 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, with 227 runs in five innings at an average of 75.66 and a strike rate of 149.34. Then, in the one-day competition, the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he hit a blistering 146-ball 198 against Punjab that helped Madhya Pradesh amass 402 for 3.

Iyer is one of many such examples. There's Yash Dubey who hadn't opened in 28 innings prior to this season. In his first outing at the top, he made a career-best 289 against Kerala and then, three games later, another century in the final. Himanshu Mantri was also similarly pushed up to open alongside Dubey.

Pacer Ishwar Pandey's issues with injuries forced Pandit to look elsewhere. When the selection committee proposed Anubhav Agarwal, it took him few practice games to be convinced here was a ready replacement.

"I asked the players their preferences when we conducted these interviews," Pandit says. "Aditya said he was shunted up and down the order. I said, 'you tell me what number you'd like Let's decide now'. He said, I'd like to bat five. Then I gave the option to Shubham Sharma to open, he said 'I'd love to bat at three'. We fixed that.

"Rajat Patidar used to bat three when Shubham hadn't played a couple of games. I told him, 'Rajat I need you at No. 4'. He said I'd love to bat three. Then I told him he's our run-getter and if our opening stand is good, he can really do some damage in the middle order. I told him there's security, and he won't be dropped.

"I told Himanshu Mantri I'm looking at you as an opener. I liked his technique, the temperament of leaving the ball. The idea was to fix up a number and get the fear out of the players. Akshat Raghuwanshi, the 18-year-old, I said go out and play your game. I don't want him to lose his flair."

Pandit is clear there's only a "little leeway" for those who don't buy his methods but are still beneficial to the team. This isn't because of ego, but because he wants everyone - senior or junior - to abide by the same rules.

Much of his ideas are hard-taskmaster-like, and you wonder if it comes at a risk of the players not thinking for themselves. Pandit clarifies he isn't one bit averse to players speaking up, even if he finds them hesitant.

"Now they're slowly opening up and giving their views," he says. "Many times, during a game I keep a board and ask the players to write their observations. They're free to write what they feel, and we talk about it later.

"It's just to educate them instead of just me passing on ideas. If a partnership is on, I ask them to write things like what they could've done better. It's totally anonymous, I don't go to that part of the dressing room. I don't want them to write with the pressure of what I will think.

"This final was the only game where I handled the board. I didn't want them to waste time on that. The learning process in a league phase is different, in the final I can't have such discussions. I can't be diverting their attention to what they should be writing on the board when there's a game to win."

I ask him if this style could work outside the domestic system. "At the international level, you have players matured enough to understand things and support staff to guide you accordingly," he says. "In domestic cricket, one person [is enough to] convey his methods easily. I don't have a bowling or batting coach. Too many things can confuse a player. The grasping ability of [young] players isn't the same at the domestic level."

As well as he has delivered over the years, Pandit's methods aren't for everyone. It has worked wonders at MP, like it did with Vidarbha, because they are teams that come with a tremendous hunger to topple the bigger teams like Mumbai, Karnataka and Delhi.

Pandit admits success comes at the cost of several sacrifices. In a cut-throat world, he sees no other way.

"I remember Aditya [Shrivastava] was supposed to get married last year and asked me, 'sir, which date should I pick?' I told him only in June and that too only for two-three days, you will not get time to go on your honeymoon because we had started our preparations."

Shrivastava grins cheekily in response. "It has been a year since I got married and I have still not gone on my honeymoon."

Even if this leaves him quietly disappointed, he isn't going to let it show. He has bought into Pandit's methods wholeheartedly. The rest of the team has followed along too, and the results are there for everyone to see.