Battered, bruised Tiwary keeps Bengal's Ranji dream burning

Manoj Tiwary tries to get his field right CAB

Manoj Tiwary has played through a broken finger, damaged cartilages in his right knee and a troublesome back all because he's forever dreaming of winning the Ranji Trophy.

It's his only reason to continue playing domestic cricket at 37. It's the only reason he readily accepted the Bengal captaincy for a third time, when it was known Abhimanyu Easwaran wasn't going to be available for the initial part of the group stages because of national commitments.

"Three years ago, I didn't want to leave captaincy, because I believed I'd given so much time to it and we were at a stage where all the youngsters who were given opportunities were starting to come up," Tiwary told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the quarter-final against Jharkhand at Eden Gardens starting Tuesday.

"I thought it would've been nice to continue. But because the selectors told me we they want a younger captain for Ranji, I thought it was best I step away from white-ball formats too, because I didn't want a new captain coming in and not having complete command or control of the team. And that can happen in domestic cricket with split-captaincy.

"So, I stepped aside to give Abhimanyu a free rein. But when he wasn't available initially this season and I was asked, I wasn't expecting it, but I agreed to do the job because Ranji Trophy means a lot to me and it's one thing I've been after. The very reason I'm playing is because of lifting that coveted trophy."

Bengal came close two years ago but were pipped by Saurashtra in the final. Last year, they lost to eventual champions Madhya Pradesh in the semi-final. This time around, Tiwary believes they have the squad and personnel to go all the way. Especially now that Shahbaz Ahmed is back from India duties and is certain to make the XI.

"In terms of squad strength, we have quality from top to bottom," Tiwary said. "Players are aware of their roles; they've gained an understanding of their game and there's a sense of freedom that you can see. We weren't known to be intimidating earlier with our performances, but now the guys have brought in that attitude to the field which is refreshing to see."

There are a couple of concerns though. Middle-order batter Anustup Majumdar suffered a finger injury while fielding in their final league game against Odisha and fast bowler Akash Deep is recovering from a concussion he sustained in the same match. Bengal will hope both of them pull up well in time for the quarter-final. Mukesh Kumar, who wasn't named in the Bengal squad for the quarter-final, is expected to join them in time for the match after being released from the India T20I squad that's currently playing New Zealand.

Among the things Tiwary has focused on personally is to help create a spirit of togetherness, which he believes wasn't always there even if there wasn't any friction within the group.

"I used to see a lot of other teams and wonder what it is that they have that we don't, and I figured we didn't have the same camaraderie," Tiwary said. "So, when I took over as captain, this is something I worked on building and improving. Without that you can't turn around games like we did against Uttar Pradesh [they were 55 for 6 in their first innings] and against Baroda [who they bundled out for 98 after conceding a potentially decisive lead before winning]."

Wherever they've gone this season, Tiwary has ensured a huge cut out of the Ranji Trophy is pasted on all the walls of their dressing room. He's ensured the Bengal flag flies behind the team at practice and at matches.

"Like what Pakistan introduced, I loved the idea of carrying our flag onto the practice facility, and place it firmly behind us," Tiwary said. "Then we've ensured we're seeing the Ranji Trophy and big cut-outs and posters in our dressing room every day, so that the players see it the first thing they enter the dressing room. It's there, staring at them.

"When we've been down in a session and suddenly you see it staring at you, that motivation is there to give a little extra. It's small things like these that could make a difference. We say verbally representing Bengal is a big thing, but visibly if you have something, a goal in front of your eyes, that pushes you to give a lot more. These things have been helpful."

Another aspect Tiwary has been mindful of along with new coach Laxmi Ratan Shukla is communication. Players who are not part of the XI are told well in advance what the thinking is. Others are backed, age being the least of their criteria. It explains why Majumdar at 38 continues to be a pillar of their batting along with Tiwary. It's why Pritam Chakraborty, the offspinner, made a comeback after eight years in the wilderness.

"Communication with players is clear, they understand what needs to be done," Tiwary said. "This season, if we have left out someone, we've told them of the plan. I don't want negative energy, I've suffered from lack of communication in my career. I didn't want players to experience the same. If you tell them early, then there's clarity. They may be sad, but I expect them to come fresh to the ground. In a team, if someone isn't happy, it affects the entire group. Positive vibes is important for a team to do well."

It has helped that there has been an excellent working relationship between Tiwary and the coach Shukla. "The partnership has been really good," Tiwary said. "He completely trusts my decision-making and has left the on-field cricketing matters to me. We've been able to back on-field decision with results so that helps. I have a like-minded wavelength. When I'm here in the team, I love to take responsibility and work with the youngsters. And he's been welcoming of that.

"We both think alike in that sense. What bowlers or batters should do - the rapport has been good. So, we have that understanding. During Arun Lal's time [as Bengal coach], I was around but I felt my experience wasn't tapped into, I can't remember times when my opinion was sought or inputs towards players, so I took a step back and started working on my game. Everyone has their methods, and I understood that. But LRS [Shukla] has utilised my experience. That's been really nice this time around."