Madhya Pradesh's captain Aditya Shrivastava and head coach Chandrakant Pandit kiss the Ranji Trophy | PTI
Interestingly the Ranji trophy cricket final this year was held in June, a month that brings to a cricket fan’s mind myriad images of one of India’s greatest moments in the sport. 39 years ago in England on a June Saturday settings at the Lords ground, India scripted a landmark in cricket history by winning the World Cup by beating the mighty West Indies in a pulsating final. Until then, nobody could believe that India would go so far as to achieve what seemed an impossible feat! David indeed had conquered the Goliath. Considering it, West Indies then was the most feared team in world cricket, and it was an outstanding achievement by an inspired team.
Madhya Pradesh’s maiden Ranji title win seemed to follow the same theme, in that, at least on paper, a title aspirant had outdone a mighty champion with a great cricket legacy that Mumbai has always been! The effort here is not to compare the two great cricketing moments, much less belittle the world cup triumph. The World Cup win was a class apart and a phenomenal one at that. The Bangalore happening was not just about the gumption of a side that had beaten a 41-time champion Mumbai, but as it turned out, the Ranji contest had come about during the same week of June when yet another anniversary of that Lords’ win was going by! An underdog team had toppled a redoubtable opponent.
It was in every sense a dream finish for MP and also a realisation of a dream for Coach Chandrakant Pandit, a former Test player. Such was Mumbai’s confidence level that even after MP had taken its first innings score past Mumbai’s and posted a good lead, the former did not see Red so to say. None personified this more than the season’s highest wicket-taker Shams Mulani. The Mumbai spinner, who had a five-wicket haul in the first innings, felt that his team had the time to turn the match around on the last day on a wearing-out pitch. But then nothing of that sort happened as MP did not need to settle for a first-innings lead to record its historic win but instead an outright six-wicket effort. It was an all-around show, and MP players proved cricket flourishes in a big way in that state too, and it deserved national recognition.
For Pandit, it was another glittering occasion. Having pocketed five wins earlier, with Mumbai and Vidharba teams, this latest added to his growing stature as a top-class coach. What is more, it was a realisation of a dream that had sprung 23 years ago. Pandit was then leading the MP side, and it had played the final against Karnataka at the same Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore. A title-win had seemed within the grasp then, but MP's batting crumbled and crashed out on the final day, and the disappointment had never left him. The redemption, so to say, had come about in style and at the same venue even if not against the same opponent or in the role of a player.
What more would one ask of a coach! MP did not have the services of pacer Avesh Khan and all-rounder Venkatesh Iyer, both on national duty, and yet the state team never gave the impression of being weaker for that. Pandit believed in the strength of collective work and self-belief and that is why players like Yash Dubey (batsman), Kumar Kartikeya (spinner), Rajat Patidar (batsman), Akshat Raghuwanshi (18-year old batsman), Gaurav Yadav (medium pacer) and Shubham Sharma (batsman) had to be proud of their mentor. Come to the occasion, and there were enough resources to draw upon. The final proved that with MP batsmen on that last day’s pitch not allowing jitters to overtake them even though the target was not imposing.
MP’s win perhaps opens up a door of opportunities for teams that were once considered unfancied. Records show that since 2010, Rajasthan and Vidharba (twice each), Gujarat, Saurashtra and now MP have entered the honours list, all relative newcomers to high honours. Down south Kerala had one of its best times in the Ranji championship when it reached the semi-final in 2019 for the first time. Beating Gujarat, which had well-known players like Parthiv Patel, Axar Patel and Piyush Chawla among others was no small task. Sachin Baby’s team achieved this and naturally, the dreams are bigger now. A former state player and one of the best to represent Kerala, K Jayaraman believed that the 2019-show put Kerala cricket in a different perspective. “It was an outstanding effort”, he said while underlining the high talent the state had to move forward.
Indeed, times have changed. A few decades earlier, when Jayaraman himself was an active player Kerala had always been at the receiving end not because of a lack of skilful players but because the settings were such that opportunities were few to exhibit that. In the midst of leading teams of South then, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Hyderabad, states like Kerala and Andhra were considered weaklings, or so it seemed then. Gathering maximum points from these weak teams was the top priority, and the leading teams knew the way!
Much has happened since. Ranji format has changed, facilities have improved, players' awareness has grown, and ambitions have too. Kerala has already given Indian cricket talents like Tinu Yohannan and S. Sreesanth. Sanju Samson is currently in focus. Surely more will follow and perhaps inspire Kerala cricket as also other aspirants to greater heights like what MP has shown!