MP recover from sting-operation scars
Towards the end of the previous Ranji Trophy, Madhya Pradesh cricket was on its way upward. After having finished second in the Elite Group B, MP had given heavyweights Mumbai a scare before bowing out in the quarter-finals. Allrounder Jalaj Saxena was on the verge of becoming an India A regular. With medium-pacer TP Sudhindra ending the season as the second-highest wicket-taker, there was every reason to smile for the MP cricket fraternity. Moreover, with as many as six MP players on various IPL franchises' rosters, things were looking rosy for the state.
And then, tragedy struck.
After India TV, a news channel, revealed the dark side of Indian cricket in a sting operation, the BCCI punished five domestic cricketers, including two from MP. While Sudhindra was banned for life after being found guilty of "receiving a consideration to spot-fix" in a domestic game, Mohnish Mishra was suspended for a year for bringing cricket into disrepute through "loose talk and unsubstantiated bragging".
Not only did the episode put an abrupt end to the career of a promising swing bowler, it also put question marks over the ethics of domestic cricketers. Most importantly, from being close to repeating their feats of being a force to reckon with, MP were back to square one going into the new domestic season. With Sudhindra unavailable and Mishra on the sidelines for a year, it was the most challenging season MP were going to face.
"We had lost two of our most prolific performers. While one was undoubtedly our pace spearhead, the other was the backbone of our middle-order batting," Devendra Bundela, the MP captain, says. "We knew that it was going to be a hell of a season for all of us, the players, the support staff and the selectors."
After all this, with three rounds remaining in the league stage, MP are again in contention for a place in the knockouts. It seems to be a feat no less than a remarkable one after the tumultuous times they have faced.
The fruits haven't been reaped without efforts having been put in on the field and behind the scenes. "It (the sting) came as a shock for all of us, but we knew we had no choice but to put it behind us. When it came to the Ranji season, we realised it was all the more necessary for us to play as a team. We had to back each other and we had to cover up for each other's failures as well," Mukesh Sahni, the MP coach and former player, says.
What was important was to not over-emphasise the sting operation and its aftermath into the players' minds going into the season. As a result, even though the players were cautioned against talking to strangers, there wasn't much emphasis on how to avoid being caught in a wrongdoing or not to be indisciplined off the field. Sahni adds the fact that the sting operation came during the off-season was a kind of boon for them. "Had something like this happened during the middle of the domestic season, the team would have collapsed, but here we had time on our hands. And we had to ensure we utilised it well."
One of the first tasks for Sahni and Bundela was to zero in on the core group, the one that could help MP justify their tag of being among the top teams in the previous season of the premier domestic championship. This meant the captain, the coach and the selectors had to be on the same page. And they had to give confidence to youngsters like Zafar Ali, the top-order batsman and Rameez Khan, who has emerged as a potential allrounder.
"Whether by choice or compulsion, we knew this was the best we had at our disposal and we had to make do with it," Narendra Hirwani, the MP chief selector, says. "Once we had finalised the top 20 or 25 players, the task was relatively easier. No way were we going to find replacements for any of the two players. What we were looking for is those who could excel together as a team."
One of the major challenges was to not let the issue of Sudhindra and Mishra crop up in the dressing room time and again. That didn't mean players were barred from keeping in touch with them. "Sudhindra and I were the best of friends," medium-pacer Anand Rajan says. "And I was sitting with him in the same room when the sting broke on TV. At first, I was shocked. He said he is being framed and left the room in a hurry. In no time, it was crystal-clear what it was. Mohnish, we all know, has a habit of bragging about himself and it seems to have cost him one precious year."
So when was the last time Rajan spoke with them? "Sudhindra has hardly kept in touch. Once in a while, he says "hi" on BBM, but Mohnish is in touch with almost all of us. We even discuss how a day [on the field] has gone and what could be done to enhance our performance."
This season, it was up to the seasoned players, such as Rajan and Naman Ojha, to be more consistent and lead by example. Even though Ojha, the wicketkeeper-batsman, faltered in curbing his naturally aggressive instincts at the start of the season, he managed to do that in the second innings against Rajasthan in Jaipur.
"I have to be more responsible and occupy the crease as long as I can. Though I haven't converted as many fifties into hundreds so far, if I can do that, it would be wonderful for the team," Ojha says.
When it came to quick bowling, Rajan not only had to work in tandem with young Ishwar Pandey but also had to groom him. And within the first half of the season, Pandey, with his sheer pace and ability to extract bounce, has shown that he can indeed lead the MP attack. He has taken 31 wickets, the most behind Himachal Pradesh's Rishi Dhawan, at an average of 20.25. "It's important for me to be consistent," says Pandey, who has trained at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. "If I have to keep on doing as well as I am expected to, all I have to do is to stick to the basics. And the results will follow."
Sudhindra might be a bygone; Mishra might be experiencing an extended nightmare. But instead of digging itself into a dark hole, the MP team is marching towards the rising sun. By the end of the season, we will know whether they have succeeded in their endeavour.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo