The guide behind Saurashtra's rise
Saurashtra have had four men constantly overlooking their progress during the last decade or so: Niranjan Shah at the helm the administration, Jaydev Shah as the captain, Shitanshu Kotak as the batting mainstay and Debu Mitra as the coach.
Niranjan Shah has been hailed for his administrative qualities, his son Jaydev has been scrutinised for his patchy batting form, and Kotak, who plays his 129th first-class game on Saturday, is the most senior cricketer on the domestic circuit. They get their share of the limelight.
Mitra, however, hasn't received much attention, after converting Saurashtra from no-hopers to title contenders in nine seasons. He doesn't mind others taking the recognition; he's been on the domestic circuit for almost five decades now.
Coaches increasingly make their presence known during the course of the game these days, but Mitra is old school and refrains from it. Ever since he was seen with the Saurashtra team for the first time, during the 2005-06 Plate Group semi-final against Madhya Pradesh, his second season with the then West Zone minnows, Mitra hasn't changed.
Once the captain takes the field with his team Mitra, dressed in a tracksuit with his customary floppy hat, would sit either just outside the dressing room or yards away from the boundary line. Though he wouldn't mind discussing the game and team tactics during the day, he never shouts at the captain or passes on any instruction. However, if the captain walks up to him, advice is as fluent as Cheteshwar Pujara's cover drive.
"Cricket is a game that's to be run by the captain, so my job is to make the team ready for the game and then let the captain run the show," Mitra, a former Bengal batsman and coach, said. "I am always available for advice but I will never impose myself on the captain or the team. That is not my style."
The latest example of his method was in Saurashtra's Ranji Trophy semi-final against Punjab at the Khandheri stadium in Rajkot last week. With Punjab pursuing Saurashtra's first-innings score of 477, at tea on the third day, Jaydev walked up to Mitra and said, "I think we should take the new ball."
"We must, I told him. And it worked," Mitra said. "Once he was also on the same page, I stressed on it, but otherwise I would have waited for him to think about it."
And unlike most of the modern-day coaches, Mitra doesn't believe much in technology. Though he has hired a video analyst for Saurashtra, he lets the assistant coach Hitesh Goswami work without a laptop. "Have you ever seen me with a laptop?" he asks, with a wink. "My brain is my laptop. As long it is working, I don't need [one]."
During his nine seasons with Saurashtra, Mitra has taken giant strides towards making them a potent force. It started with them qualifying for the Elite League from the lower tier by winning the Plate title in 2005-06. In 2007-08, not only did Saurashtra make it to the Ranji semis, they were also the national one-day champions. And the next year proved 2007-08 wasn't a fluke, as Saurashtra made it to the Ranji semis once again.
Last week, they played the semi-finals for the third time. Despite the absence of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, Saurashtra surprised Punjab to qualify for their maiden final since the erstwhile princely team of Nawanagar was merged into Kathiawar.
The journey has not been easy for Mitra. It took him five years to accept the job to coach a side that was one of the worst in terms of performance and infrastructure back then. "Niranjan had been after me since 1999, but I was quite hesitant. I used to wonder 'what will I do in Saurashtra, with such limited talent pool and lack of basic cricketing facilities'. Finally in 2004, I thought I would give it a shot."
The first year proved to be a nightmare for the man who had coached the likes of Sourav Ganguly and Devang Gandhi during their formative years with Bengal. "Believe me, when I went back home [to Kolkata], I had decided not to return to Saurashtra," Mitra said. "The cricket here had no system in place. The Ranji players were so raw, primarily due to lack of coaching and lack of match practice. All they used to play was some two or three 50-over matches at district level.
"But then, it was my wife who convinced me to stay on. She told me, 'If you've accepted a job, give it your best.' I thought I would stay on for another season and take a call. And once we qualified for the Elite in 2005-06, Saurashtra cricket and I haven't looked back since."
How did he manage the turnaround? "First, we had to have a basic tournament structure in place," Mitra said. As a result, he suggested changes to the existing inter-district tournament, and the Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) immediately implemented them. The knockout 50-over tournament between the 14 district teams was tweaked to a league-and-knockout tournament and a three-day inter-district championship was introduced. Fourteen teams were split into Elite and Plate divisions with eight and six teams, respectively. Both the divisions were split in two groups, resulting in every team getting at least four matches of "days cricket" every year.
"If you don't play 'days cricket' at all till you are selected for Ranji, you need to learn all the skills of succeeding at first-class level when you're playing it. And it becomes difficult," Mitra said. "Even now, I get players who are raw. They have to be taught things like how to bowl around the wicket or how to field close in, but I don't mind doing it. And I must say that Niranjan has given me a free hand. Not even once has he questioned me on anything on the cricket aspect. And everything that I have asked for has been implemented right away."
All this means that at the age of 64, Mitra has to be on the run for more than eight months a year. His season starts in August, when he conducts a camp for the probables for the preparatory tournaments like the Buchi Babu invitational meet and the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup. From mid-August until March, Room No. 209 at Hotel Suryakant in Rajkot is his home.
"It is," Mitra said, when asked whether it was difficult to be away from home for so long. "But once you've made a choice, you've got to do it. It's been 11 weeks since I have been to Kolkata. But I got a refreshing break just before the semi-final when I spent a couple of nights at my son's house in Mumbai. When I see the team performing like this, all that sacrifice is worth it."
And once Saurashtra completed the win against Punjab in the semi-final, Mitra celebrated like a youngster. When you see him merged into the huddle, giving high-fives to his friends, you realise, "I am their friend" is not merely a statement.
Mitra featured in Bengal's loss to Bombay in 1968-69 Ranji Trophy final - his maiden first-class season - and hoped he wouldn't be unlucky again, this time as a coach. "I was fortunate to have played in a Ranji final in my first season. I am so happy for Shitanshu that he will eventually get a feel of being in the Ranji final. I just hope that Saurashtra does against Bombay what Bengal couldn't 44 years ago. If they do, that would be the happiest moment of my cricketing sojourn."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo