From relegation to semifinals, one pep talk at a time
Just before lunch on Day Three of their Ranji Trophy quarterfinal against Mumbai, as Maharashtra readied themselves to take the field after conceding a 122-run first-innings lead, coach Surendra Bhave delivered one of his numerous pep talks, hoping it wouldn't be his last one of the season.
Bhave, a former Maharashtra captain who had led them to their last Ranji Trophy final appearance in 1992-93, gave his players two choices. "One was to go on to the field, complete the formalities, pack our bags and head straight to Pune from the Wankhede. The other was to go out, play with our heads held high, give it our best shot and change the opinion of the people."
Even when Maharashtra captain Rohit Motwani recalls the words four days later, he seems just as charged up as he was after hearing them at the Wankhede. "That speech inspired us a lot," says Motwani. "We chose the second option and it worked for us."
Just over 12 months ago, Bhave, the then chief selector, was given the additional responsibility of being the interim coach with two games remaining in the group stage. Maharashtra were then at the bottom of Group B and required a miracle to avoid relegation.
It wasn't to be. Maharashtra were blown aside by Karnataka in their last league game. "[Abhimanyu] Mithun and Stuart [Binny] just ran through us and poured water over all our ambitions to continue the good work of the previous game against Baroda and avoid relegation. At that time itself, all of us knew we had to start afresh."
It was a fitting end to an erratic season. Maharashtra had started it by appointing Dermot Reeve as coach, and had replaced him with Bhave midway through the season. Reeve, the former England allrounder, had raised eyebrows during his brief tenure, playing the guitar just outside the boundary ropes during Maharashtra's matches and even missing a couple of games to work as a TV analyst on the India-England series.
Without a father figure, the team was in disarray. "Due to the prevailing circumstances, the team wasn't that together," Motwani says. "Everyone was kind of coming into the field and playing his own game. Even though all of us had been playing together for a while, the cohesiveness was somehow missing last season."
Maharashtra didn't do any better in the second half of the season, and failed to progress beyond the zonal stages of the domestic one-day and Twenty20 competitions, which were considered their strengths.
If Maharashtra were to turn the tide this season, they needed a pitch-perfect build-up. But with the Maharashtra Cricket Association in financial disarray, the team only had their first official training session on August 19. The mess also deprived the team of any competitive warm-up games. The association hadn't been able to participate in preparatory tournaments or conduct a reciprocal tour with another state team, which had been a trend during recent off-seasons.
But this gave Bhave ample time to evaluate what had gone wrong and to come up with a solution. "If you see the numbers, most of the batsmen had averaged 45-plus and still the team was not doing well," he says. "We had to imbibe among the players that if your aim is to play for yourself, you're not contributing to the team. Once we got everyone to work for the cause of the team, most of it was taken care of."
Bhave's next task was to get the bowling act together. Barring Samad Fallah, the attack didn't have a consistent performer in its ranks. And the lack of match practice may have affected the bowlers' rhythm going into the season. Bhave's solution benefited not only the bowlers but the batsmen as well.
"We couldn't go to any of the warm-up tournaments, so the moment the monsoon receded, we formed four teams amongst our probables and played a handful of practice matches on lively tracks at Gahunje," Bhave says. "The atmosphere was no different to a first-class match and you couldn't even sense it was a practice match. It helped the bowlers get used to running in and bowling more than 20 overs per day and the batsmen were tested against tough bowling in tougher conditions."
The decision to prepare lively pitches for the warm-up games was based on the assumption that "every Plate team has three decent pace bowlers". With the bowlers made to work hard outdoors rather than in the confines of the gym and the batsmen made to bat in adverse conditions, the team was ready by the time the season began.
"We may not be that old but we are not a young team," Motwani says. "For the last four to five years, more or less the same bunch has been playing together. And we were all confident at the start of the season that we could deliver this time around."
For the captain's words to come true, Maharashtra needed to get their campaign off to a strong start. Harshad Khadiwale and Kedar Jadhav gave them just that, in their contrasting styles. At the end of Maharashtra's fourth game of the season, they had scored three centuries each and were occupying the top two positions in the list of the Ranji Trophy's highest run-getters.
"Every time Khadi or KJ reached a milestone, the dressing room revelled with them," says Akshay Darekar, the team's leading spinner. "They gave us bowlers the much-needed cushion to bowl oppositions out."
While they piled on the runs, not many gave Khadiwale and Jadhav their due, reckoning that a hundred in a Plate (Group C) match wasn't a big deal. "I can't help such perceptions," Jadhav says. "Those who say this don't understand that many Plate teams play with such a defensive mindset that they bowl with seven or eight fielders on the boundary once a batsman is set. Scoring runs becomes really difficult at such times. When a batsman still scores big in such circumstances, you should give him his due. Be it myself or Khadi or anyone else from any other team."
The impact that Khadiwale and Jadhav had on their team can be gauged by the fact that Maharashtra didn't once concede a first-innings deficit during the group stage. But the bowlers were coming to the party too; Maharashtra won an unprecedented four games outright, and ended Group C seven points ahead of second-placed Jammu & Kashmir. The team's primary objective, of regaining their place in the top flight of the tournament, had been achieved. But the group was far from satisfied.
Two days before the quarterfinal, Maharashtra's players asked the driver of their team bus, going from Pune to Mumbai, to take them straight to the Wankhede Stadium rather than their hotel. They were playing Mumbai, their big brother, away from home, in a televised match. They were ready.
On the second evening, with the Maharashtra batsmen struggling in the face of a ferocious spell from Shardul Thakur, on a wicket tilted in favour of pace bowlers, it looked like the heckling of Maharashtra as flat-track bullies would continue. Mumbai captain Zaheer Khan, in what might have been a mocking gesture, placed all nine fielders behind the wicket early in Maharashtra's innings.
"We didn't even take it as an insult. We took it as yet another challenge - a first of its kind, and Ankit (Bawne) and Kedar counterattacked to show we could take them on," pace bowler Anupam Sanklecha says. "Even then, it wasn't as if we had played bad cricket. All of us know that Mumbai crossed 400 only because of some stupendous batting by Vinit (Indulkar) and Surya (Yadav)."
The next afternoon, Sanklecha led the Maharashtra fightback as a three-pronged pace attack dismantled the Mumbai batting in 38 overs to get Maharashtra back into the game. "The 60-70 runs that we were helped with when Mumbai over-attacked in the first innings helped us reduce the innings deficit," Bhave says. "When we talked to the bowlers, my impression was, if there are more play balls, there are more chances of us getting wickets on such a track. Another thing that worked for us was, since we didn't have a bowler who could rely on sheer pace in our attack, it was ultimately going to be a case of pitch it up to the bat and catch it whenever it comes your way."
But the manner in which the three seamers and the slip cordon executed that basic plan left the Wankhede spellbound. Often, seamers in India tend to get carried away when they see a green surface. It happened with the Maharashtra bowlers in the first innings and they sprayed the ball around. But to learn the lessons and reverse the trend so quickly stunned even Sunil Gavaskar, who was commentating on his first Ranji game.
It isn't a surprise that beating Mumbai meant so much to the players, since only one of them had experienced the feeling before. Sanklecha, in fact, had become the first Maharashtra player to feature in two outright wins over Mumbai. "Back then (in 2005-06), I had contributed with the bat, ending as the highest scorer in the second innings," says Sanklecha, who hails from Ahmednagar, 120 km to the west of Pune. "This time around, my bowling came good. For the last four days, the phone hasn't stopped ringing. I feel like I'm on top of the world right now."
Bhave's pep talks have been a constant feature over the season. "Each time one of us drifts slightly, a pep talk is waiting, and it invariably sets things right," says left-arm spinner Darekar, who, with 31 scalps, is Maharashtra's leading wicket-taker this season. "His technical expertise is well known but he has also been a great motivator."
Motwani adds: "It's not just when the chips are down that he speaks. He makes it a point to compliment us for our good work. A pat on the back from someone you have idolised means a lot and he knows it. His words of wisdom - sometimes one-on-one, sometimes to the whole group - are cherished by all of us."
When it began its journey back to Pune on the evening of January 11, the team bus was juddering down the same expressway it had taken to Mumbai. Bhave, however, knew everyone in it was floating in the air. Naturally, just before the team got off the bus, he had another pep talk waiting for them. "I said: 'We have to play two more matches in the same way. Don't get too far ahead of yourselves. Don't think that you cannot be conquered. Be guarded against complacency. Enjoy the hard work and the rest will be taken care of'."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo