Mhambrey's miracle men
December 22, 2014. Haryana were 129 for 9 replying to Vidarbha's 154 on the second day in Lahli. Haryana middle-order batsman Abhimanyu Khod pulled Ravikumar Thakur straight into the hands of Ravi Jangid at deep square leg. It was a sitter, but the ball burst through Jangid's hands. Instead of going home with three points, Vidarbha only took one as Haryana snatched a two-run lead.
Vidarbha had failed to get first-innings points for the second successive match. In their season opener, they had bowled Punjab out twice but had failed to get the lead after their lower order faltered. The dropped catch was another missed opportunity, and it hit Vidarbha coach Paras Mhambrey hard.
"We should have won that game (on first-innings lead)," Mhambrey says. "No one does it on purpose (dropped catch). But if you want to win a championship these lapses cannot happen. That is what I told the guys. Let us aim to not drop any catches (as far as possible) through the season."
Mhambrey had made his intentions clear to his players during their first meeting in May. "I don't think we ever focused on just participating in the tournament. The whole focus was on winning the championship. There are other teams there to just participate. We are far better than that. The idea was, we have to be the best team ever to represent Vidarbha. How do we achieve that?"
By being fit. By seizing the vital moments. By taking responsibility and playing responsibly. Shrugging off the slow start to their season, Vidarbha have done all this, and have reached the knockouts for only the second time, having last done it in 1996.
With a smaller player pool than the traditional domestic powers, Mhambrey's first task was to attract the right kind of professional to Vidarbha. He needed players could not just mentor but also form the team's core and drive Vidarbha's progress. In came Tamil Nadu middle-order rock S Badrinath, Karnataka batsman Ganesh Satish and Gujarat left-arm spinner Rakesh Dhurv.
All three had a point to prove. They were unhappy either with what they had achieved with their previous teams or with what those teams had offered them. The previous professionals - Hemang Badani, Shiv Sunder Das, Sairaj Bahutule and Rashmi Parida - were helpful mentors, according to the Vidarbha players, but may have been past their sell-by dates as players.
Badrinath, Satish and Dhurv made an instant impact. Satish is among the top ten run-makers this season. Badrinath, ever the workhorse, has led the team spiritedly while being their second-highest run-getter. Dhruv has led their spin attack with 21 wickets.
For Mhambrey the challenge was of a different kind. He was returning to first-class coaching after spending the previous four years as part of Mumbai Indians' coaching staff. Previously he had helped Bengal make the semis and the final during his two-year stint as their head coach.
Mhambrey told Vidarbha Cricket Association top brass that he wanted the players to undergo a three-month fitness camp during the off-season between late May and August. Forget bat and ball. "We noticed that physical fitness was an area which was not given due importance previously. I told VCA that none of the players will play league cricket for three months during the off-season. Until and unless that happens the results that we expect in the Ranji season will not happen."
The players were initially "a little reluctant", Mhambrey says, but realised the importance of off-season training as the season progressed. Faiz Fazal, one of the senior Vidarbha players, says Mhambrey brought an immediate change of attitude.
"At the start of the off-season he said we need to be the fittest team in the country," Fazal says. "And we should be the most well-prepared the team in the country. How you prepare will reflect on our performances."
Shrikant Wagh, Vidarbha's left-arm strike bowler, acknowledges Mhambrey's role in his development this season. "Our problem has been we lacked in our physical fitness always. He (Mhambrey) understands where to push and when. Hydration checks, submitting urine samples on match days, checking weights three times a day are minor things, but something we were not used to."
Despite this being his eighth season of first-class cricket, Wagh was uncertain about his lengths, especially in away matches. Mhambrey's experience as a fast bowler for Mumbai came handy.
"He kept giving me the confidence," Wagh says. "I was not comfortable playing in Nagpur but paying outside I wanted to do well. So we worked on the right lengths. I am trying to learn to be a complete bowler now. He has helped me clear my mind before every match."
So far, Vidarbha's main ambition was to stay within the top two groups. But by the halfway mark of this season, the players began believing they could actually enter the knockouts. They could actually challenge the best teams.
In their third match, on a seaming pitch in Jaipur, Vidarbha seized control and nearly beat Rajasthan. From 23 for 3, they recovered to raise 296, bowled Rajasthan out, and set a target of 405. After fog cost them an hour on the final morning, Vidarbha strove hard to take seven Rajasthan wickets. A day and a session were lost in the away match against Odisha, and once again a dominant Vidarbha side took first-innings points.
As the team's confidence grew a different player stood up and performed in each match. Against Rajasthan it was Shalabh Shrivastava, who made a first-innings century. In the next match it was the off spinner Akshay Wakhare who ran through Gujarat on a turning pitch in Surat to bring Vidarbha their first outright win of the season, by an emphatic 120-run margin. Wakhare's 13 wickets in the match was a record haul for a Vidarbha bowler. Wakhare's feat even eclipsed the two five-fors the veteran offspinner Ramesh Powar bagged for the hosts. Wakhare has played three matches this season and has picked up three five-fors.
Anything less than a victory in that match would have left Vidarbha with only an outside chance of reaching the knockouts. The win changed the mindset of the players. "People realised that one more win and we can qualify," Mhambrey says. "That kept everyone motivated."
Fazal remembers the Gujarat match clearly. "At one point we thought staying in the Elite group would be an achievement. But after four rounds we got the idea that if we win two matches we are in the reckoning. After the Gujarat win, we got a vision: jaana hai apne ko bas. Kaise bhi jeetna hai (we have to make the knockouts any way possible)."
Then came the most resounding win of the Ranji Trophy when Vidarbha forced title favourites Delhi to follow-on and won by an innings and 93 runs. Delhi, who had Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag in their ranks, were humiliated in two-and-a-half days. Fazal says it was a fitting riposte to Vidarbha's innings defeat against Delhi last season. "Bacchon jaise haar ke aa gaye the wahan (we lost that match like children)."
Many hands contributed to the win over Delhi, none bigger than Satish's 163. Badrinath's leadership was crucial too. Fazal says Badrinath has always reminded players of the two Ps: persistence and patience. "We are not desperate. We are actually playing smart cricket. Because we have prepared well."
Going into the quarter-finals against Tamil Nadu, Mhambrey insists Vidarbha are in a very good position. There is no anxiety. "We have been through all situations. Beating Delhi, beating Gujarat does make a difference. Names do not matter or worry or scare us anymore. One good day, three sessions, is what you need in the knockouts."
Fazal says Vidarbha now play to win. "We always wanted to play good cricket but we never aimed to win the Ranji Trophy. Now we are so positive in our minds that we also want to prove something."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo