Assam relaxed ahead of maiden semi-final
Assam are playing their first ever Ranji Trophy semi-final. The players, however, are more excited about something else altogether - this is the first time they will be playing a televised game this year. "It's the first game they are coming on TV. They are all so excited," Assam coach Sanath Kumar said on the eve of the match against Saurashtra. "I can see the mindset. They are extremely happy. Their body language tells me they are not under pressure."
Both Assam and Saurashtra have insulated themselves from the pressure that accompanies a knockout game, and have in fact set their own markers. While the initial challenge for Saurashtra was to get out of Group C, Assam, having made the quarter-finals last year, have ensured they have not been out of their depth against the big boys in Group A. While the well-worn cliché of 'process over result' has been employed by every team, these two sides have embraced it with little fuss.
"Even now I am telling the boys not to get worried about anything. I tell them that we are not here to prove anything to anybody," Sanath said. "Every session I tell them, 'Boss, on the field when I see I should feel you are giving your 100 percent.' If that effort is there, I am not worried. Generally I don't scold them. What I Have seen generally is they get overawed by big names. I tell them 'Boss, cricket kyon chuna tumne? [why did you start playing cricket] Because you enjoy it. Toh us se darte kyon ho, bhai? [So why be afraid of it?]."
Saurashtra's coach Shitanshu Kotak, however, felt his team was still a work in progress. "Last year when I took over for the full season I was aware we are in rebuilding phase and it will take two-three years at least, but fortunately it has happened quicker than we thought," Kotak told ESPNcricinfo. "But last year I thought we would manage to stay in A or B group and start from there. Because [a] lot of departments were concerns for me - fast bowling, fielding, bowlers and their mindset. But the players are very good and reacting well."
Kotak did not rate Saurashtra's greater success this year - five outright wins in eight games - as an end in itself. "We are still in a process but we are a lot better now then we were two years ago or even last year. I wouldn't say we have achieved our aim or we are completely a great team," he said. "We are an average side, we are trying hard. The whole unit, including the support staff, had focus that we should come up. I knew that once you go down and if you stay there in C group for one or two years, it was very difficult to [get back up]. [Reaching the semi-final] is [only] a part of achieving a major goal. I don't look at results straight away."
For Sanath, the biggest gains have come in the form of the professionals in the Assam side - KB Arun Karthik, J Syed Mohammad and Amit Verma - whose overall contributions go beyond just runs scored and wickets taken. "I am very happy because these three players have mingled with the players so well and motivated them so much; that made a difference," Sanath said. "Generally I have seen a lot of professional players come and perform but they are aloof. They don't mix up with the players. These guys really helped out the junior in the side; they would take some bowlers [under their wing] and work on their batting. It's because of the professionals that I am so relaxed and chilled."
Sanath also attributed the success to a pick-and-stick approach to selection - Assam have used only 18 players this season - which is a departure from the kneejerk times of the years past. Playing the pre-season tournaments like the Shafi Darashah in Bangalore have also helped the players believe that they could compete on even terms with the more formidable sides.
"When they come and talk, the way they interact now, they are much more confident. Initially they would be scared to come and talk," Sanath said. "Now they pull my leg, they are not afraid of making fun of me. If they are not comfortable with me how will they communicate their problems? It is the right thing.
"They ask a lot of questions about everything. We have created a Whatsapp page [group] where everybody starts expressing. Everyday there is some message. It is good fun. They themselves decide the topic. In the past they weren't allowed to play music, but I tell them once you come out of the field you got to enjoy, and do whatever they wanted to. On the field, give your 100 percent."
Kotak, who has been signed up as assistant coach of the Gujarat Lions in the IPL, has leveraged the advantages that come with being a recently retired player. "It helps a lot because you are aware of not only your team but overall circuit, the wickets and other players," he said.
"The only difficult player is because you have played with them you will have to try and - not in a bad way - maintain a little bit of a distance. Because when you are playing they look at you as a colleague, you can't start going out with them for dinner everyday or keep joking with them. That's for a good reason."
Both coaches were mindful of the challenges a "green pitch" brought with it at the IPCL Stadium, but then again not much sleep would be lost over the result so long as their charges gave it their best.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo