The man behind Rajasthan's 'quick' fix
It was the final day of their penultimate league match and Rajasthan had just 72 overs to bowl Saurashtra out and claim the outright victory they needed to keep their dream of defending the Ranji Trophy title alive. The task before them was not easy one, with the likes of India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara and Shitanshu Kotak in the opposition batting line-up.
It was then that Meyrick Pringle, Rajasthan's short-term bowling coach, called a fast bowlers' meeting. It was a first for Rajasthan's fast men. Never before had such a meeting been called at such short notice.
"He asked us to focus on the beginning," Sumit Mathur, Rajasthan's senior most fast bowler, recollects. "If we get a good start, we walk in with a positive mind, then we can win. If we could get two to three wickets in the first ten overs then we can dominate."
Pringle, a former South Africa fast bowler, put the responsibility for the opening breakthrough on Pankaj Singh, Rajasthan's leading wicket-taker this season. Mathur, along with Rituraj Singh, who was making his debut at 21, were told to build pressure in the middle overs. The strategy worked beautifully.
"Before the lunch break they had lost three wickets," Mathur said. "Pringle asked us to play it by ear: if they attacked us, then we need to go slightly on the defensive. But they were on the defensive, then he stressed we had to attack the opposition more. The plan worked and Saurashtra came under pressure and collapsed."
Saurashtra were bundled out for 143 in 56.5 overs as Mathur picked up 6 for 33, the second-best figures of his career.
In the final league game, Rajasthan demolished Orissa inside three days. Mathur took a five-for in the first innings while Rituraj picked up 6 for 75 to wrap up the match. The bonus point for an innings victory proved crucial, enabling Rajasthan to pip Saurashtra for the final spot in the quarter-finals.
You can draw a distinct line between before Pringle joined Rajasthan and after. The defending champions had only four points from their first four games. In three of those matches, opponents had piled up 500-plus scores. Twice, against Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan had been forced to follow-on, indicating that the pitches had something in them for the bowlers. Somewhere, Rajasthan's quicks were missing a trick.
Pringle had arrived in Jaipur in February to coach at a private coaching academy. The offer from the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) came unexpectedly, just days before the game against Punjab in the first week of December. In the preceding months, Pringle had learned how things were done in India. That made it easier for him to fit in with the Rajasthan dressing room. In addition, he had watched a few of Rajasthan's home matches earlier in the season, so he had some knowledge of their fast bowlers.
"My inputs were mostly on the technical and mental side of fast bowling," Pringle said, hours before leaving for South Africa to celebrate Christmas with his family. "I just showed them and gave them inputs based on my experience at the first-class and international level."
In his first match as bowling coach, there was no evidence that Pringle had brought in a change of any sort. Playing in Jaipur, Punjab made 597 against a Rajasthan bowling attack comprising three fast bowlers: Pankaj, Mathur and Deepak Chahar. Between them they shared four wickets. Pankaj took a further two in Punjab's second innings but Rajasthan gained just one point. Their ambitions of clinging to a place in the Elite group, which they had earned after much hard work the previous year, was now in danger.
Pringle, though, had been focused on building camaraderie. "He built a good atmosphere. As a person he is very cool, calm and i badhiya hain (very nice)," Mathur said. "He never made us realise there was a gap between us and him, a former international fast bowler. He treated as like a friend."
The first sign that the relationship was working came in the match against Saurashtra, who also needed a good result to bolster their chances of making the knock-outs. The visitors' fast-bowling attack, comprising Jaydev Undakat, Siddharth Trivedi and Sandeep Maniar took all 10 wickets as Rajasthan made 396. It was clear that the pitch was conducive for seam movement. Pankaj lead Rajasthan's response with a five-wicket haul and received good support from Mathur and Rituraj, who took two wickets each. Rajasthan eventually set their opponents a target of 373. Mathur then finished the job.
According to Pringle, who shot to fame with a spectacular performance in the group match against West Indies in the 1992 World Cup, he wanted to focus on the simple things given his limited time with the team. "There were some useful things they needed to take into the game and learn which they did not have and now they do and that added quite a lot of value to their bowling."
However, he first had to get them to forget their start to the season. "Because of the season Rajasthan had in the beginning, the fast bowlers thought they had not performed," Pringle said. "It was bundled up in their mind that they had to perform and people are watching them, the defending champions. It was a mental block."
Pringle, who has coached like the Netherlands and Namibia in the past, also noticed that the fast bowlers were training too hard. "They train a lot more here in India than in South Africa. They tend to put too much pressure on themselves." So he told the bowlers to relax and enjoy themselves. "They were very tense in the early part of the season. They thought they had to take wickets and win games quickly because other people were knocking on the doors to take their place. So I worked on their psychology."
As for the technical stuff, it was mostly minor fixes. "Mathur was not following through properly at times," Pringle said. "At time he used to bowl at 80% and not 100%. It just needs someone to stand up or clap a hand or give a signal that ball was not 100% and mentally recharge him."
As for Rituraj, Pringle said he has problems with his front foot but they are being addressed. Aniket Chaudhary, a left-arm fast bowler out of the Jaipur Cricket Academy, is working hard with Rituraj. "I tend to push him a lot but he has a good future if he continues in the same vein."
Pankaj's problems, on the other hand, were medical. Pringle has told him to sit out the domestic 50-over tournament that starts in February to let his knees heal. "He can only get better from where he is now," Pringle said. "He has to follow the programmes, the eating habits and he will definitely get better. Once he follows the programme and takes a break to sort his knees I am confident Pankaj can easily add another 20-25 kph to his speed."
All three bowlers said Pringle had made a difference. "Many times you forget the basics," Mathur said. "You then need someone like Pringle to point out the minor things, essential in those moments, to get back on the track.
"Having played for some time we have the idea where to pitch the ball and such. But there are small, minor things that need to be pointed out from time to time, which is what Pringle did. For example when you take two or three quick wickets you tend to get over excited at times. He has stressed that on such occasions you have to stay calm and continue bowling [the same way]. And he taught us how to use the angles and how best to use the crease to create good angles." Pringle is pleased with the "vast" improvement he has seen in Rajasthan's fast bowlers and would be keen to come back if the RCA offers him for a long-term contract.
For the moment, though, the man who turned around Rajasthan's fortunes is happily enjoying a family holiday in Port Elizabeth.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo