<
>

Chandrakant Pandit: Less of a general, more of a 12th man

Vidarbha players hoist their head coach Chandrakant Pandit on their shoulders PTI

If you want to understand Chandrakant Pandit, you could go about it in several ways.

You can look at the fact that he's played five Tests and 36 ODIs for India. You can look at an impressive domestic record as a wicketkeeper-batsman. You can look at his credentials as a coach.

He has overseen several triumphs, but in the last four years alone, teams coached by Pandit have reached the Ranji Trophy final each time, and won in three of them.

Or, you could listen to what those associated with him say of the man who has been Vidarbha's coach during a stirring domestic run that began in 2017-18 and has so far yielded back-to-back Ranji titles. In all that time, across two seasons and 22 matches, Vidarbha haven't lost a single match outright. The most they've done is conceded a first-innings lead.

"The same set of players were playing earlier, but he just brought the group together, the belief and that 'khadoos-ness' that you needed to win against strong teams," Wasim Jaffer tells ESPNcricinfo. "He made them believe this team can beat the best sides, and that is the difference we are seeing now."

Captain Faiz Fazal: "Our team was such that it was necessary to be a little strict so that everyone pulls in the same direction, that 'we want to win the trophy'. It was not about preparing well so that an individual can perform well, but about performing because we wanted to win the trophy. That direction changed us, from individual performance to a team goal."

Ganesh Satish, Vidarbha's other professional alongwith Jaffer, says: "He pushes us to not relax. There's no room for complacency or mediocrity. You can't give half efforts in the field, because that's all picked on. He keeps us tight and keeps us going till the last ball."

What of Pandit himself? "My style is different. I may even slap Faiz. But there is a reason behind what I do."

That he's a hard taskmaster is widely known. That he is amongst the game's finest tacticians and students in Indian domestic cricket, is just as widely acknowledged.

Vidarbha were not a traditional domestic powerhouse like Mumbai, Delhi or Karnataka. They weren't even in the upper echelon with teams like Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Bengal or Uttar Pradesh who have had past wins. But they had talent, and they had a player-turned-administrator in Prashant Vaidya with the passion to turn that talent into cohesive performance. They got Pandit to add drive.

Two years ago, after Mumbai decided they didn't need Pandit as the coach anymore, Vaidya spent the entire evening of Dilip Vengaskar's daugther's wedding ceremony convincing his old team-mate to sign up with Vidarbha.

Pandit was not looking for an opportunity. "I wasn't very keen to join anywhere else," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "But he's [Vaidya] been a good friend of mine, he's played under my captaincy. We have good family relations too. He convinced me emotionally. He has been looking after the team, he wanted them to do well, so he asked me 'Why don't you help me do that?'"

"I forced Chandu to come here, telling him you have to come here," Vaidya says. "After getting him here, if I get complaints about him, I have no right to object. Because we got him here knowing his methods and his coaching. He understood that too, that he would get to follow his method in Vidarbha.

"I knew where we lacked, from my playing days, and he was the right person to fill that. But credit to the players also, for the way they responded. If you get a good teacher but the students refuseā€¦ Players had that calibre in my playing days too, they had that skill, but it had to be bonded. With Chandu coming in and the players responding, that bonding happened. That is why we have the results."

A cricketing marriage was solemnised during a traditional one.

****

Pandit as a coach, is meticulous. He keeps a diary with him, in which observations of the day's play are jotted down. These are then used for one-on-one sessions with players, where he lays forth his observations. It's a habit he picked up from his coach, the late Ramakant Achrekar, perhaps the most celebrated Indian coach of all.

"I have learned from my guru. Mr Achrekar used to take notes while watching games, for every student - whether it is batting, bowling, or fielding," Pandit says. "He didn't carry a diary or a book. But he used to travel by bus, and he saved those bus tickets, and he wrote behind the ticket. He put your name and put those three points. I picked it up from there, but of course I've been using a diary or a computer."

One of those diary entries helped refine Akshay Karnewar's batting. Pandit won't reveal what he told Karnewar, all he offers is: "There are certain periods in an innings for example, that need to be handled in a certain way. If I note it down, it helps them later when they are faced with the same situation."

In this year's final, Karnewar scored 73* in the first innings, having come in at 139 for 6, and took his team to 312. In a final that had some standout pivotal moments, that was the first. Before that knock, Karnewar had made 116 runs in four innings, 94 of them in one knock. During that innings, one of the noticeable things about Karnewar was his temperament in playing the ball on merit, and not letting the situation get to him. When he played an attacking shot, it wasn't ever fraught with risk.

When Pandit was hired, the man who perhaps got the most calls from Vidarbha's players was Jaffer, since he and Pandit go back a long way. Some players were anxious, and wanted to ask about the 'reputation' their new coach came with, some just wanted a sense of who they would be working with. Jaffer's senior-statesman like calm was the perfect blend with Pandit's fieriness. It wasn't quite Game of Thrones, but it was A Song of Fire and Ice alright.

"Sometimes players might be scared to approach him for things, so they would come to me," Jaffer says. "Sometimes when he's very angry or hyper, I try and calm him down. I know him quite well and he understands me quite well, so we work as a bridge between us.

"He's brought it in the side that nobody can take their places for granted - whether you've played seven-eight seasons before or done well in the last four-five years. You're as good as the last one or two games. Sometimes I feel that in a smaller state, you get one hundred in a season it's considered a good season. And if you get 400-500 runs it's considered a very good season. But in reality, I don't think that is the case. You need to score 700-800 runs, two or three batsmen, for the team to go forward. And he's brought that culture where average performances aren't considered very good."

The Vidarbha team got an early taste of what their coach considered good or not, before the previous Ranji season.

"We had our first warm-up tournament before last Ranji Trophy, called the Bapuna Cup," Satish says. "Two days were washed out so it was a two-day game, against Mumbai. We put 300 on a slightly slow turner, and they were about 80 for 5. But from lunch to tea they lost only one wicket. Lots of beats, ball hitting the pad and catches falling short. We came back thinking we'd bowled really well, but we got a rocket. 'What are you guys doing? Bowl on the stumps. You want to get them out, or you just want to beat the bat?' That was a reality check for everyone, and we knew we could push ourselves even more. And then we went out and finished it in half an hour."

****

He may be perceived as a dictator from outside, but Pandit might be more of a war-time general. And just like in the army, he needs his troops to follow commands.

"People who know me, know that my reputation from my playing days is strict, but strict towards the game," Pandit says. "You don't get a second chance in cricket. It's like an army, at the border, you don't have a second chance."

There's more military jargon: "When you have a mission, you try to complete the mission. They accepted each and every line I said, which is something I am very proud of my boys for. They never complained about anything."

Before 2017-18, Vidarbha were never serious title contenders. They had made the quarter-finals in 2014-15 and 2015-16, but getting to that stage was an achievement. Even including those years, till 2017-18, Vidarbha didn't have any batsman who made more than 750 runs in a season. Only Akshay Wakhare in 2015-16 (49 wickets) took more than 30 wickets in a season. As Jaffer pointed out, they lacked those big runs or big wickets from a group of players that title contenders need. They were a middling team, with spurts of good performances that pushed them near the top half of their group tables, but that's as far as they got. That's as far as they were perhaps expected to go.

But as the processes put in place by the Vidarbha Cricket Association began to show results in the form of more talented players coming through, better access to infrastructure, and a better cricket culture taking root, Vidarbha were ready to make the step up, and in Pandit they found the man who could do that.

"[I've heard it said] that 'Chandu Pandit is very strict'. I'm saying this a bit emotionally," Pandit says. "Maybe some people don't like what I do, but I think it's my work. If the president, Prashant [Vaidya] and the VCA have called me here, why have they called me? To work."

And work he does. As does his method. As Jaffer says, "He's only not playing the game, otherwise he's in there as a 12th man all the time in the ground."