Smith, Dhoni central to Pune's turnaround

Tait: Dhoni is spiritual leader of Pune (4:06)

While it is Rising Pune Supergiant's first appearance in an IPL final, the team can look to MS Dhoni and Stephen Fleming for key lessons on handling pressure (4:06)

On the morning of Rising Pune Supergiant's game against Delhi Daredevils on April 11, Manoj Tiwary received a phone call that informed him that his father had died. Tiwary planned to spend time with his father after the IPL, but cancer had ruined them. His family urged him to play that night but Tiwary did not want to stay in Pune when his mind was in Kolkata.

He did not watch much of the game, but was touched by a gesture from his Rising Pune team-mates. "I want to thank the team and all the players because they showed respect by wearing black armbands in the match," Tiwary told ESPNcricinfo. "Everybody came up to me and made sure I was okay. The team members make sure they engage you in different ways so that you don't keep thinking about it."

When Tiwary returned to the team, for the game against Gujarat Lions, there was gloom on the field as well. Rising Pune lost their third successive game by a significant margin, and their victory over Mumbai Indians in their first game seemed an aberration. They had finished seventh last season and jokes about their no-hoper status resurfaced.

There were rumours about Rising Pune being a bickering and uninterested unit, as a result of decisions the franchise had taken before the start of the season. MS Dhoni had been removed from captaincy and replaced by Steven Smith, and provocative tweets from the team owner's brother on the leadership issue did not improve public perception.

Amid the noise, Rising Pune's think-tank was trying to address the underlying issue - how to win games. Before their match against Royal Challengers Bangalore, their coach Stephen Fleming drew something like a flowchart that listed traits of successful and unsuccessful teams. Tiwary was so impressed by the illustration that he took a photograph of it, so that he could revisit the lesson when needed.

"Fleming mentioned that three things come into the mindset of the players when we go through bad performances: lack of confidence, lack of belief, and lack of fun," Tiwary said. "There are selection issues as well, with a lot of chopping and changing happening in the first XI. There are more meetings and inconsistency in behaviour. All this results in us spending too much energy on things we don't need at that point of time.

"When we sat together ahead of this IPL, there were a lot of expectations and hope. Fleming wanted us to have a similar thought process even after we lost three games. That gave us a clear message about how to go about things, rather than sulking and panicking over the losses. After that game, we didn't look back."

Tiwary was referring to the fixture at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, where Rising Pune defended 161. It set the formula for the team's combination.

Rising Pune went on a hot streak, as old and new heroes played a part in winning nine out of their next 11 games. In Rahul Tripathi, the team's second highest run-scorer, they found a robust opener to make up for Ajinkya Rahane's off-colour season. In Jaydev Unadkat, who had played only two IPL games, for Kolkata Knight Riders and Delhi Daredevils, in the last two years, they found a contender for the Purple cap. He has 22 wickets at present. In 17-year old Washington Sundar, signed as replacement for R Ashwin, they found a bowler for the tough overs; he was Man of the Match in the first qualifier. Dan Christian and Lockie Ferguson stepped up as well.

Rising Pune's story is not only about surprise packages, though. Their big guns boomed too, and they don't come much bigger than Ben Stokes and Imran Tahir, who was signed as a replacement for Mitchell Marsh and finished with 18 wickets.

When Stokes was bought for INR 14.5 crore at the auction in February, a Rising Pune official said the franchise wouldn't have minded paying a crore more for him. His rationale was that Stokes would have earned his wages if he won seven league games on his own. He was ultimately not far off that fanciful mark.

Stokes finished with 316 runs from 11 innings, including a hundred and a fifty, at a strike-rate of nearly 143 and claimed 12 wickets. He was Man of the Match thrice and had an important role in at least two other wins. That Rising Pune did not suffer for his and Tahir's absence in the first Qualifier wasn't a surprise either. The result was indicative of the team's depth and the strong leadership of Fleming, Smith and Dhoni.

While Fleming runs team meetings, Smith, along with Dhoni, has made sure there were few communication gaps on the field. The equation between captain and predecessor - frosty? indifferent? - had been a major talking point in the lead up to the season. In reality, Smith and Dhoni's working relationship has appeared professional and dignified. Smith backed Dhoni to overcome his patchy batting form, and hasn't been averse to hearing a suggestion or two from the former captain.

Baba Aparajith, a young batsman in his second season with Rising Pune, said there was no change in the way Dhoni conducted himself. "Some may think I am saying this for the sake of political correctness, but that's not the case," Aparajith, who was with the Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings in the past, said. "To tell you the truth, he's a wonderful human being and he provides the same inputs and makes the same contributions."

Tiwary said the way Dhoni and Smith had handled a potentially awkward situation was a lesson for youngsters. "I know whatever he [Dhoni] has been asked to do, he has done that," Tiwary said. "It's something we have to learn from him, because as youngsters we all get so emotional. When things don't go our way - there is so much written on social media - you just get your frustrations out immediately.

"After captaining for so many years, it's not an easy thing to just hang back. It's a natural instinct of a born leader and also he is a wicketkeeper who has very good ideas from behind the stumps. So whenever he sees something, he goes up to Smith or makes a personal adjustment on the field. It's something Smith has handled really well too. He is open to all the suggestions.

"In the Kings XI Punjab game, after Shardul [Thakur] bowled three overs, Smith was giving the ball to Sundar. I went up to Smith and said Shardul was in good rhythm and asked him to ensure he bowls four overs [on the trot] because he had anyway not bowled in the slog in the previous game. Steve gave the ball to Shardul and it nearly paid off because the first ball went past MS and Dan Christian".

Unadkat said he had been a beneficiary of Smith's leadership as well. In the away game against Mumbai Indians, Unadkat was trusted with the final over to defend 17, and was undecided between bowling cutters - his strength - or deliveries like wide yorkers. Smith told him to back his cutters. Unadkat dismissed Hardik Pandya and Rohit Sharma and Rising Pune won by three runs.

"At times it has happened that Smithy has wanted me to do something, and I told him 'No, I will do what I am good at' and he has backed me for that. It has been a two-way communication," Unadkat said. "At times he felt something but I felt differently and vice-versa, but we have always been on the same page.

"It was also important to have the backing from Mahi bhai as well. He has been critical at times, even when I got those wickets in the Sunrisers match. When I got hit for a six in between he came and said you cannot get hit by this batsman, you are [too] good for that. Those points keep you tight in the situation and the team has been lucky to have such leaders in the team."

The key traits that players attribute the turnaround to are professionalism and care. Aparajith said Rising Pune had started looking ahead at 2017 during the final stages of their failed campaign last year. New players were tried and at the end of the 2016 season the players were given a fitness programme to follow. "That showed their professionalism and clarity of purpose," Aparajith said. "They knew the direction they were heading towards and they had the hunger to win."

Unadkat said Rising Pune was one of the better franchises he's played for in terms of camaraderie. Stokes nicknamed him the "mango-shake man" for supplying drinks for the team while in Rajkot. Small gestures like these, according to Unadkat, went a long way towards bringing the players closer.

"We have some good banter in the team and he [Stokes] is one guy who keeps the atmosphere light," Unadkat said. "We became close during this period of five-six weeks when he was here. He has been very supportive and he liked what I did on the field. He still keeps wishing us well on our team chat groups and eggs us on to do better. It feels nice to know someone like him at a closer level. Same with someone like Dan [Christian], who I have known for some time.

"Such a bond develops only if you have a connection with the guy, or if you feel that you are a part of the team. If you do some gestures like this [making milkshakes] - not for the sake of doing it, but from the heart - it is always heart-warming for them as well to see someone is caring for them. You give love, you get love."

Despite their qualification for the final, Rising Pune won't exist next year. Their contract with the IPL was for two years only, but that isn't on the players' mind. Neither is the weight of playing in the final.

"The talk has been to remain calm and composed rather than be too aggressive and get carried away," Unadkat said. "Doing more than what we need to at times is also not good. That has been the talk in the team - to keep things simple not to worry too much about it being a Qualifier or an Eliminator. I think it has worked for us".