Not many teams come back after starting the season by getting dismissed for a double-digit score. Hyderabad managed 21 in their Ranji Trophy opener against Rajasthan last season and the ignominy of that score stuck to them for the entire tournament. It also brought resignations from the coaching staff and the axing of several players. Though they put in improved performances after that, there was no way a shaken Hyderabad were going to be in contention for the Plate League knockouts.
Freshly-promoted Madhya Pradesh began their first Elite League season in seven years by succumbing for 63 against Baroda in November. Questions were immediately raised, a touch prematurely, about the ability of promoted Plate teams to compete at the Elite level. MP treated the setback just like what it was - one bad innings; they went on to take the first-innings lead after Bengal made 496, defeated Delhi and Gujarat and made Haryana follow-on to make the quarter-finals in some style, finishing only behind Tamil Nadu in Group B.
Some may view it as a stunning turnaround for a young team lacking any professional players, but Mukesh Sahni, the MP coach, feels it is reward for the amount of preparation his side have done in the off-season. The MP senior side went on a month's tour to Sri Lanka in September. Before the start of last season, they had travelled to Australia. Sahni said that playing quality opposition in difficult conditions helped his players develop, both mentally and in terms of skills.
"We could not have had a more thorough preparation. The weather was extremely hot and humid there," Sahni said. "The Sri Lankan side we played had Upul Tharanga, Nuwan Pradeep, Dhammika Prasad and Kaushal Silva. We even beat them in the four-day games. Getting results against such players gave us a lot of confidence."
That confidence carried into the Ranji season and helped MP recover from their disastrous start against Baroda. "It could have happened to any side given the conditions on that day. The ball was moving around a lot and if we had bowled first on that pitch, I think even Baroda would have been in trouble," Devendra Bundela, the MP captain, said. "We made 365 in the second innings. Most sides would have lost by an innings after conceding such a big lead ."
Sahni told his men to treat the Baroda match as history. "There was no point worrying about what had already happened. 'Our season begins against Bengal now,' I told them." But MP ran into a red-hot Manoj Tiwary in Kolkata and after he helped Bengal to 496, another setback seemed in store for MP. These are moments when a side reveals its true character. Naman Ojha responded with the first of his three hundreds this season, Mohnish Mishra made another and the lower order stood up to take MP to 533. Sahni said they had tackled a similar situation successfully in Sri Lanka and that experience proved useful against Bengal.
Having realised that it was possible for them to survive in the Elite League, MP's ambitions now grew. They played their two home games against Gujarat and Delhi at the Emerald High School Ground in Indore on a result-oriented wicket which Sanjay Jagdale, the BCCI secretary, called the "best in the country". Their pace-oriented attack set up tight chases in both matches and the batsmen did not disappoint them. MP now had 13 points from four games and were in sight of the knockouts. "We knew we would need two outright wins if we were to make the quarter-finals,"Bundela said. "We took a risk [by playing at Emerald] and it paid off twice. It's not that our bowlers have taken wickets only at home. We went to Haryana next and made them follow on."
Both captain and coach are proud of their fast-bowling stocks. The pace attack has been led by TP Sudhindra, who is behind only Ashok Dinda this season with 35 wickets at 17.94. Ishwar Pandey has been a worthy partner with 22 victims in only his second season. Bundela says that they now have a pool of seven-eight quicks constantly competing for spots. Sahni cites the example of 21-year old Amarjeet Singh who picked up seven wickets on debut against Tamil Nadu.
MP's success has been achieved with a young squad that is entirely homegrown. Only Bundela and Abbas Ali are over 30. There are players from towns like Rewa and Saugor but no professional players from outside the state. Sahni feels that the importance of professionals is over-rated. "I agree that they bring in experience and a professional approach but why can't local players do the same?" Sahni said. "After all, it is the approach that counts."
The fact that MP don't have a star player has actually worked in their favour, Sudhindra says. "We have all grown up playing with each other at various levels. We also have someone who has played for India, Naman Ojha, and the experienced Bundela to guide us. We have really enjoyed our cricket this season."
While they may lack big players, Bundela, who played in MP's only Ranji final back in 1998-99, sees potential in his side. "I have played with a lot of really good MP teams. This one is not there yet, but it will become one of the finest in some years."