The last time Madhya Pradesh were in the Ranji Trophy Super League was in 2003-04. You would expect Devendra Bundela, the MP captain, to be thrilled to escape the anonymity of the Plate League but he says the journey has just begun. "We are happy of course but we are not satisfied," Bundela told ESPNcricinfo. "Madhya Pradesh cricket deserves this. Our standard of cricket, at the grassroots and in our state side, is good enough to be competing in Super League."
What gives hope is the way they have systematically plugged the holes that sunk them down to Plate. In the turbulent phase, their seam attack was weak, and they struggled. "We wouldn't get the new ball breakthroughs and the entire load used to fall upon our batsmen," their coach Mukesh Sahni said. "The opposition always used to put us under pressure by piling up the runs. Now we have a balanced attack." The seamers - TP Sudhindra (23 wickets), Anand Rajan (19), Amit Sharma (17), and Ishwar Pandey (9) - have taken the bulk of the wickets to change the fortunes of the team this season. Their batting, led by the captain Bundela (500 runs), Naman Ojha (545) and Mohnish Mishra (543), sparkled consistently and as a result, MP haven't lost a single match this season.
Another big factor was the change in the mindset during pressure games. While the monsoon season did them in last year - many games were washed out - MP have done well in the last few years, consistently turning up for the Plate semi-finals where they have choked. "The boys tended to panic at the big stage," Sahni said. "Our main focus was to change that mindset. We played every match as a knockout this year. And when we landed up at the Plate semi-final, the boys didn't feel any pressure."
The hunger to succeed fast-tracked the process of maturity. Sahni puts it thus: "The players were aware that if the team does well, only then their name will get recognised. They knew that the real recognition will come only in the Super League. That's where the exposure lies and that's where they can build their reputation."
It's a sentiment shared by one of their high-scoring batsmen Mohnish. "When you perform in Plate, your performances can be ignored by selectors and media. Performance is counted only when you perform in Super League, and we were all driven by that ambition."
Another thing that helped the team mature was the exposure many players got by playing in ICL and IPL. Mohnish himself played in both, first for Delhi Giants in ICL before playing for Deccan Chargers in the IPL. "That toughened me a lot," Mohnish said. "There are other players in our team who have played in these competitions, and those experiences helped us get hungry for more success." It's a nice instance of Twenty20 competitions helping a first-class team grow more ambitious and mentally stronger.
With the motivation and talent in place at the start of the season, it came down to their preparation. MP started early in summer; the team went to Australia for league games that gave them tremendous confidence and exposure, they then won the Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 tournament which gave them momentum. Sahni picks out a game against Uttar Pradesh in Muhstaq Ali as a major catalyst. "They had scored about 190, and they had bowlers like RP Singh, Sudeep Tyagi and Piyush Chawla, but we chased it down. It gave us great momentum and confidence."
The coach and the captain, though, realise they have to put in more hard work to compete strongly in the Super League. "We have the talent and potential, and we need to get more disciplined in all the departments. We have played on sporting tracks, with help for seamers, and our spinners haven't had much to do. We need to work on our spin, our fielding and in all departments." Are MP here to stay in the Super League? If you believe their think-tank, they aren't here just to survive but to compete. Only time will tell.