Anmolpreet Singh has just taken two excellent catches in the final of the 2023-24 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Running in from long-on and sliding in, he pouches Baroda captain Krunal Pandya. Two balls later, charging in once again and putting in a full-length dive, he sends back Shivalik Sharma.
Anmolpreet's brilliance has put Punjab on the cusp of victory in Mohali. But Mandeep Singh, his captain, is having flashbacks to the 2020-21 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy semi-final against the same team.
In that game, Anmolpreet misjudged a similar chance and it went over him for four. The reprieved batter, Kartik Kakade, went on to score a crucial half-century and steer Baroda to 160. It proved 25 too many for Punjab.
"Anmolpreet is one of the best fielders in India; he has got great hands," Mandeep says. "When he took those two catches, I got all those flashbacks, and how life comes full circle."
In the last four seasons, Punjab had reached the knockouts six times across formats. But they couldn't make it to the final until Monday, when they beat Baroda by 20 runs, thus ending a 30-year trophy drought.
Punjab's previous domestic title was the Ranji Trophy in 1992-93. Thirteen out of 17 members of their current squad were not even born then. So what worked for them this time? According to Mandeep, winning crunch moments was the biggest difference. And to make that possible, the whole ecosystem worked together behind the scenes.
"We wanted to win a trophy for a long time, especially for Yuvi paaji [Yuvraj Singh] and Bhajju paaji [Harbhajan Singh] as they had done a lot for the team," he says. "Unfortunately, it couldn't happen when they were playing. Sometimes the preparation wasn't that good, sometimes, the team was going through a transition phase.
"Still, we are a very talented bunch. But we were not able to win the crunch moments in knockout games. For example, in the quarter-final and semi-final this year, we lost three early wickets and needed to stabilise the innings. Earlier, that wouldn't happen. This year, we did that. I think that was a big change this year.
"And the Coach Saab had a big role to play in everything."
Coach Saab, as Mandeep refers to Aavishkar Salvi throughout our conversation, took over the reins in August 2022. Under Salvi, Punjab made it to the knockouts of all three domestic tournaments that season: semi-finals of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, quarter-finals of the Vijay Hazare Trophy and quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy.
"He is the backbone of our team," Mandeep continues. "He has created a new value system. He also re-introduced the fitness culture. We set a benchmark for the Yo-Yo test. Last year it was 16.1; this time, we increased it to 16.5."
Salvi explains his philosophy: "Whatever the situation is, you think about the team first. I always thought that if you have a growth mindset, a strong work ethic and a brilliant attitude, then you're talking business. And that's what I gave the entire impetus on, to make these three pillars of our team."
He had a hand in getting Mandeep to lead the side once again as well. Mandeep became the captain of Punjab in 2012-13. When he started playing cricket, he had two goals: "To play for India, which I did in 2016, and to win a trophy for Punjab."
"I had won three-four trophies at the junior level," he says. "But when we were not able to win at the senior level, people started saying we could win only in juniors, not in seniors. Slowly, it started pinching."
Taking the losses to heart, Mandeep stepped down from captaincy in 2021, thinking a new leader with fresh ideas might change the results.
"Last year, when Coach Saab came, he said I had to lead and not think about all these things," Mandeep says. "Honestly, he didn't give me a choice (laughs)."
For Salvi, it was a no-brainer: "Because if you see Mandeep, his work ethic is very strong, his attitude is superb, he inspires a lot of youngsters and seniors within the team, and he was still performing."
"When Coach Saab came, he said we needed to decide whether we wanted to participate, or compete, or dominate. Last year, we felt we competed. So at the start of this season, we said we had to dominate this time"
Another thing that made a difference was the Punjab Cricket Association starting their own T20 league, the Sher-e-Punjab T20 Cup, in July. That laid the foundation for this season.
Most players in Punjab's T20 squad were already part of various IPL teams - including all 12 who played the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy final. However, many of them didn't get regular game time there. The Sher-e-Punjab T20 Cup provided that opportunity.
"It was a fantastic initiative by our honourable secretary Mr Dilsher Khanna and our CEO Mr Deepak Sharma ji," Salvi says. "Our joint-secretary and, obviously, our president Mr. [Amarjit Singh] Mehta, all of them were behind conducting that. The boys were playing only district cricket against each other, but most of the superstars of Punjab cricket played in that tournament. And playing in Mohali under lights, live games, close finishes - it was a good learning curve for them."
Then, after a short break, Salvi conducted an off-season camp in Mohali. "I don't think we have had such a camp before," Mandeep says. "We were completely pushed out of our comfort zone."
"In those 14 days, I wanted the players to challenge themselves in five aspects: tactically, technically, physically, mentally, and in life skills," Salvi says. "There were a lot of activities from morning to evening. And in those activities, there were a lot of challenges thrown at them."
Mandeep goes into detail of some of the challenges: "At one side there was white-ball practice. For me, someone who bats in the middle overs, they would say it's the last over of the powerplay, these are the next three bowlers, this is the field, and you have to play till the middle phase.
"Once you are done with that, straightaway you go into the red-ball net. There the scenario is that you are batting with No. 10, you have to farm the strike, attack the first four balls and look for a single on the fifth.
"For someone like Sanvir [Singh] and Raman[deep Singh], who are our power-hitters, they would do the white-ball simulation first. In the red-ball net, their target would be to save a match. Completely out of their comfort zone, but such situations can arise in a game."
None of this would have been possible without the association's support, Salvi emphasises. "The kind of freedom our top management gave us is unmatchable," he says. "They completely backed us and provided us with all the facilities we wanted - no questions asked.
"At the same time, they were fully involved too. They took regular updates on what was happening on the ground, how the boys were shaping up, and if we needed further help. Bhajju paaji, from the advisory board, and Dilsher Khanna, our secretary, were always there for us. It definitely helps when you have complete freedom and, at the same time, there is a lot of care shown as well by the stakeholders."
Punjab started their campaign with a defeat. Chasing 212 against Saurashtra, they were all out for 174. But they took positives from the fact that despite five of their top seven getting out in single digits, they got within 37 runs of the target.
From there on, Abhishek Sharma found a purple patch. It started with 112 off 51 balls against Andhra when Punjab posted a tournament-record 275 for 6; he followed it up with scores of 82 off 38, 53 off 26 and 112 off 56. Punjab won their remaining group matches easily.
The real challenge started with the quarter-final. Chasing 170 against Uttar Pradesh, they were 14 for 3, with Abhishek, Prabhsimran Singh and Mandeep back in the pavilion. This was one of those crunch moments Mandeep was talking about.
Anmolpreet and Nehal Wadhera stabilised the innings, but Wadhera was struggling. At the end of the 13th over, when the asking rate was 12, he was on 25 off 29 balls. In the next ten balls, though, he hit two fours and two sixes, and with 53 needed from the last five overs, Sanvir and Ramandeep took the side home with five balls to spare.
In the semi-final against Delhi, Punjab once again lost three early wickets in their chase of 184. Legspinner Suyash Sharma was the biggest threat and had just trapped Anmolpreet lbw with a faster one. But Abhishek and Mandeep neutralised him and Punjab won comfortably.
"If you ask me who my wicket-takers are in the middle overs, it's Mayank Markande and Harpreet Brar; they have strike rates of 12 and 14 in that phase. But data and your conviction, you should blend both and come up with a decision"
Punjab head coach Aavishkar Salvi
The final was against Baroda, a team that had beaten Punjab in the 2011-12 final and the 2020-21 semi-final. "It was not like we were seeking any revenge, but we had it at the back of our minds that they had beaten us a couple of times," says Mandeep, who was part of both those losses.
Put into bat, Punjab rode on Anmolpreet's hundred and Wadhera's unbeaten 61 off 27 balls to post a daunting 223 for 4. Baroda gave a tough fight, as Krunal and Abhimanyusingh Rajput brought the equation down to 76 needed from five overs.
"One thought at that time was to give Arsh[deep Singh] an over," Mandeep says. "But I trusted Ballu [Baltej Singh]. That was the most important over of the match because the Baroda batters knew Arsh had two overs left and Sid one. So they were looking to target that over. But the way Ballu bowled six yorkers on the trot, and conceded just one boundary, and ten runs in all, made me so proud."
The game was on the line again when Siddarth Kaul went for 24 in the 18th. Baroda needed 33 from two overs, with one of those overs likely to be bowled by left-arm spinner Harpreet Brar in dewy conditions. Arshdeep, though, all but sealed Punjab's win with an excellent 19th over, in which he conceded just four runs and picked up three wickets.
Apart from winning the crunch moments, what stood out was the attacking brand of cricket Punjab played. "When Coach Saab came, he said we needed to decide whether we wanted to participate, or compete, or dominate," Mandeep says. "Last year, we felt we competed. So at the start of this season, we said we had to dominate this time. Play with full freedom without worrying about the result."
That fearlessness was reflected in Punjab's batting. Of their seven regular batters, five had strike rates over 160. As a team, they hit a six every ten balls, and a boundary every four balls - the best in the tournament on both metrics. Overall, they hit 114 sixes; Assam were a distant second with 85.
Anmolpreet was the biggest beneficiary of this new-found freedom provided. Before this season, he averaged 22.21 in T20 cricket at a strike rate of 115.61. Here, he scored at an average of 44.37 and a strike rate of 180.20. He almost doubled his six tally as well. Earlier, he had 21 sixes in 40 innings; here he smashed 20 in just nine.
Salvi is aware of all the numbers. It becomes even more apparent when he talks about Kaul, who is now the leading wicket-taker in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, overtaking Piyush Chawla during the tournament.
"Every eighth ball Siddarth Kaul has bowled in the tournament with the new ball, he has picked up a wicket. That's a very difficult task. One might be expensive in the slog [Kaul's economy this season was 9.17], but he is picking up wickets for you with the new ball, that is what you want in the powerplay. And that is what he has done successfully. And it's not just one season; he has done it season after season.
"In the last season, he was the highest wicket-taker. This year he is the highest for Punjab; in the top five overall. He's been playing regularly for the last 13 years - to maintain that consistency is not easy. T20 is not a game where every year you will come up with the economical spells. But if you see his career economy, it's brilliant. For a fast bowler to have a career economy under seven [7.02 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy] is brilliant."
But Salvi likes to blend the data with instincts. "If you ask me who my wicket-takers are in the middle overs, it's Mayank Markande and Harpreet Brar; they have strike rates of 12 and 14 in that phase. That's something you should know as a coach. But data and your conviction, you should blend both and come up with a decision. And I think Mandeep is pretty good at that. At times you might be wrong, but at least there is some rationale behind our thought process."
For Salvi, too, it is his first BCCI trophy. And he is not the one to sit on his laurels. Two days after the final, he is busy preparing for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, working with Punjab's back-up wicketkeepers Anmol Malhotra and Naman Dhir.