Rookies come to the party

Maharashtra started the season as unknowns. Mid-way into the Ranji Trophy and they're the talk of town, writes Sidharth Monga

Maharashtra started the season as unknowns. Mid-way into the Ranji Trophy and they're the talk of town, writes Sidharth Monga

Chandrakant Pandit: marshalling his men during practice © Cricinfo Ltd
Maharashtra went into the first match of the season with seven debutants. Some had not played much outside their districts, most were torchbearers for towns that hadn't produced first-class cricketers earlier. Unlike a few other states, Maharashtra hadn't been impoverished by the ICL (only a couple defected) but had decided to ease out a few players for a few fresh ones.
Left to themselves in unknown territory, they've held their own. Halfway into the Ranji season, and they've been the side that's made everyone take notice. They entered the first match without Sairaj Bahutule and Hrishikesh Kanitkar, their two most experienced hands, but nearly grabbed first-innings points against Tamil Nadu. Had rain not intervened, a victory was on the cards. They went on to beat Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh before stunning Mumbai, at the Wankhede Stadium, for the first-innings lead.
The defeat to Delhi in the previous round was the only blemish, one without which they were prime candidates for a semi-final slot. Now, tied in the second place with Mumbai and Saurashtra, they're still in with a good chance. It is tempting to think that such a young side would be happy with the performances they've put up so far, that results shouldn't actually matter so much. Their coach, Chandrakant Pandit, would have none of it. "What do we play for?" he asks. "It's not only for fun; we have to win. And I am obsessed with winning."
It helps to have such a coach, one who's spent his whole career figuring out new ways to win. "In one way it was good for us that they were not experienced in the Ranji Trophy, because by the time they realised the significance of what they were doing, they were four games into the competition," Pandit says. Playing a natural, fearless brand of cricket, they threw themselves around readily. So high were the enthusiasm levels that they appeal every time the ball strikes the pad.
Yet for all the enthusiasm and natural talent, it is tough to compete in the Ranji Trophy with no senior to look up to. There is a way to go about building a long innings, a way to work the batsmen out. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, a veteran of 14 seasons, joined the team only in the fourth game. "It was difficult for them, because I still think they are not a mature team," says Pandit. "Ranji Trophy is different from districts cricket; there you always play fearless cricket." What Pandit says is especially evident from the batsmen's approach. The openers go for their shots regardless of the situation, often getting out slashing outside off stump.
"They don't have that Mumbai culture of the urgency, the aggressiveness. Some of them are from districts where they haven't played this kind of cricket before. Some of them are from well-to-do families from Pune" - Chandrakant Pandit
The runs have still come; someone has put his hand up so far. Harshad Khadiwale, in his second season, scored a century in Chennai; Venugopal Rao and Bahutule bailed them out against Himachal Pradesh; Yogesh Takawale and Vishal Bhilare rescued them against Mumbai.
The bowlers are no magicians but have snapped up wickets, including 40 against Rajasthan and Himachal. Greenhorns Samad Fallah and Wahid Sayyed have done well in Munaf Patel's absence. Salil Agharkar has proved to be a stable left-arm spinner. All have exceeded expectations. Few had heard of them when the selectors announced their names. None of them had played U-19 for India, as opposed to some of the other youngsters they were up against. Sayyed, for example, who is from Aurangabad, had not even played in the invitational league before that.
When this team was assembled, the biggest challenge was to take them one level up to the Ranji Trophy. It had helped that Maharashtra had followed a practice of letting juniors train with the Ranji team. "We have two groups: colts and seniors," says Pandit. "Colts have Under-17, Under-19, or Under-22, but that doesn't mean a good 17-year old can't practice with seniors. That is how we are trying to blood in youngsters.
"When they came into the team, they had a lot of fear because the communication gap [with the seniors] has always been there. And there was fear because they had watched them playing for so many years. I have been having group talks, trying to create a team atmosphere. We get together and watch movies. I ask them to initiate entertainment activities. But some of them keep to themselves, and that pressure can be seen at team dinners too. I have also asked seniors to go out of the way and help youngsters. Slowly the communication gap will be reduced, this is just the fifth match."

Harshad Khadiwale: began the season with a century in Chennai © Cricinfo Ltd
It going to take some time for the rookies to get close to seniors like Kanitkar and Bahutule, no extroverts themselves, but things are gradually changing on the field. Kanitkar takes the responsibility of holding the batting together. He is seen having chats with the other batsmen while out in the middle. On the day when Maharashtra are going to bat, one can see Kanitkar bat with the youngsters. When the duo recovered from their injures and returned to the side, some of the youngsters went up to Pandit and said they felt the difference. They weren't alone on the field, they were now backed by players with fine records. "I saw where they were coming from. We had felt the same with the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Sandeep Patil."
Going into the fifth round as group leaders, they chose to bat first against second-placed Delhi. It was a tricky track and the batsmen played far too many shots. Towards the end of the second day, when Delhi were set for a big lead, the Maharashtra bowlers were not out there warming up. It was enough for the coach to have a go. "Our body language suggested we had already lost the game," said Pandit. "I had to give them examples of how teams have come back after conceding leads too. They don't have that Mumbai culture of the urgency, the aggressiveness. Some of them are from districts where they haven't played this kind of cricket before. Some of them are from well-to-do families from Pune."
It showed in their second-innings batting as well. When a 100-run fifth-wicket stand seemed like taking them towards safety, the rest seemed too relaxed, as if they weren't expecting to bat soon. It took one hat-trick to seal the match.
What was heartening, though, was their sign off. Defending 50 runs on the final day, they opened with a spinner, and took three wickets for 20 runs. The fielders were charged up, the bowlers were running in hard, and chances were being created. A point had been made: even after falling behind, they could be in the game, that winning ultimately matters more than exceeding expectations.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo