From 'total chaos', Mumbai become Mumbai again
The inside story of a champion team's phoenix-like rise to win their fourth domestic 50-over title
Even as Mumbai sank to four defeats in five matches at the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, things were going from bad to worse at the Mumbai Cricket Association, whose scrap with the Cricket Improvement Committee was out in the open. Who the coach would be was a big bone of contention.
It wouldn't be Amit Pagnis. He was done after the T20 tournament. So, Ramesh Powar, after a convoluted and messy process, took charge 48 hours after the team was to depart for the Vijay Hazare Trophy. He has now helmed Mumbai to their fourth domestic 50-overs title.
Powar's appointment meant Mumbai had a fourth coach in the last three years. Pagnis, his predecessor, had been a late replacement for former wicketkeeper Vinayak Samant, under whom they won the Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2018-19 but had a poor Ranji Trophy. Samant had been brought in after Sameer Dighe was let go after one season. The churn threatened to take the focus completely away from the cricket.
Even as the MCA and the CIC squabbled in full public view, Aditya Tare, one of their senior players, found to his shock that he had been given no explanation for his omission from the Vijay Hazare Trophy longlist. It wasn't until Powar's intervention that Tare was picked again. On Sunday, Tare scored his maiden List-A century in a tall chase as Mumbai beat Uttar Pradesh in the final to break a streak of six tournaments without a trophy. It capped a remarkable turnaround for a team that appeared to have been in the doldrums only six weeks earlier.
"There was a lot of stuff happening," Tare tells ESPNcricinfo of the state of flux Mumbai were in. "There was no camp, then the results in the Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Senior players had an axe on them, they were called a lot of things. It was like we were humiliated. A lot of remarks were passed, questions raised about the future of certain individuals. It was tough."
On his very first day on the job, Powar knew cricket was far off, and there was a crisis to be resolved first. "Total chaos, crisis, and I like such a situation," Powar says of his first thoughts as he linked up with the team. "In a way, when things are so bad, the only way is up. Everyone's character shines through in a crisis. It's easier to take over a team in chaos because everyone has that fire of wanting to fight back and answer the critics, even if they may not admit to it openly. I could see that with this group too."
A tough talker, Powar gave no illusions to the team in his first chat with them at the Wankhede Stadium before departure. "They were low, disappointed with themselves that they'd let the Mumbai brand of cricket down. It was difficult to pick them up initially," Powar says.
Tare remembers having a sense of focus as they regrouped. "Ramsy (Powar) openly declared confidence into players. He said: 'once I back a player, I will back long-term.' That told the players he's not someone who will throw you out after two games. That feeling affects the mentality of a player and the squad. He addressed that in the first meeting itself, after which he did a lot of one-on-one work during our quarantine since we couldn't go out to train."
Once the talking was done, it was time to make the most of their two training sessions before the tournament. The focused vibe appeared to trickle down to the entire group. It began with the side being punctual for the nets, meetings and team events. Training sessions intense and structured.
"We told them, we will give them whatever they needed, infrastructure-wise and support-wise, but [we] expect the best, in terms of attitude and performance," Powar says. "They understood it wasn't just fun and games anymore."
Iyer, Suryakumar, Tare, Thakur play mentors
The one-on-ones were about setting expectations, prioritizing the first XI, clarifying every player's role and asking the senior group of five players - Tare, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Dhawal Kulkarni and Shardul Thakur - to play a mentorship role. They warmed up to it so seriously that even on the day of the final, hours before Iyer, Suryakumar and Shardul took the field for India in a T20I, they sent motivating messages to the entire team.
"We told each of them where they stand and if they fit into our scheme of things presently, [and] if not, what we've got planned for them," Powar says of the planning. "Some players were insecure, so you had to give them that confidence. Like for Tare, I told him you will play the entire tournament. I wanted Dhawal to be the bowling leader. The message for the batsmen was, you have freedom but there is responsibility too.
"If you hit fifty, I don't want you to be satisfied with it. Also, youngsters came with a fearless attitude. Mohit Avasthi, for example, wasn't in the first 15 but we gave him a chance because we saw a good attitude in the nets and rewarded him for it. That motivated a lot of guys."
Powar's brand of cricket is one of aggression. "On a seaming track, 10 overs, none for 30 is not useful," he says. "You may as well go for 50 runs and get us three wickets. On turning tracks, you can't get away bowling under-cutters, you need to go for wickets. I made it clear that winning doesn't matter, the brand of cricket matters, and you must be a match-winner, you must make a difference. Even when we won, we were critical in our assessment of the players in private. Everything was straightforward. It changed the entire outlook of the team."
'Show players what they can be, not what they are'
In a way, Powar's challenge was multifold because he was appointed for just one tournament in a pandemic year. With all of two sessions to find a winning blueprint, it could have been intimidating. Would Powar's methods have been different if he'd been given a three-year vision instead?
"One month or three years, my approach would've been the same," he says. "I have learnt a lot of things under Rahul Dravid during my stint at the NCA as one of the assistant coaches. One of the things is, you don't show a player what he is, but show him what he can be. It's not about timeframe but how you manage people, right from the support staff to curators to administrators to junior players.
"Outside of the cricket, I learnt plenty on the human behavioural aspect. See, you can have an easy way out and say 'I can't do anything in one month' or just say, 'give me 10 days and I'll do this.' For me, Mumbai's reputation was at stake and our brand of cricket was going down, that is why I jumped in. I thought there was a possibility of me being able can turn this around. So yes, three years or one month, no worries. This change in mindset has changed my thought process of head coach."
The human behavioural aspect that Powar refers to is quite revealing. Player management, he admits, has become an important part of his coaching blueprint. In 2019, his short tenure as head coach of India Women ended after he was embroiled in a controversy over not picking Mithali Raj, the women's ODI captain, for the T20 World Cup semi-final in the Caribbean. Raj had accused Powar of trying to "destroy" her career, and Powar responded by saying Raj had threatened to retire if she was not allowed to open.
Powar reflects on that episode and believes the experience has made him handle situations better. "There's no right or wrong," he says. "My heart was clear, and I've learnt many ways to handle situations. One of the things is you don't have to be proactive all the time, you can be subtle at times. There are different ways to convey certain things, it's a learning process.
"With time and knowledge, you gain from experienced people around you, you think 'I may have done this little differently,' but now I know, I have to have 20 methods to handle players, you can't have just one method or two methods. That's what I've learnt."
Project Prithvi Shaw
So how did Powar handle Prithvi Shaw? Dropped after one poor Test in Australia, Shaw admitted to having felt some loneliness on tour, even as the rest of the world dissected his batting technique. Back to the Mumbai set-up as captain after Iyer left midway through the tournament on national duty, Shaw turned a corner and responded by smashing 827 runs, the most in a single edition of the Vijay Hazare Trophy. He became the first player in List A history to make three 150-plus scores in a single series or tournament when he made 227*, 185* and 165 in his first three matches as captain.
"In Jaipur, we [support staff] and Shaw had a one-to-one. I asked him what he wants from us," Powar says. "We told him what's expected of him. I said 'look, you're a senior player in this squad, I want you to inspire young players' and in the end, I asked him what he wanted us to give him. He just wanted to keep the dressing room light and have good vibes. You could sense how he wanted to be around people, mingle with them. Maybe the loneliness did get to him, so having people around him who resonate with his ideas, really was a big plus.
"The way we structured practice you could see the change from the first session. He was happy with the atmosphere around, he batted for 15-20 minutes and then bowled at young batsmen like Yashasvi Jaiswal. Yes, technique-wise he was agitated, even disturbed. He said, 'my hands are going away [from my body], I have to get it closer, it won't come easy, but I will keep working on it in the room, trying to shadow practice my downswing.' But as much as it was about the technique, it was also about getting his mind right and getting him to understand why he needed to do certain things. Once that was sorted, he was clear.
"Before the final when we trained, he didn't bat at all. He bowled two hours to everyone with the sidearm. He likes to create an atmosphere where everyone is relaxed, everyone gets something out. He went through patches where he was alone, so he wanted to be there for everyone. I didn't know about him sobbing [after getting dropped in Australia] initially even though I got the feeling, talking to him later. You could see he didn't want to be alone, he wanted to mix with everyone. He was throwing at the batters not playing, not even in contention. Even the guys in the last seven."
'It's okay if I don't bat, give Jaiswal enough practice' - Sarfaraz
One of the things Powar wanted to inculcate was to get players talking more, and taking the onus on themselves. Team meetings, he says, were driven by the senior players to begin with. Youngsters would often be asked for their ideas, given situations, and asked how they'd approach it. One of the particularly engaging group sessions involved a debate with the team splitting themselves into Team Lionel Messi v Team Cristiano Ronaldo, depending on who they liked.
"That was fun," Powar says. "You could see them become lively and intense; it was as if you had unlocked something. They were fiercely debating, backed it with data, trophies they've won, what they did in which championship. It mirrored the on-field intensity. They were close, and even if everyone can't be friends all the time, you could say it got them closer."
Powar uses Jaiswal's example to underline this. "Yashasvi is a kind of player who plays thousands of balls at the nets, but because of quarantine restrictions and severe time crunch, he couldn't have the same level of build-up," Powar says. "You could see he was struggling for timing, struggling for runs. Before the quarter-final against Saurashtra, Sarfaraz Khan knocked on my room and said: 'Sir, I think Yashasvi is struggling, I think you should give him more batting. Even if it means my batting time is slightly reduced.'
"Now, I was surprised at his maturity of knowing what's best for the team at a given moment, even though Sarfaraz himself hadn't got too many opportunities to bat. It was particularly refreshing because Jaiswal and Sarfaraz are completely different individuals. Because of that, they're not the best of friends. But for the team's sake, here, they were ready to do anything. The was heartening. The next day he scored a 75, but yes, it told us he's someone who needs a lot of training. Maybe once the bubble is over, he will be a different player, type of guy who needs to bat more and more."
'Khadoos' is a thing of the past
While they've got their first trophy in the bag, for Powar, winning wasn't the only thing. It has started as a journey in trying to transform the "brand of cricket" - something he alludes to often - he wants to see Mumbai play. For starters, he wants to see the term 'khadoos' (a word that roughly means "stubborn", in the sense of batsmen putting a price on their wicket) being shelved, for he believes it isn't reflective of how the current generation of players approach the game. It's a common refrain to hear past players talk of how no season is successful until Mumbai have won it. Powar thinks it's time to redefine what a successful season is.
"A lot of people still say show 'khadoos' attitude. That's fine, it's in the past and we lived up to it," Powar explains. "But it's about time the current generation is motivated differently. Can't keep bringing that up again and again.
"We all know Mumbai's legacy has been built in red-ball cricket. Right now, there's a lot of white-ball cricket happening. This current group has 12 players featuring in the IPL. Going forward, the white-ball legacy can't be understated either. You can't be khadoos and dominate in white-ball cricket."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo