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Chandrakant Pandit: High Priest of Ranji Coaching

“There should be a bit of fear in the player, otherwise he won’t do what he’s supposed to. And he knows he’ll face Sir’s wrath if he doesn’t go according to plan,” said Ishwar Pandey, the veteran fast bowler from Madhya Pradesh.

Planning and discipline – that is essentially the philosophy of coach Chandrakant Pandit. The former Indian wicketkeeper-batsman has led another side unaccustomed to summits – in this case Madhya Pradesh – to their first Ranji Trophy final in 23 years. After winning back-to-back titles with then-unknown Vidarbha three years ago, Pandit now takes on his ‘home team’ Mumbai, whom he coached to their last title in 2015/16.

Pandit is famous for his tough taskmaster style and meticulously prepared plans that allow for no interference from either the captain or the bowler. During a Ranji semi-final against Karnataka, he had taken the phones away from the Vidarbha players, fearing they would be checking them late and losing concentration. There are stories about how he wasn’t averse to beating the odd player who broke a law he had set. This aspect of his coaching is the most hyped, but behind the remote control is undoubtedly a method that has worked for years.

Pandit is famous for his tough taskmaster style and meticulously prepared plans that allow for no interference from either the captain or the bowler. (File)

“The two go hand in hand, planning and discipline,” says former India and Mumbai all-rounder Abhishek Nayar, who played under Pandit’s coach. “All of his schemes require a certain amount of skill and discipline. He tries to incorporate certain life skills that help players on the pitch. Ranji Trophy is a format where each person can play a role and you can control the game. He understands and assigns roles to players very early in the season. But to fulfill those roles, whether it’s playing a certain number of balls or playing in a certain style, his ideology of discipline comes into play.

“It also goes hand-in-hand with analytical work on what opponents have done in the past and what they are doing now,” adds Nayar. “He (Pandit) needs the freedom to choose the kind of players he wants and then he gets the results that the federation wants.”

Both the Vidarbha Cricket Association and now the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association have given Pandit the latitude to run a taut ship and benefited from it.

“Chandu devised all the strategy and planned the training sessions,” former Indian opener Wasim Jaffer, who was part of the victorious Vidarbha side, once told this correspondent. “He gave everyone confidence. Kisiko pyaar se samjhaana, kisiko daantke samjhaana [Convince some with love, some with scolding].

“That is the role of the coach. It’s nothing new for him, he’s been doing it for so many years. And Vidarbha needed someone like that,” Jaffer had said. “Today’s youth need someone to push them out of their comfort zone, and without a doubt he has done that in a big way.”

Difficult act to follow

It’s a narrow rope that some other native trainers have tried unsuccessfully. Push too hard and you may lose respect from the dressing room. Nayar doesn’t see that in Pandit. “Because he takes responsibility for his actions and doesn’t blame the player if something goes wrong,” says Nayar. “If you follow him blindly and fail, he will most likely take responsibility. That gives a player security. And if you keep playing endgames, you naturally grow as a player.”

Pandey, who took 11 wickets averaging 20 until injuring himself before the knockouts, was one who benefited from following Pandit’s orders. In his 12th year as a top-flight cricketer, Pandey says he enjoyed a “very different experience” than what he had had in his career up to that point.

“He’s excellent at reading players. He will assess an opposing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses and then have us bowl accordingly. It makes it easier for us and we don’t have to try too hard to make things happen,” says Pandey.

“I’m someone who acts more on a disciplined line and length than attacking. So he’s saying you have three choices for layoffs – bowling, catch-behind, and leg-before. Just bowl to a reasonable length, that’s what red ball cricket is all about anyway. And bowlers who have more pace than me, like Puneet (Datey), (Gaurav) Yadav and Kuldeep (Sen) obviously have a different role to play.”

Of course, one should not deviate from the path taken by Pandit on the field, unless he reports himself with a request for a change of tactics.

“Planning is done in front of everyone and the team follows it, ki bhai ye karna hai aur kaam khatam [we have to do this, and nothing else]. It’s not like the bowler does what he has in mind and the captain thinks about something else,” Pandey explains.

“For example, if you need to keep an outfield player in a certain position, you have to do that. It may take some time before you get the result, but the process has to be gone through. If it doesn’t work, he sends a message with another plan. He relies heavily on news that something is going to happen now, so change the field for that delivery and so on.

“Sir is asking us to stick to the basics of the game and not overthink it,” says Pandey.

The downside to this micromanagement approach is that those used to overthinking and expressing their thoughts sometimes have trouble fitting into this environment. And those who have grown accustomed to being fed plans may never grow enough to start thinking.

“You see, there are many players who also do their best under the guidance of others. Some are even motivated by receiving instruction as they rely on input from others,” says former Madhya Pradesh captain Devendra Bundela, who was the team’s batting coach before Pandit took over.

“He (Pandit) has his own way of thinking, but his overall understanding of the game is remarkable,” adds Bundela. “There might be some who don’t like his style of work, but he also gives you the results and you can’t really argue with that.”

Says Nayar: “For every good there is a bad. A player who wants to grow will grow, and a player who doesn’t want to, won’t. I always say that when everything is fine with someone, they’re not trying to make a difference, they’re just trying to stay in the system long enough to survive.

“Chandu Sir is a very brave person, he takes the responsibility to control all controllable elements. And the results he has presented over the years only prove that his coaching style has many more advantages than disadvantages.”

Unique style

Nayar, who was in the final quarter of a stellar national career when Pandit coached Mumbai, says he took with him how Pandit brought players together with discipline. “Sometimes you can be the bad guy on the team and that can help the team come together. And he likes to do that because he’s this strong headmaster and everyone rebels against him. Not many people can do that. He doesn’t play it safe,” says Nayar.

The last time MP played the final was in 1998/99, Pandit was their captain. A young Bundela who went on to become the third best run-getter in Ranji Trophy history was part of that squad and recalls the support he received from his skipper.

“You have to give the players confidence, especially the young ones who are hesitant at first and can easily be overwhelmed. If they get support at the beginning, it makes a big difference for them,” says Bundela.

“I remember when I was young Chandu Bhai was very supportive, ki jaao aur bindaas khelo [just go out and play freely]. His presence has made a huge difference to this team; Over the past few years, after speaking to him, her confidence and self-confidence have grown,” adds Bundela. “Hard work is essential and that’s exactly what he’s doing with this team behind him.”

Pandit himself has admitted in the past that his methods may not work at international level, but Nayar calls him the “king” of the Ranji trophy.

“Nobody can get near him there. He figured out how to win championships,” says Nayar. “It’s one thing to win a championship with a strong team, it’s another to win with a team that has never won before. He is undoubtedly the best first class coach in India.”

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