“It’s always ‘You vs You’ and always try to go one step forward each day. Everything is possible. Don’t give up, because it is the easiest thing to do. Always choose (the) most difficult task… Control what is in your control. ‘Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact’ – William James,” Priyank Panchal wrote in his diary after Gujarat entered the Ranji Trophy knockouts, on the heels of three consecutive centuries — 232 against Mumbai, 314 not out against Punjab and 113 versus Tamil Nadu.
Panchal is the leading light of Gujarat batting this season with 1,120 runs in eight matches. He is the highest scorer in the Ranji Trophy at the moment, going at an average of 101.81. No player from Gujarat has topped the scoring chart since the tournament’s inception in 1934. The honour is now Panchal’s to lose.
But there’s a different side to him as well, away from cricket. He is a voracious reader and loves to write.
“I picked up the habit when I was 19. I think it changed my life. I usually read autobiographies of cricketers. Books on my idol Rahul sir (Dravid) are special but I was fascinated to read the life stories of Ricky sir (Ponting) and Sachin sir (Tendulkar) as well. I write a diary almost every day, even during matches. I write about myself and other memorable incidents or events. The six-seven hours I get after the day’s play, I like to keep it to myself. I’m thinking about starting a blog and also doing an online course in sports management,” Panchal told The Indian Express.
‘Thou shalt in need of thee,’ Len Hutton had once uttered as he handed over the ball to Frank Tyson, with England struggling to break an Australian middle-order partnership during the 1954-55 Ashes series. ‘Typhoon’ Tyson was a schoolmaster, a Geoffrey Chaucer and William Wordsworth fan, who taught English literature.
Former England captain Mike Brearley is a Cambridge University postgraduate. More recently, Mike Atherton studied history at Downing College and became a Cambridge University blue.
Indian cricket, too, had a fair share of engineers, Xaverians and even Oxons – Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, his son Mansoor Ali Khan and Abbas Ali Baig, for example – until the turn of the century. Of late, though, there’s a decline on the educational side.
Youngsters start professional cricket careers early these days and barely have time to pursue higher education. Panchal, once again, is refreshingly different with a postgraduate degree in financial management from the Gujarat University.
Panchal had a feel of the Indian dressing room in 2012, when he was drafted in as a reserve for the fourth Test against England in Nagpur. The team had released Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane for the Ranji Trophy and Panchal came as a cover. He got a valuable piece of advice from MS Dhoni. “Jo dil se khelta hai uske shots se hi pata chalta hai (he who plays with his heart, his shots become a reflection of his passion).”
The callow cricketer was all ears in a change room full of superstars. “India were trailing 2-1 in the series but the top players were so positive. They talked about the process, about planning the innings and I learnt a lot. And they never made me feel left out despite being a reserve. Once I was standing outside a team huddle but Ishant Sharma took me there,” Panchal recalled.
The Ranji Trophy’s neutral venue switch this term made every batsman, especially openers, readjust. Panchal has had his own methods.
“First of all, neutral venues taught us a lot about adaptability. We have played on different types of pitches this year. On greentops, I took a middle stump guard and tried to play close to the body and as late as possible. On batting tracks or spinning tracks, I played with a conventional leg or leg-middle guard.” Gujarat coach Vijay Patel used the word “contrasting” to compare Panchal and his state team opening partner, world record holder, Samit Gohel’s batting styles.
“Panchal plays his shots. If the first ball of a match is a half-volley, he will try to hit a four. Sometimes we had to tell him to control. For Samit, it was about urging him to play his shots. Now, both have better balance in their batting and they complement each other,” Patel told this paper.
Former Gujarat Ranji team coach Mukund Parmar, a domestic cricket stalwart, gave a more specific low-down.
“Initially, he (Panchal) had problems with his back-lift. It was coming more from the leg side, locking his front shoulder in the process. Naturally, he had issues with incoming deliveries and outswingers from the middle stump. We did video analysis and I think he corrected it in just four-five net sessions. He is a quick learner,” said Parmar, who was also the Gujarat Ranji team chief selector when Panchal made his first-class debut in 2008.
“He also did a lot of match-situation practice, keeping training cones, to enhance his ability to find the gaps. Now he has struck the right balance. His loading part is much improved, which helps him judge the length better,” Parmar added.
“I read a book that had a Virender Sehwag interview. Viru sir said, ‘If you a get a boundary ball even in the very first over of the match, it’s your duty to put it away’. I try to follow his philosophy,” Panchal explained. A sheet of paper always accompanies him to the nets. It reminds him of ‘research, planning, visualisation, implementation and analysis’.” Tell him about being the Ranji Trophy’s top scorer, and Panchal would say: “It feels amazing to be in the Ranji Trophy semifinals. I contributed to the team, which is good but our goal is to win the title.”
Little wonder then that the players didn’t go overboard to celebrate Samit’s world record after the quarterfinal against Orissa. “We will celebrate if we win the Ranji Trophy,” Panchal said.
He is a self-made cricketer without a personal coach. “Kiran Bramhat was my coach at the (summer) camp but I never had a personal coach. Even today, I analyse my own game. Of course, I speak to Parthiv bhai (Patel) and other teammates and our Ranji team coach Vijay Patel and try to learn from them, but you need to have a clear idea about your game and the areas you need to work on.”
He is now 26. Losing his father at 15 was difficult. “My father was a huge cricket enthusiast. He played the game at university level and was the reason why I became a cricketer. He took me to a summer camp when I was 10. He admitted me to Hiramani School because it had good cricket facilities,” Panchal recounted.
The late Kiritbhai Panchal was into share trading. His untimely death was a blow to the family.
“My mother (Diptiben) took all responsibilities after my father passed away. She started fashion designing, did all the hard work to ensure I could play cricket untroubled. Then, my elder sister Brinda also got a job. They protected me and my cricket throughout,” Panchal said.
Parmar said the India ‘A’ team would be Panchal’s next test. He is expected to get a call-up after such a fantastic season. “India ‘A’, if he gets there, would be a hard grind. It’s very close to top-level international cricket. Panchal has the potential to play for India but to reach the highest level, he will have to thrive in the hard grind.” Panchal doesn’t have an IPL contract. But tell him to choose between IPL and English County cricket, and he would hesitate.
“It’s a tough call. IPL gives great exposure and offers a terrific opportunity to play alongside top international cricketers. At the same time, county cricket presents the chance to improve your skills in different conditions and become a better longer format cricketer. This is hypothetical, but if ever I have to decide between the two, it would be extremely difficult.”
The beauty of the Ranji Trophy is that it throws up talents hitherto unknown.
Two Indian domestic cricket also-rans, Gujarat and Jharkhand, would be playing in the semifinal. And Panchal finishing as the tournament top scorer would be further confirmation to the progress made by smaller states, cricket-wise.
Breakthrough season for Priyank Panchal
Top scores: 314 not out vs Punjab; 232 vs Mumbai; 113 vs Tamil Nadu.
1 – Priyank Panchal is the first player from Gujarat to score more than 1,000 runs in a Ranji season.
# In an age when youngsters start professional cricket early, Panchal is a throwback to the past. He has a postgraduate degree in financial management from the Gujarat University.
# His father Kiritbhai was a share trader, who died when Priyank was just 15. Mother Diptiben took the financial responsibility of the family and started fashion designing. Later, his elder sister Brinda also got a job, helping Priyank to completely focus on cricket.