When the Maharashtra Cricket Association’s senior selection committee met in August to pick the squad for this season, the temptation to shake things up seemed quite high. Surendra Bhave, the former selection committee chief, had been appointed coach of the Maharashtra team after a rather disastrous outing under former English international Dermot Reeve.
The 2012-13 season had been one of Maharashtra’s worst — the team finished last in group B and failed to qualify for the knockouts of the one-day, as well as the Twenty20 tournament. In their last Ranji home game of the season, they surrendered meekly to Karnataka’s Abhimanyu Mithun and Stuart Binny, getting shot out for just 99.
There were calls for the captain’s head, batters were criticised for their alleged penchant to only rack up numbers for themselves and bowlers were panned for being ineffective. In all this chaos, Bhave, who attended that meeting on a gloomy August afternoon, says that he had only one defence up his sleeve.
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“Me and Shaun (Williams, General Manager (cricket) MCA) had felt right through last season, this team could bounce back if we just had that one defining session. Unfortunately that did not happen. But that day, I reiterated that this team was on the cusp of a turnaround. It was right there,” he says. Shaun Williams, who coached the side for three years, says that it was especially difficult to convince the selectors and the management to stick with the same guys.
“Last year, while the players had done well individually, the results were very poor. However, it was important to back our investment. We had picked these players for a certain reason. If there is going to be a change, then it should only be for the better.
The coaching staff knew these guys would come good,” he says. A fact bandied about by almost every opposing coach that has faced Maharashtra is that they are a “young and dangerous team”. The average age of this particular Maharashtra team is 24.6 and featured just one player above 30 against Mumbai. Interestingly, eight members of this team debuted roughly around the same time, from 2006 to 2010, and have since been persisted with.
The youth-first policy introduced in 2005, was at its peak when Williams, the current GM (cricket) took over 2008-09.
“I had 10 debutants in the first couple of domestic matches and 12 in total during the season. Also, the then captain (Nikhil Paradkar) had played just one game in his career, none of the batsmen had a First Class hundred and only one bowler had a five-wicket haul. It was a brand new team with no experience of First Class cricket,” says the Australian. That season, Maharashtra managed to stay in the Elite division and a celebratory atmosphere, feting this particular ‘youthful’ experiment wafted around.
“At times, a player who is thrown into a First Class environment does well because of the sudden change. However, the second season is the reality check and that is exactly what happened,” says Williams. The team was promptly relegated from the Elite group the following season. In the 2008-09 and the 2009-10 season, Maharashtra did not win a single game. In 2008-09, they finished one place above off the bottom, their three draws helping them barely cling to their Elite division spot. In 09-10, there were again no victories and the fresh-faced team was often found out against stronger opposition, sinking to the Plate division.
In all this yo-yoing around, the core of the team did not really change. Harshad Khadiwale, who is the most experienced batsman with 58 First Class matches, continued to open the batting. Kedar Jadhav, who till the beginning of last season only had two First Class hundreds in 32 games, continued to bat at number four.
Rohit Motwani, the skipper since the past three years kept the armband. Sangram Atitkar, Ankeet Bawne, Shrikant Mundhe and Samad Fallah, who all played important roles through this season, weren’t dumped. A case in point; Bawne’s average has not dropped below 50 for the past three seasons, Mundhe with 30 wickets this season is the second-highest wicket-taker and Fallah since the 2008-09 season has picked up 20 or more wickets every season.
Williams reiterates that though the figures in the win column did not change, the players and their cricketing nous did.
“When we blooded so many young players, it was a way of just seeing who had it in him to cut it out there. Once these boys showed their will to fight it out there, it was my job to persist with them. We have lost a few along the way, but I have always had faith that the majority of this side would eventually come good,” he says.
The Australian, who also coached Bangladesh, says, that once he understood the age and the ‘cricketing maturity’ of the team he was handed, the plan was clear. “Once the decision to go with youth was made, it was clear that was no room to shy away from the chosen path. These ‘young kids’ were always going to need time and guidance to mature and realise their potential. It was not always easy, but we had to inch towards our goal,” he says.
The much spoken ‘turnaround’ did finally materialise. This season, Maharashtra won an unprecedented four games outright in group C and then prevailed over Mumbai, entering the semi-finals after a gap of 17 years. Along the way, they have had much to be proud about. Two of their batsmen are right on top of the list of highest run-getters of the season and their bowlers have finally shown the ability to pick up 20 wickets consistently. The attitude in and around the team has also undergone a sea change.
Williams attributes the fine run of the team, which will face Bengal in the semis in Indore from Saturday, to the experience that they have picked up along the way.
“The best bit about this current lot is that they have all gone through some hard times and ‘survived’. Most of the batsmen have a bank of 2000 plus runs, the know-how of different conditions and the bowlers have learnt to work out batsmen, grit it out. All this came to the fore against Mumbai and I am glad that they are bringing out their experience and channelling it the right way,” he says.