Just before the Bengal players wrapped up their kitbags after the heartbreaking Ranji Trophy final, coach Arun Lal and seniormost player Manoj Tiwary called an informal meeting inside the dressing room. The theme was forgetting and remembering. Of forgetting the final day of their campaign, but remembering the days that preceded it. “That’s the irony, we had so many good days, but the memories of this one bad day would live with us for the rest of our lives,” says Tiwary.
But he didn’t want his teammates to part on a gloomy note, rather with their heads held high. “So we reflected on some of our good days, the fight we showed and the belief we had. Like in the semifinal against Karnataka, the quarterfinal against Odisha. The victories over Punjab and Rajasthan. We had 20-25 great days, few teams enjoy that over a season. We talked about the highs and positives. There were several positives. So we should be immensely proud of what we achieved and hence show no grief,” he says.
Receiving a Runner Up trophy means U did ok, but it’s definitely not Ok. We will be back next year much stronger 💪
Never ever goin 2 give up on a dream just bcoz of d time it vl take 2 accomplish it 👍 #RanjiTrophyFinals #RunnersUp @BCCIdomestic pic.twitter.com/cTaGhTJheO
— MANOJ TIWARY (@tiwarymanoj) March 13, 2020
The speech fired up Tiwary’s teammates and they broke the huddle with a quiet promise. “We took a vow that we will come back stronger next year. Fitter, tougher, sharper and hungrier, with more belief in our abilities. Every individual will be a better individual and a better cricketer next season. You could see that resolve on their face. As a leader, that’s what you look for in a team,” he asserts.
Tiwary insists that he has already forgotten that day. Well, almost. “Until someone reminds me of that day or match, or when I watch the television or read the newspapers, I don’t think of that day. Otherwise, I have shut myself out from the noise. I’m in a beautiful world of my own, where I forget everything else,” he says. A world that revolves around his home, family, son Vivaan – whose name he has inscribed on his bat – and pet German Shepherd, Maximus.
“Different people react differently to setbacks. But I am not someone who broods over what could have been or what should have been. You should move on,” he adds.
That there’s little cricket around has helped Tiwary in the healing process. “I can fully focus on my family. I don’t need to think of my next match for a while. So this takes your mind off what has happened yesterday or day before yesterday. It’s when you have a match and you have to prepare for it that the memories of the previous match starts getting to you. Even if my mind slips onto the match, I can only think of the positives. Yes, we lost the final. But was it not an inspirational season?” he asks.
In many ways, it was a defying-the-odds season. No one wagered on Bengal to land the trophy; only a few would have imagined them in the knockouts. Maybe, they didn’t have big enough names, barring Tiwary; Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammed Shami would be mostly away on international assignments, Ashoke Dinda was a force on the wane; new captain Abhimanyu Eeswaran was waddling through a slump. Ishan Porel apart, fast bowling looked modest at best; spinners Shahbaz Ahmed and Arnab Nandi had a collective experience of 21 games before the season. Their batting lacked depth and stability. They seemed bereft of heroes.
But Tiwary had high hopes. “It’s not like we were performing badly in the last few years. We have reached quarterfinals and semis several times. It was just one bad day, or one bad session that had cost us, like it did in the final this time,” he points out.
In the previous season, they lost only one match, but a large number of draws road-blocked their knockout hopes. The year before, they lost to Delhi in the semifinals, after being detonated for 86 in the second innings. So Tiwary, the captain for the last few years, had seen adequate potential in his teammates to feel convinced that they could challenge for the title. “During the phase, I observed that we had enough potential to win trophies. I was seeing them on the field and at the nets. I could feel their drive. It was about giving the right kind of exposure and atmosphere to grow. It was about being patient and persistent, backing their strengths and not losing faith in them. The amount of investment we had, it’s paying off. See, we had different heroes in different situations. It was not one man every time,” he says.
There were unlikely heroes all around. Like Akash Deep, who resumed his cricketing dreams after nearly quitting for three years when his father had a paralytic attack and then died, before he lost his elder brother and then suffered a career-threatening back injury. But in his maiden Ranji season, he nabbed 35 wickets at 18.02. “He embodies our policy of backing players and giving them the right sort of opportunities,” Tiwary says.
#ManojTiwary with bats signed by all the #Bengal players and support staff during the celebration of the experienced campaigner’s 100th #RanjiTrophy game for Bengal today.#CAB#SAUvBEN#SupportTeamBengal pic.twitter.com/Q8ro0yrMZa
— CABCricket (@CabCricket) March 9, 2020
Others lesser-known names too sprung up. One of them was Akash Deep’s medium-pace colleague, Mukesh Kumar, the semifinal hero. There was Shahbaz and Nandi, who picked 49 scalps between them. There was a revitalised Anustup Majumdar, glossing over the patchy form of their bating pillars, Easwaran and Abhishek Raman. There was the defiant Shreevats Goswami, whose 78 in the second innings against Odisha was priceless. “We had the bowlers to take 20 wickets, and if our batsmen started chipping in, we would be an unstoppable force,” Tiwary says.
Galvanising them was the elder-brotherly Arun Lal, who Tiwary calls the biggest force behind their successful season. “His very presence lifts us. His experience as a cricketer and the trauma he has undergone is enough to inspire us. To have him in the dressing room de-stresses us. He speaks on a lot of stuff outside cricket like travelling, animals and birds. Talk to him and you get so relaxed,” he says.
Hence, Tiwary knew Bengal had the men and measures to challenge for the title. “That’s why I said before the season that we are title contenders,” he says, chuckling. He made another bold prediction. That he would score 1,000 runs in the season. He fell short by 293 runs, but his 707 runs at 50.50 including his first triple hundred went a long way in ensuring stability.
In a way, the season sums up his career — in eight of his 15 seasons, Tiwary has amassed 600-odd runs, but could never quite manage a break-out 1,000-run season. But he is quite satisfied with his returns. “To have scored 600-plus runs in almost every other season is quite satisfying. Especially, in the last three-four seasons wherein there had been a lot of green-tops back home. So it was even more difficult to score those runs, but as a batsman who’s always looking to improve, I feel I need to score more runs. I want to set the bar higher after every season,” he admits.
The past 15 seasons of domestic churn has ensured that Tiwary is a completely different batsman, evolved from a trigger-happy no-holds-barred aggressor to a steadier batsman. He reasons: “At 19, suddenly I became the senior-most batsman, after a lot of our experienced batsmen retired. So I had to curb my instincts and bat with more circumspection. It helped me mature fast and the responsibilities I had to shoulder at a young age helped me become a better captain,” he says.
But the burden of responsibilities hasn’t wearied him. He says he still feels as fresh as when he had started, still enthusiastic and energetic. And the 34-year-old has no plans to wind up his career any time soon. At the start of the season, he had said that he wanted to play till 40. “If you are good enough and fit enough, why not? Obviously, you have to be incredibly fit and work on it. Once you touch your 30s, your reflexes slow down and you are not as athletic as you used to be. So you have to put in that extra effort. But in the end, it’s all in your mind. It’s about your desire and motivation,” he says.
Tiwary’s not short on either. Maybe, he’s forgotten that evening in Rajkot, or those distant evenings in Lucknow and Mumbai, where Bengal lost back-to-back finals more than a decade ago. But the desire to hold the Ranji Trophy burns brighter than ever before in his heart. It was the promise Tiwary and his team-mates made before leaving Rajkot.
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