When he led Madhya Pradesh in their previous Ranji Trophy match against Mumbai in February 2020, Shubham Sharma had batted at No. 6. For the 2021-22 season, although no longer captain, he had been promoted to No. 3 after coach Chandrakant Pandit saw him in the nets last June.
In 32 first-class games before the start of this season since his debut in 2013, Shubham had scored a mere three hundreds. Buoyed by the promotion and what he calls better team culture and preparation, the 28-year- old from Indore struck four centuries in just six matches this season. He ended on a high with arguably the most important knock of the Ranji final against Mumbai – an attacking hundred in a game-defining 222-run second-wicket stand with the more sedate centurion Yash Dubey.
“A year ago, when he (Pandit) saw me bat for the first time, he told me, ‘Be prepared, you will bat at No 3.’ I would bat at No. 6 or 7 earlier. Yash was also a middle-order batsman,” Shubham says.
“The culture that sir (Pandit) has brought, be it discipline, planning, or game awareness, that is the reason for this success (Ranji Trophy title). He made changes to the batting order after observing everyone bat. The batting line-up this year was very different. Very few of our batsmen had played before at the position they batted this year.”
Shubham enjoyed immediate success this Ranji season with 92 and an unbeaten 103 in a 106-run win over Gujarat in MP’s first match. What helped him most in that game was a message from Pandit while he was in the middle that he should avoid playing the cut.
“He would tell us about how great Mumbai batsmen of the past would avoid a shot for an entire day if they felt they could not get it right after one or two attempts at the start,” Shubham says.
“When I was batting against Gujarat, sir sent in a message that I should avoid playing the square-cut. So, I avoided it. There was some pace and bounce in the wicket and there are times when your body positioning is not great on a particular day. That decision helped me a lot.”
There was no looking back after the Gujarat game, for MP as well as Shubham. He made 111 in the next game against Meghalaya. He followed that with 102 in the quarter-final against Punjab. And while he could not make the most of his starts – 17 and 26 – against Bengal in the semi-final, his brisk 116 deflated Mumbai in the final.
“I had not taken any pressure of the occasion, that it was the final and all. There was a bit of anxiety, of course, for the first few deliveries until I scored my first run,” Shubham says. “But I forgot everything else after scoring my first four off a cover drive. After that, I was able to focus on just playing normally and going for my shots whenever I got the delivery for it. Sir had told me to not play across the line much as the bounce could be low at times on that pitch, so I kept that in mind.”
A feature of the partnership between Shubham and Dubey was the consistently good running between the wickets, something that put constant pressure on Mumbai fielders. “(Mumbai captain) Prithvi (Shaw) was placing the straight fielders a bit deeper when we were attacking. So when that happened, whoever was at the non-striker’s end would signal to the striker that the fielder had moved back and then instead of hitting a lofted shot, we would hit along the ground and take a single. That is how we rotated strike.”
Leaving nothing to chance
A reason MP were switched on throughout their campaign, according to Shubham, was their painstaking preparation, be it arriving in Bangalore a couple of weeks before the knockouts, or going through practice sessions under lights after midnight in Indore last year. Their Indian Premier League players – Rajat Patidar, Kumar Kartikeya, Kuldeep Sen – remained in touch with the MP team management throughout and were up for resuming red-ball training immediately after their T20 engagements ended.
“I have played knockouts earlier too but this time our preparation was very good. During the last monsoon, Sir made us practise under lights at Holkar Stadium,” Shubham says. “He wanted us to be ready to face any situation, such as play starting immediately after a shower. You should be able to give your best even then, you should be able to switch on and off easily. If you are made to bat at night, when you are used to sleeping, are you able to concentrate at that time? Are you able to give the same effort with the ball and in the field?
“Also, we reached Bangalore on May 20 itself for the knockouts. We were sure that we were not there just to play the quarter-finals this time.”
Towards the end of MP’s first innings, with a healthy lead already in hand, there were a couple of rain interruptions that got nerves jangling in their dressing room. The 1998-99 final heartbreak against Karnataka at the same Chinnaswamy Stadium – MP’s only previous title clash – was still fresh in then-MP skipper Pandit’s mind.
“Sir, the captain (Aditya Shrivastava) and I were having a conversation in the dressing room while the rain was coming down. And Sir said that not only had we taken the first-innings lead in that final, but it had rained then also. The parallels were making us all jittery, it is never over till it is over.”
It still isn’t over for Shubham in a way, despite the season’s labours and ultimate reward. With his parents at his elder brother’s place in Hyderabad, he is staying put at home in Indore for now. “Who knows, a message can come any day, that next season’s preparations have to be started.”