The world has changed between 1999 and 2022.
In 1999, Australia had won only one ODI World Cup, T20 was years away, and Chandrakant Pandit - as captain of the Madhya Pradesh (MP) team - had seen the Ranji Trophy final at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore slip out of his hands due to one bad session.
As coach in 2022, Pandit left nothing to chance. With his planning, his team's will, and perhaps his destiny, Madhya Pradesh won the trophy that had been snatched from them 23 years ago.
The win added to an already glittering coaching resume. Pandit had coached Mumbai to the title in 2002-03, 2003-04 and 2015-16. Then Vidarbha were champions under him in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Now it’s MP in 2021-22, and Pandit has been recognised as the coach supreme in domestic cricket. The tournament was suspended in 2020-21 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He’s that rare coach who has complete support, bordering on reverence, from his players, despite being a hard taskmaster. There’s a method behind the Midas touch.
The journey with MP began when he got a call from MPCA secretary Sanjeev Rao in March 2020. “That moment I felt that I should go back to MP,” Pandit says. “And the second thought was, ‘It’s a good opportunity. Why not bring back what I missed out on?’ I didn’t say anything to anyone, only my wife knew about it. But I thought god is giving me an opportunity. It’s not me that will do it, but god who wants to do it. That is why I took the decision.”
When Pandit signs up for something, there are no half-measures. He went all in, and the association backed him to the hilt, even requesting that he sit in on selection meetings: not just for the senior team, but for the age-group and women’s teams too.
“Nobody, in fact not my president, not my secretary ever insisted or even suggested, ‘you must go with this player’. I think that is one of the factors behind this result,” Pandit says. “The selection committee always supported me. Our meetings would last only 10 minutes! The start of the meeting was simple; they would say, ‘Chandu bhai, batao.’ I used to give them my list of 15 or 20. If there was any doubt, they would ask, ‘Why not this fellow instead of this?’ and I would give my reasons.”
Pandit asked for changes to be made to the MPCA academy in Indore, and they were done in record time – “Within 15 days they made the changes! I was shocked actually” – and he then held extensive camps where players from across the state were called, until 150 probables were short-listed. That was just base camp, with the climb to the Ranji Everest beginning there. Each of those 150 players was interviewed by Pandit, and not just on cricket. Pandit wanted to know their family backgrounds, who their friends were, what their environment was.
“We’ve got all the files for the 150 players in my office. Tomorrow if any selection committee wants to know about the player – look at the file,” Pandit says.The groundwork thus laid, Pandit got a buy-in from his senior players and the MP captain Aditya Shrivastava too. He had his methods, and the players had to abide by them. But if his methods didn’t work, he was going to be a shield for them too, promising them that players wouldn’t have to suffer if they followed his plans and things still didn’t pan out. That gave them security, but what makes Pandit a cut above the rest was adding rich insights to their games, and fostering a team bond like no other.
“I remember the first season we had practice matches against Chhattisgarh in Indore. Iyer was batting at No. 6 at that time. One day I thought I’ll make him open,” Pandit says. “In between the practice, I started ‘washing’ his brain, that ‘You will be good’. He was a little worried - ‘Sir if I fail, what happens?’ – and I told him, I was there, and there was nothing to worry about. So he said, ‘What happens once you go?’ I said, ‘By that time you will have cemented your place!’”
Rajat Patidar, who looked a class above the rest and had the runs to show for it, has been playing for MP since 2015, but hasn’t seen team unity like this. “I have an attachment with him,” Patidar says. “I feel lucky to be playing under him. After he came, we understood better the mental aspect and how to be a champion as a unit. Earlier it was a bit individual, everyone thought more about themselves. Now we are doing everything together. We have dinners together, do a lot of things together. And everyone enjoys it too, it’s not like they’re doing it under pressure.”
Kumar Kartikeya, another one of MP’s breakout stars, says the tongue lashing Pandit gives is actually welcome.
“He’s gotten angry with me several times! During the league game against Gujarat, I was the designated nightwatchman,” Kartikeya remembers. “I had worn my whites and thigh pads, but not my pads. He turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you know you have to go in if we need a nightwatchman?’ I told him I’m ready and he said, ‘You haven’t worn pads.’"
“But he always scolds me for my good. If he hadn’t scolded me, maybe I wouldn’t have taken five wickets in the second innings. We were losing that match, I told him, ‘Sir don’t take tension, I’ll win you this match.’ I generally don’t scream and shout after taking a wicket, but in that match I did, because I had told him I’d win it. After the win, I was pointing at him and running towards him too! He came and hugged me. It was the first time he had hugged me like that."
“We just need to bowl where he tells us to. Our only job is to bowl. We can talk to him if we have a different idea, but generally, the plans he makes – other plans don’t stand in front of that. His planning is so different, and top class. We have played cricket earlier too, but the reason we qualified this year and won, it’s down to his planning.”
MP had done everything right, beating a succession of strong teams, and it came down to a chase of 108 in the final against Mumbai. Pandit knew how to take the nerves out of his boys. “It was simple,” Pandit smiles. “I said, ‘They have scored 374. We have scored 536. Then they have scored 269. What do you think? Is the wicket good or bad?’"
“They said, ‘The wicket is very good.’ So I said, ‘Let’s go and play. Imagine we’ve won the toss and are batting now.’”MP completed the chase with Patidar hitting the winning runs, and Pandit’s journey with MP had come a full circle – from beaten captain in 1999 to triumphant coach in 2022.