Ever since Chirag Gandhi’s winning blow to formalise Gujarat’s status as first-time Ranji Trophy champions last Saturday (January 14), it’s been one prolonged spell of celebration for the state. The team itself left Indore within hours of Parthiv Patel hoisting the trophy, and reached Ahmedabad in the early hours of Sunday to partake of Uttarayan celebrations marked by kite-flying of the original kind.
The catalyst for what has been a special last four seasons or so for the one-time cricketing outpost was the national Under-19 title some five seasons ago. It was after that Parthiv, by then a 10-year veteran even though he was only 27, started to find more and more men that bought into his vision and ambition.
In this freewheeling chat with Wisden India, the 31-year-old who smashed a spectacular 143 in a record run chase against Mumbai in the final, reflects on Gujarat’s march to the top, and his own unusual but remarkable career that received an unexpected boost late last year. Excerpts:
It’s been two full days since the title win. Has it sunk in yet, and have you had any time to unwind and relax at all?
It has started to sink in, yes, slowly. Obviously, it has been a very busy two days. To be Ranji champion is something we all dreamt of, and it’s good to be busy and giving interviews and stuff. I am just happy to be in this space.
I have been trying my best to unwind in whatever little window has been available! For a couple of hours on Sunday, I was giving interviews and then I stopped doing so. We went to my old house and flew a fair few kites, it was a good day for us. There was a lot of happiness around — being a festival day and also after winning the Ranji Trophy.
What does this win mean for Gujarat cricket as such?
Obviously, it is massive. I met a lot of old cricketers today (Monday) at a GCA (Gujarat Cricket Association) function, it was the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the new stadium at Motera (the old stadium has been razed to the ground). I met a lot of old players and everyone was very happy. Everyone came up and said, ‘Now you have fulfilled our dreams. It was our dream to win the Ranji Trophy but we couldn’t do it, we didn’t have a team. But you guys have done it’. It feels great when a lot of senior players come up and tell you that. Having said that, now the young players also, it will be a challenge for them. They will be looking at us differently. And we would be expecting them to work harder and try to maintain standards, try to convert this one Ranji title into two, three, four titles. So they will have to work harder as well.
And you will also be a marked team going forward…
Facility-wise or talent-wise, we are right up there, there is no doubt about that. We have got the best set-up here in Ahmedabad or elsewhere in the state too – you go to Surat or Valsad, GCA have made sure that all the districts are well prepared infrastructure-wise. And talent-wise, yes, there are a lot of Under-19 players, so we are right up there. It is just a matter of now handling the pressure of expectations and trying and working hard. Honestly, I wouldn’t think about expectations. We just have to make sure that we try and go to the next level of wherever we are. I am sure people will not think about other things, just go one step ahead of where they are right now.
For the smaller teams, to see Gujarat win the title, beating Bombay, will be quite an inspiration.
The standard of cricket all over India has gone up quite a bit, to be honest. It is very notable, Rajasthan winning successive titles a few years back, Saurashtra coming into the finals twice in four years. For us, beating Mumbai is huge, especially because they have that knack of playing big matches and they know how to win big matches. They have that culture in them. To win the final against them in the manner in which we did was very satisfying.
I was lucky enough to have played for India before playing in the Ranji Trophy. When you play for India, you always talk about winning, you always talk about batting first. If you remember, Headingley 2002 was a green-top and Sourav decided to bat first when everyone was like, he has gone crazy. We went on to win the Test. I have seen and learnt from that, from other such experiences while playing for India.
This journey to where you are, it hasn’t been an overnight one, has it?
Not too many people might be aware of the fact that five years back, Gujarat won the all-India Under-19 title. That’s when we thought we should draft in a lot of young players into the senior set-up and give them security — tell them that you have the full season at your disposal, you don’t have to worry about your place. We decided to drop senior players, guys who were contributing the bare minimum, guys who were in the comfort zone of just scoring 30-40s and happy to be just in the team. We decided to drop them and give youngsters a full go. These are the same guys, whether it is Priyank (Panchal), Samit (Gohel), Bhargav (Merai), Manprit (Juneja), Axar (Patel). And then obviously we needed bowlers. That’s where we needed a bit of experience, that’s when we decided to take stock. Who would help us in making sure that our young bowlers are ready to play Ranji Trophy cricket, who would help them and help us take wickets? Obviously, there were no immediate expectations. But once we played these guys in the first year, we thought we are a team that can win the Ranji Trophy. We don’t just want to survive in Elite or we don’t just want to qualify for the quarterfinals. Every year, we have spoken about winning the Ranji Trophy, not just qualifying for the knockouts. And that used to start even before we played the KSCA tournament or the Buchi Babu tournament. We wouldn’t take those as practice games, we wanted to win championships. That’s one thing we made sure we put in every player’s mind – that we are here to win championships, not just to compete or not just play one good season.
You could say the Under-19 triumph was the catalyst, yes. Obviously, you cannot win the national championship without talent, right? It was just a matter of making them believe that if you can win the Under-19 title, you can win the Ranji Trophy title too.
Who is this ‘we’ that you constantly keep referring to?
It’s not just only me. It’s about me, Vijay Patel, the coach, and the selectors. Whatever we decide, it’s not only me, it’s about collective decision-making. There were a lot of ideas which used to come from me, but I needed support from them as well. I am just a player, I am just a captain, but I need support from both within the team and outside. I got that support from GCA, so it has to be ‘we’. I don’t think one man can ever do anything.
Unlike some of the other high-profile coaches, Vijay Patel tends to fly under the radar. What is it that he brings to the table?
Basically, he does offer cricketing inputs but not largely so, they are not big inputs. But he makes sure that we get all the facilities. He is someone who is an excellent man-manager. He makes sure that we are comfortable wherever we go and whatever our demands are. Also in the selection, sometimes. It is like there are five selectors from all districts, sometimes we have to make some bold calls, take some bold decisions. At times, we take decisions which may appear not to have any logic behind them, but he has always made sure that I got what I wanted. Basically, I was the one who was going to marshall the troops on the ground, so he made sure I got what I wanted.
You became the Gujarat captain when you were 22-23. What was the challenge like at that time?
For me, the biggest challenge was to change mindsets. It took me 3-4 years to make sure that everyone was thinking of winning rather than just competing. The idea was to make sure they were thinking of going to the next level rather than surviving in the Elite group. That took time. Plus, getting the guys to understand the reason behind winning the toss and batting first in a Ranji game was a very, very big task. There were a few senior players who were not very keen on batting first. So I had to change that mindset. It took me 2-3 years to put it in their mind that, when you bat first, you back your batters to get 300-350 and then there are chances of putting pressure on the opposition. I had to get them out of their comfort zone, and that is where Aunshuman Gaekwad played a key role as a coach. When he was coach, he made sure that everyone should get out of their comfort zone, whether it fielding, batting or bowling. And Vijay Patel was there as well. But for me personally, respect in the dressing room was never a problem because I was the only India player at that time, so that was never an issue. I thought everyone respected me and everyone would listen to what I was saying. But to change the mindset of the players was a big task.
Whenever I have spoken in meetings, these players were young – they were 20-21 and I was 26-27. I used to tell them, I am 6-7 years older than you, I will beat you in practice every single time in terms of working hard. Maybe not in performance because there is no guarantee, but in practice, if someone has played 100 balls, I will make sure that I play 101. If I work hard as the captain, people under me will think that if someone who has played for India, someone who doesn’t have a chance to play for India, is working harder than us, we might as well put in a little more extra effort.
In this set-up then, how did you develop that mindset, and that too as early as at 22 or 23?
I would say I was lucky enough to have played for India before playing in the Ranji Trophy. When you play for India, you always talk about winning, you always talk about batting first. If you remember, Headingley (2002) was a green-top and Sourav (Ganguly) decided to bat first when everyone was like, he has gone crazy. We went on to win the Test. I have seen and learnt from that, from other such experiences while playing for India. That sort of made it easy for me.
How did you balance looking after your own cricket with looking after the team from a leadership and mentoring point of view?
There are a lot of personal experiences that I drew from. If I see my captain working hard, I would work harder. Whenever I have spoken in meetings, these players were young – they were 20-21 and I was 26-27. I used to tell them, I am 6-7 years older than you, I will beat you in practice every single time in terms of working hard. Maybe not in performance because there is no guarantee, but in practice, if someone has played 100 balls, I will make sure that I play 101. That is where I have believed in setting examples, and not by just telling them. If am doing the right things, I am sure people would get inspired by it. And I had that belief. I am not sure whether I have succeeded in that but I’ve believed in actions. If I work hard as the captain, people under me will think that if someone who has played for India, someone who doesn’t have a chance to play for India, is working harder than us, we might as well put in a little more extra effort.
Your career has been an unusual one. An India Test cap at 17, and then out of the side by 21 with the arrival of MS Dhoni. How did you reconcile to that phase?
I had decided that I wanted to be a better player every day, forget about playing for India. Forget about putting pressure on myself about playing for India. Just be a better player, just try and play the kind of cricket I can play, try and get my cricket to the next level. And I always had the belief – if you keep performing and if you do the right things, sooner or later, you get your chances. I know that 10 years down the line, I see myself – I got what I wanted. A Ranji Trophy victory, a (Test) comeback after eight years. In hindsight, it proves to me that I was thinking in the right direction.
All those years out of the Test side, did you think a comeback was a possibility?
That’s the reason why you play the game. The motivation was always there, that’s what keeps you going. And there was a realistic chance of that when Dhoni retired. There were 3-4 players in the same line, but there wasn’t anyone above anyone else. We were all on the same level. It was just a matter of performing and staying fit, and making sure that you are ready when the opportunity comes.
A 15-year veteran on the first-class circuit, do you see yourself as a young 31, or a wizened, battle-weary 31?
Still a very young 31, of course! I feel I am very fortunate that even though I am young, I already have a lot of experience. I am playing the best cricket of my life and I am probably the fittest that I have been in my career. After what happened in the Chennai Test match (when he kept wicket for 157.2 overs, then opened the batting and made 71 in three hours), I don’t think I have to prove to anyone whether I am fit enough or not. And even in this game (the Ranji final), I was on the field for almost five full days and I am still feeling good. I feel young. Obviously, when you play Test cricket like I have done after eight years, there is no chance of thinking that I am tired or I have slogged it out in domestic cricket. I have slogged in domestic cricket for these many years, might as well continue to do it, have fun while doing so and enjoy it.