Column | Take a bow for the grit of Chandrakant Pandit

Chandrakant Pandit
Chandrakant Pandit. File photo: IANS

The week that went by saw Madhya Pradesh (MP) emerge winners of the Ranji Trophy, the premier first-class cricket tournament in the country. In the finals held at Bangalore, MP defeated the much-fancied Mumbai side by a margin of six wickets to emerge champions for the first time (the erstwhile princely state of Holkar had won the title thrice before the reorganisation of states in 1956).

It was a proud moment for the state when skipper Aditya Shrivastava held aloft the coveted trophy in the company of other members of the side and the contingent of supporting staff.

But the person whose name found most mention in the newspapers and other articles that covered this historic win was Chandrakant Pandit, the coach who mentored the side to this historic win.

Wobbly career

Pandit, a wicketkeeper-batsman, was a member of the national side during the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hailing from Mumbai, he entered the domestic first-class cricket scene during the 1979-80 season and made his mark as an aggressive, hard-hitting middle-order batsman.

The fact that he could also keep wickets went to his advantage and he soon found himself in the reckoning for a place on the national side when the selectors started looking for a replacement to Syed Kirmani, the trusted stumper till then.

However, the going was not easy for him as he had to compete with Sadanand Viswanath, a brilliant, though flamboyant, wicketkeeper from Bangalore and the hardworking Kiran More from Vadodara for this slot.

It was Viswanath who won the nod of the selectors first when he was selected to the side for the World Championship of Cricket in 1985.

Viswanath won the hearts of the followers of the game with an exhibition of near-perfect work behind the stumps during this tournament, which gave rise to the hope that he would step into the shoes vacated by Kirmani with ease and finesse.

However, this was not to be as he was found lacking in temperament during the short series against Sri Lanka that took place in August 1985 and dropped from the side.

Kirmani returned for the tour to Australia in 1985-86 with More as the deputy. Later, More eased himself into the stumpers slot when Kirmani was dropped from the squad for the Australasia Cup held in Sharjah in April 1986 and the tour to England that followed.

Pandit, who had been waiting patiently in the wings, made it to the national squad as deputy to More.

Pandit made his debut for India in One Day Internationals (ODI) in the Australasia Cup against New Zealand at Sharjah, where he anchored the side to a 3-wicket win with an unbeaten innings of 33.

He played in the remaining two matches of this championship and in the ODI’s against England but yielded his place to More when the Test series started. However, he was drafted into the playing eleven for the second test at Headingly, Leeds as a batsman. Though he had a moderately successful debut in Test cricket, making scores of 23 and 17 in a low-scoring match, he was not retained for the next test.

When Australia toured India for the three-Test series in August 1986, he played in all ODI’s and two tests, the first of which ended in a tie.

He tried gamely to push the scoring rate in the last innings of the tied test, scoring a brisk 39 off 37 balls. However, he could not score a fifty in any of these appearances and found himself out of the side after this series.

India was the odds-on favourite for winning the 1987 ICC World Cup but they crashed out in the semifinals after suffering a 35-run defeat against England.

Pandit, who was a member of the squad for this championship, played this game and scored a brisk 24 off 30 balls.

Unfortunately, he was dismissed just when he appeared to be on course for guiding India to a win.

He played in the first Test of the series against West Indies as a batsman, but failed with the willow and was dropped from the side for the next three years.

He got a final look-in when India toured Australia in 1991-92 for a tri-nation ODI tournament and a four-Test series against the hosts. He played in the fourth test at Adelaide when More was indisposed as well as in some of the ODI’s, but could not do enough to cement his place and faced the axe after this tour.

Thus ended the international cricket career of Pandit.

A tally of 171 from 5 tests and 290 runs from 36 ODI’s without even a single half-century to his credit shows that he could not do full justice to his talent.

Changing track

But Pandit decided that he had more to offer to the game than playing at the highest level. He bid adieu to his home side of Mumbai and started playing the game as a professional, first for Assam and later for MP.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had permitted senior players to play as professionals for states/ associations outside their domiciles from the late 1980s onwards. Sandeep Patil was among the first to take to this scheme and played for many years for MP, while also leading the side.

Pandit followed his lead and soon earned a name for himself as a tough, no-nonsense and shrewd captain, who led from the front.

Pandit’s high point as skipper of MP came during the 1998-99 season when he led the side to the finals of the Ranji Trophy.

MP held the upper hand during the first three days of this game when they took a crucial 75-run lead against Karnataka. But his side lost the plot on the last day as their batsmen could not cope with the pressure mounted by Karnataka bowlers and fielders. Chasing an eminently achievable target of 247 runs, MP batting came apart in the face of sustained pressure applied by Karnataka bowlers and fielders and they were dismissed for a paltry score of 150, with the last 6 wickets falling for a mere 18 runs, in the final session of the game.

A devastated Pandit decided his playing days were over and announced his retirement from first-class cricket.

Fresh challenges

However, Pandit couldn't stay away from the lure of the game. He soon returned to it as a coach- first for Mumbai and later Maharashtra, Kerala, Vidarbha and finally for MP.

Under his tutelage, Mumbai won Ranji Trophy on two occasions, but his biggest achievement was giving Vidarbha two back-to-back championship titles in 2018 and 2019.

In between, he also served as Chairman of the Selection Committee for the national junior side for a year. He took over the task of coaching the MP side in 2020 and helped the side to their maiden triumph last week.

Thus, he could justifiably claim to complete the task that he had left unfinished in MP in 1999! The fact that this victory took place in Bangalore, the venue of their loss 23 years ago, must have made this win sweeter for him.

Stellar contribution

The contribution of Pandit to Indian cricket cannot be measured in terms of runs scored or trophies won. The methods he employs and his penchant for taking control over the entire gamut of cricket-related activities may tend to rub some, especially those from the officialdom, the wrong way.

his was the reason behind his short stint as Chairman of the junior selection committee, which lasted only a year. But he did not allow such setbacks to throw him off his stride; neither did he change his approach to the game and style of coaching.

Pandit’s USPs are his total commitment to the game and his unique capacity for bringing success to sides that he takes under his wings.

He starts right at the grassroots by travelling across the state to watch local tournaments to spot talented players, who are then groomed under his careful supervision.

He works on their technique to correct any flaws, instils in them the temperament to play big matches without jitters and makes them mentally strong to take on the tough battles ahead in life.

These measures help to raise the quality of cricket played within the entire state besides bringing huge rewards both to the cricket association as well as to the individual cricketers. One cannot think of any other former international player putting in so much hard work to develop the game in interior parts of the country as this former wicketkeeper-batsman.

Hats off to you Chandrakant Pandit! Wish you further success and many more years of committed service to the game.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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