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Interview with Ranji Trophy winning captain Faiz Fazal

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Faiz_Fazal_India_cricketIndian cricketer and Vidarbha skipper Faiz Fazal has been playing the Premier League cricket in England for some time now. While Fazal was away playing for Ainsdale Club in the Liverpool and District Cricket Competition prior to the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy season, Vidarbha roped in former Mumbai Ranji Trophy winning coach Chandrakant Pandit as their new coach.

As soon as Fazal returns from England, he meets Chandrakant, and this conversation follows:

"We have to win. We have to lift Ranji Trophy this time," Fazal says.

"That's why I'm here," Chandrakant replies. (laughs)

This behind-the-scene incident is something Fazal says he will cherish for the rest of his life. It was a "funny and simultaneously serious discussion" that eventually became the beautiful reality that they are now living.

Despite having played in the Ranji Trophy for more than six decades, Vidarbha had never even reached the semi-final until the end of 2017. Their best finish had been in the quarter-finals of the 1970-71, 1995–96 and 2015-16 seasons. By the end of the tournament, they were the new champions.

In conversation with Holdingwilley.com, Vidarbha skipper Faiz Fazal speaks about the fairy-tale journey to their maiden triumph, his readiness to play Test cricket and more.

It all began with Vidarbha's then coach Paras Mhambrey getting appointed as the bowling coach of India's Under-19 team. After his resignation, Vidarbha Cricket Association made the brilliant move of signing Chandrakant Pandit as their new coach. The former Indian wicketkeeper, who played five Tests and 36 ODIs, was coming off from two exceptional seasons as the coach of Mumbai. He helped them win their 41st title in the 2015-16 season followed by their finishing runners up in the 2016-17 season.

 

"Chandu sir's words, 'aim higher, strive harder and the rest of the process will fall into place on its own,' really helped us throughout the year. Not that we didn't know that but sir inculcated those feeling in a stronger way in the dressing room," Fazal said.

 

Talking about how they went about their Ranji Trophy season, Fazal said, "We really worked hard on every single department: be it batting, bowling or fielding, mental or physical aspect, we ensured every segment was ticked off well from our side."

Vidarbha, who had won only two matches in the previous season, kick-started the 2017-18 season with a fantastic win against Punjab. They defeated the Yuvraj Singh-captained side by an innings and 117 runs.

 

"The way we started the season with a win by an innings against a full-fledged Punjab side with the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Manan Vohra and Sandeep Sharma. By defeating them that way was morale boosting for the entire side and which is why starts are so important. A good start only doubles your self confidence and that's when you know we can go ahead strongly."

 

There was no looking back for Vidarbha from there. They went on to register wins against Services, Goa and Bengal and drew against Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh. They qualified for the last-eight without losing a match. They didn’t have much trouble against Kerala in the quarter-final either. As they were facing eight-time Ranji Trophy champions Karnataka in the semi-final, many considered Vidarbha underdogs. But the mindset in Fazal and Chandrakant's team was quite far from that.

"Until the quarter-final, we had dominated our opponents and the end results were the proof to it. Only our last two matches [semi-final and final] went extremely close. Since we had played the tournament with an outright dominance, there was no way we would enter the crucial semi-final dubbing ourselves as underdogs.

"Going into the Karnataka game, our spirits were high as a team and even though we were facing the former champions in the match. We were looking forward to the game. At the Eden Gardens the pitch was a bit fast bowling friendly. Despite that, we had decided to bat first on winning the toss.

 

"Coach and I had complete faith in our batsmen and at the same time in a knockout stage, it’s always better [to bat] first so you don’t have to bat in the fourth innings. In any high pressure match, batting in the final innings is always tricky and even if you are chasing a low total, there are chances that you might succumb to the pressure and suffer a batting collapse, which Karnataka did at the end."

 

However, there were a few moments when the young Vidarbha side needed someone to bolster their spirits. By the end of the second day, Karnataka had earned a healthy first innings lead, courtesy of Karun Nair's 153 off 287 balls. After stumps, on seeing a sulking dressing room, Wasim Jaffer – who had won 10 Ranji Trophy titles with Mumbai and was now with Vidarbha – gave the side a vital pep talk. Clearly it worked, as they allowed Karnataka to add just seven more runs to their overnight total of 294.

Vidarbha set Karnataka a target of 194 runs with one and a half days remaining in the semi-final. On the final day, when Karnataka were 18 runs away from a victory and Vidarbha were two wickets away from their maiden Ranji Trophy final, it was once again time for Jaffer to step up and speak up. His words worked like a charm as Vidarbha won the nail-biting encounter by five runs.

Jaffer has not only helped the side but has also helped Fazal find his form as a batsman this season.

 

"He always repeated one important detail: 'Whichever team holds nerves during those vital phases of the match will take away the trophy. Remember one thing, only the champion side is remembered in the future and nobody will remember who they played against in the final. So, work towards becoming that No. 1 side'," Fazal said, recalling Jaffer's role in the team as a mentor.

 

Talking of how Jaffer helped him as a batsman, Fazal said, "The game of cricket is sure physically demanding, but it is also a lot about your mindset. It is not advisable to keep changing your techniques because of a few failures and especially not at the stage where I'm right now. I was lucky that I could spend my maximum time with Chandu sir and Wassim bhai who regularly helped me get my mindset right and that's how I ended up with a great season as a batsman too. I used to watch Wassim bhai bat at nets for hours and that's what helped me a lot as a batsman."

In 2016, Fazal received his maiden call up to the Indian team during the Zimbabwe tour under the leadership of MS Dhoni. He played one ODI, where he scored an unbeaten 55. That has, thus far, remained his only match in Indian colours. On being asked if he was expecting a recall for the Indian team after a spectacular domestic season, Fazal was affirmative.

 

"I'm definitely looking forward to getting a Test cap. Having played for so many years [98 First Class matches over almost 15 years], I know my game well and I'm certain that I'm in my best shape right now. I scored five hundreds this season and all of those came at very crucial stages so I think that's the sign that I'm ready for Test cricket."

 

Fazal will turn 33 in September. When asked if he was worried that age might be a hurdle to his international career, he replied, "Looking into the lifestyle these days people follow, age should not be a problem provided you are disciplined off the field. If you watch my game, I can dive around, field well, run quickly between the wickets so age should not be a problem. And come on, are early 30s that old now?" (laughs)

There was another player who was a standout for Vidarbha in the recently concluded Ranji Trophy season - medium pacer Rajneesh Gurbani. He will always be remembered the player who had changed the course of the 2017-18 final with an incredible hat-trick. The 24-year-old Gurbani became only the second player to claim a hat-trick in a Ranji Trophy final after Tamil Nadu's B. Kalyanasundaram, who achieved the feat against Bombay in 1972-73.

Gurbani, who went from knocking to pounding on the Indian team's doors with 39 scalps in six matches, was one of the major reasons behind Vidarbha's victorious year. His skipper considered him as a serious "weapon" against the opponents.

"He was amazing this season. It was like a dream year for him. For me, as a captain, I was lucky to have him and use him like a weapon against the opposition. Hats off to him for the spells he bowled during the entire season and the way he was consistent during the knockout stage defined him as a promising bowler. He is an excellent combination of being a hard worker and a skillful bowler and I'm pretty sure he'll go heights in the coming future."

Gurbani ended the season as the second highest wicket-taker of Ranji Trophy 2017-18.

Meanwhile, Vidarbha's captain Fazal sat on the second spot on the runs scored table with 912 runs.

The opening batsman had received his India cap from Dhoni, a moment he still cherishes. And yet he hopes that it will soon be overshadowed by the moment he receives a Test cap soon.

 

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