Arun Lal was instrumental in winning the Ranji Trophy for Bengal in 1990. Thirty years later, as the coach and mentor, he has lifted his side to the verge of glory again. On the eve of the Ranji Trophy final against Saurashtra, the always zestful and full of life, Bengal coach in an exclusive interview shares the winning mentality of his team and how they are battle ready.
Q. How has been the preparation for the Final and how is the mood in the Bengal camp?
We were playing very good cricket throughout the season. But due to the weather in Calcutta, we were sitting on top in all three games and we lost couple of days due to rain and then the situation was such that we had to beat Rajasthan and Punjab outright and we managed to do that. So, it is like baptism by fire. In the knockout stages also we had tough fights against Odisha and Karnataka. I think we are battle ready.
Q. It will be a huge moment for you personally as a coach if Bengal win the Ranji Trophy. You were instrumental by scoring the most runs as a player for Bengal last time they won 30 years back? You seem to be the lucky charm for Bengal cricket.
I hope so... (Laughed). Whatever be the result of the game, I always feel privileged. I feel privileged to be part of the team, because they are the real fighters. I really enjoy being with them and whatever the outcome, it doesn’t really matter. They have arrived. You will see Bengal doing well, much better than they have been doing in the last four-five years.
Q. Can you share some memories of the 1990 Ranji Trophy final? How different things were then compared to now?
It’s so long ago, I have forgotten most of it. We were playing against Delhi and it had a very strong team on paper. They had almost six cricketers who had played for India then, including Manoj (Prabhakar), Sanjeev (Sharma), Ajay (Sharma), Maninder (Singh), Kirti (Azad). Despite that we managed to win. It doesn’t matter who you are playing against and doesn’t matter how many runs they’ve scored before that game. You got to play well on that day to win. That is as simple as that. Once you are in the final it’s 50-50.
Q. A certain 17-year old Sourav Ganguly made his first-class debut in that final too!
Yes. And see what happened to him. Where he has reached. He made his debut in the final and he captained India and now he is captaining the board.
Q. Sourav Ganguly came up with the vision 2020 (launched in 2014) - to unearth batsmen bowlers and to improve fielding and catching in Bengal Cricket. This is your second year with the team. How’s been the change?
I came in midway last year. There is no dearth of ability in our team. We are oozing with talent. It is just that we needed to believe in ourselves and play some good cricket and with that comes confidence. Last year, I felt we were not fit enough, so we really worked hard this year. Two months before the season we worked very hard. We would train for two hours, and then we would be at nets for two-and-a-half hours, so these were long sessions in the heat of the summer. There was a lot of criticism as well that the players will get tired before the season but it didn’t happen, they have done brilliantly as we can see. I am so pleased that their hard work has paid off.
Q. Was there any resentment from the players considering the gruelling training methods?
There was no resentment but a lot of them were not convinced. Now they certainly are. Their game has tightened up, their bowling is a lot more disciplined. They are not giving too many loose balls. We are the only team that has been playing for the last two-and-a-half months without any break. We have played 10 matches on the trot. The team is much fitter than last year. They have a lot more belief in them and they are now enjoying their cricket. We were talking about the vision 2020. It is a terrific coincidence that this is 2020 and we are in the final. I wish it said vision 2016.
Q. This Ranji season, Bengal did not have the service of veterans like Ashoke Dinda and Mohammed Shami. But as a bowling unit, Bengal has conceded a maximum of 250 runs in an innings only once. Seamers have dominated the bowling department. There seems to be a young pace battery shaping up in Bengal.
Yes absolutely. Hats off to people like Dinda, who has served Bengal with so much credit over the years. He is unrivalled. He is one of the best ever. But you know time waits for no one. That’s the best thing about the game. The youngsters have come and they are bowling venomously. They have got us into the final. You are right this is a big plus for Bengal that we have these young bowlers who are now tearing teams apart. I will be very very proud if a few of them play for India very soon and I think they are pretty good and ready.
Q. Ishan Porel has taken 22 wickets in 5 matches in this Ranji Trophy for Bengal. You said he can dismiss reputed batsmen like Rahul or Kohli. What do you see in him?
He has got height, he has got pace, he has got bounce and now he has got discipline...he doesn’t give you a loose ball. He bowls a perfect length and he just keeps pegging away at off-stump. There is no indication of what he is doing in the air. It’s not an outswinger or an inswinger. He seams the ball, he hits the deck and gets movement off the seam. Now that he is a lot fitter, he can improve even further. I think he is good and ready and very difficult to play. He has got deliveries like Mukesh (Kumar) and Akashdeep that get good batsmen out. They surprise you with the bounce and movement and there is no indication in the air in which way the ball is going to go.
Q. Shahbaz Ahmed, Mukesh Kumar were being carried by their team-mates on their shoulders after taking Bengal into the semi-final and Final. Those images speak volumes about the camaraderie in the Bengal camp.
Yes. That’s the main thing. The one big plus, like you said the camaraderie of the team, they love each other, they love each other’s performances and I really love watching this from a little distance. It is so gratifying to see this, because that’s exactly what I wanted.
Q. You took over as the head coach and mentor from last season. And here Bengal is in the final of Ranji Trophy. What is your mantra as a coach?
Last year I was observing as a mentor. I wasn’t interfering too much or putting too many suggestions. I felt that a few areas where we needed to get together were team spirit, fitness and belief. I didn’t know how to do it. I asked a lot of people and got a lot of suggestions but I was clueless. But two-three things we did. One was that off-season training for two months together. We were a group of 30-35 for two months in July and August training in the heat and rain in Calcutta. We worked very hard and that brought us together. Training is not only physical, it’s about mental as well. It’s team spirit as well. You worked together, you enjoyed together and your determination, your dedication, your discipline everything is being worked out. So I was not sure how to go about it but it certainly seems to have helped. The other thing is we are trying to project that, ‘you don’t matter’, the individual doesn’t matter. It’s only the team. You may be whoever you are, you may have scored 10000 runs, but that’s in the past. There is a young man who is playing his first game and you and he are equal. There is no question about it. So that message has to go through and the players have started believing that there is no agenda. For example, our off-spinner and batsman Arnab Nandi, scored a crucial 30 and got five wickets in the first game of the series against Kerala, but was dropped for the next game. And there was not a frown on his face. Again he did well and again he was dropped because the conditions required different balance of the team. It happened with our fast bowler Mukesh too. In Rajasthan, he won us the match by taking six wickets in the first innings, and in the next match he was dropped. Nobody takes it amiss. Anustup (Majumdar), who was the hero of the last two-three games, was dropped in the first three matches. He is such a senior cricketer, such a good team man and everything is perfect with him. There was never a moment in which I felt that there was resentment or anything. He was having a smile on his face and was helping the youngsters. We have a great unit.
Q. Bengal has a good pace bowling unit and a spin all-rounder. The middle-order has risen to the occasion many a time after the top order faltered. Your comments on the top order
We have got a great top-order. It is just that we are not scoring enough runs. We have a lot of faith in them. And we have to look at the team as a whole. No team’s all XI perform at one time. We are really fortunate that the middle-order and bowlers have performed. So two of out three areas or sections of our team have performed along with our fielding. I am waiting for the time when the top-order also plays and then God help the opposition.
Q. Shahbaz Ahmed has bounced back this season and has become the go-to man for Bengal in both batting and bowling.
He is a terrific cricketer. What a fighter. He doesn’t feel the pressure. His mental makeup is very different. When everybody else is struggling, he will go and hit over the top and he hit some good shots and quickly get 30 in 30 balls and changes the game. He is very enthusiastic, very fit, and very strong. This kid has got a long way to go. If he gets a chance in the IPL, he will show you how he hits the ball as well. He is a wonderful T20 cricketer. So next season is going to be Shahbaz’s season.
Q. There are many instances of players like Shahbaz Ahmed, Mohammed Shami who have come to Bengal to be part of the club cricket of Kolkata to shape their career. You also moved from Delhi to Kolkata, though for different reasons. Kolkata must be a welcoming place.
Calcutta is a very welcoming city. You have got to admire it. I got my job in Calcutta and I could play club cricket. There is no restriction and that’s how it should be. We are one. India is one. In fact, CAB has the provision where you can have two or three outstation players and if they are good enough they can play for the state.
Q. Irrespective of the result in the Ranji Final, what is in store for Bengal cricket in the future?
I think the graph is on the way up here. You will see Bengal doing well. They will finish in the top 3 or 4 at least two-three times in the next five years.
Q. Apart from cricket, you have a huge passion for wildlife conservation, birds and environmental issues. How do you divide your time?
When I took up this job I didn’t realise that the role would be so all-consuming. I am missing out on my number one passion in life, which is the environment. Cricket is second. I still look after orphaned birds and plant trees. In fact, I have planted 4000 trees near a place along the Ganges. I am loving it. Still find time to bird watching. Everywhere I go I carry my binoculars. That is my number one passion.