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I never gave up on my Test dream: Pankaj

India’s 29-year-old debutant fast bowler cherishes life-long dream

Everybody has dreams. Many surrender to fate and give up on them. Only a few gifted ones go on to write their own fate. And fewer show unflinching perseverance to fight their fate.

Pankaj Singh fought his fate. For 10 years. Season after season, match after match, day after day. Finally, he defeated the fate. Pankaj’s moment of victory came when he was presented with his first Test cap by Sourav Ganguly ahead of India’s third Test against England at the Ageas Bowl.  “You deserve it,” Ganguly told him.

Pankaj made his first-class debut in 2004, and in 2014, after 77 matches and 300 wickets, he lived the biggest dream of his life – to play Test cricket for India.

“It’s a big achievement. It took me 10 years to get here,” Pankaj told BCCI.TV after the first day’s play. “This was my biggest dream, to play Test cricket for India and I have made it true today.”

A tall and strapping fast bowler, Pankaj earned each of his wickets in India’s domestic circuit by toiling hard on pitches not conducive for fast bowling. Playing for Rajasthan, he played most his matches on the Jaipur wicket, where the average first innings score is 320 (386 since 2010) and the highest total team total is 668.

Pankaj did everything to enhance his chances of getting picked for the Test squad – consistently finished among the top wicket-takers in Ranji Trophy since the last five years (finished first in Plate Group in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and was third-highest wicket-taker in Super League Group in 2011-12), worked on his physical strength so he could add a few yards to his pace and led Rajasthan to Ranji Trophy titles in 2010 and 2011 with a total of 196 wickets over two seasons.

But the call never came.

However, Pankaj’s dream was too important for him to give up on it. “I never gave up on this dream. How could I? There would have been nothing for me to work hard for. Where would I have gone without this dream and without my cricket?”

Pankaj’s first day in Test cricket was very similar to the story that preceded it. He bowled his heart out in his 20 overs, got the edges, beat the bat innumerable times and made scoring difficult for the England batsmen. But luck deserted him. Alastair Cook was dropped by Ravindra Jadeja at third slip off Pankaj’s bowling and a close lbw shout went against him.

However, the seasoned campaigner knows better than to sulk. And so he smiled. He said patience was the key. “You have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again and have to have much more patience than you need at the domestic level.

“If there you get a wicket after bowling five good overs, at the domestic level, you’ll have to bowl 10 at this level, because the batsmen are so much better.” With a wry smile, he added, “And you also have to wait for your luck.”

Shirin Sadikot

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Dhoni is honest and principled: Fletcher

Team India coach describes the relationship between him and the captain

In cricket, the captain and the coach are the two heads of the family. Together they nurture the team and guide it into the direction of victory. They make match-winners out of gifted players and a team out of a bunch of talented individuals.

Like any family, the relationship between the two heads is of utmost importance for the team to progress on the right path. Their relationship can make or break the team.

In an attempt to learn more about the relationship between Team India’s heads, BCCI.TV caught up with the one half of the captain-coach pair, Duncan Fletcher, to talk about the other half, MS Dhoni.

This is how Flectcher describes MS the man and Dhoni the captain.

What was the first thing that struck you about MS Dhoni?

That he is a very, very honest man. He would quietly sit down and discuss the point that he wants to make. He likes clarity when he is discussing something with you. What I really admire about him is that he is a very principled man. And because of his principles, he wants to give everyone a fair chance, sometimes to his own detriment. I try to share that sentiment with him because some people get a fair chance and the others tend to be judged in a different light. But with him it is very straightforward and simple; if you give one guy so many games to perform, it must be equal for everyone.

What kind of relationship do you share with him? Is it more a friendship or is it strictly professional?

You can say that it is a professional friendship. We both understand that our relationship as captain and coach is crucial to the team, because cricket is a very difficult sport. It is an unusual and unique sport, in that a coach doesn’t really have great power or say in the team matters as he does in other sports. The captain has the power in cricket, which is how it should be. The coach has no control over what is going on in the field and it’s the captain who is in the battle. Therefore, he should have the most say in the side. But because it is such a complicated sport, at the end of the five days of the match, the captain has to have rest. When you are the one making all the decisions, it can get to you. And that’s where the transition takes place where the coach takes over a little bit. If he understands the thinking of the captain, those decisions are quite easy to make. You know that the captain is linked in with you with regards to how he wants the team to be run and the procedures that have to be followed. So, it is very crucial that you understand each other and build a good relationship around that.

In what ways did he help you settle down in the team when you first joined?

He was very good with me in terms of offering advice about how things worked on and off the field – dealing with the administrative aspect like selection as well. Culturally it was very different for me but MS helped me ease into the camp. MS is just like that; he makes things easy for everyone.

How long did it take you to build that rapport with him?

I think I got along with MS very quickly, since the first time I met him when I flew over to Mumbai to pick the squad for the West Indies series. I think he is a very easy guy to get along with and I was pretty fortunate in that regards. I think anyone would gel well with him because he is approachable, he never pre-judges anyone and always looks to spend time with you and talk to you before he forms an opinion about you.

What according to you is the best thing about MS Dhoni the leader?

He leads from the front. When he comes out to bat under pressure, that’s when he is very, very good. He is the first one to get out of the trench and is basically saying, ‘guys, I am going to do it and you just have to follow suit’. I have seen many captains who are good leaders when things are fine. But when pressure comes on, things start to fall all over around them. That’s where MS is outstanding. He soaks in the pressure and leads the path for the team to follow.

When two strong-minded people are at the helm, there is bound to be a clash of ideologies sometimes. How often do you two have debates about team-related matters?

If he is the man leading people out of the trench, he should have the men he wants. The skill of the coach is just to point out areas that he might have missed. MS doesn’t miss many but there might be just one point somewhere in a strategy, or something else and as a coach you’ve got to have the skill to find it. The coach’s job is to always think out of the box and keep coming up with new ideas for the captain. Whether he takes them on board or not, is his prerogative. A leader must get ideas from everywhere, go away, assimilate them and decide which way he wants to go. And then, once that decision is made, it is important to have that conviction about it, which MS does.

Did your relationship go through an interesting phase when the team wasn’t winning many Test matches outside India?

I don’t think it changes. When you go through a bad phase, you only see the true character of the person. It goes for the players as well as leaders. And you see that with MS. He doesn’t get overexcited when we do well and stays calm when there is real pressure. That is so important. As captain and coach, you have got to keep the side motivated, try to keep the humour going in the change room. We ensured that the players were still enjoying their game and didn’t try to change things with tick boxes.

MS is known for his calmness. He just controls his emotions on the field. Having worked so closely with him, have you seen the emotional side of MS?

Everyone has emotions and the skill in all sports is to control those emotions. If you control your emotions, you have a better chance of winning. If you expose yourself, you’ve basically said to the opposition, ‘you’ve got me’! When you’ve got the fight in your eye and you’re controlling your emotions, that’s when you’re at your best. With your own team, very rarely you have to confront your players with emotion when there is a big problem. If you do it often, the impact lessens. But when there is a real problem and you let your emotions out to confront it, the players appreciate it.

You earlier spoke about how MS backs his players to the hilt. At times it becomes difficult to justify that backing when the performances don’t come. Are you both generally on the same page when that happens?

There are these debates that we go through and we come out with a conclusion. Some of these decisions are not easy either way – whether it is leaving a player out or bringing someone in. But you can simplify the decisions by asking one question: What is good for the team now, but more importantly, what is good for the team in the future? Once you do that, you will reach the correct conclusion.

How rigid or flexible is he once he has made up his mind about something?

It is not easy to change his mind, and that’s how it should be. A leader should be stubborn. If he is indecisive, how can he lead the team under pressure? You’ve got to have a stubborn streak in you. If you don’t have it, you’ll go out there with your mind floating around amid so many ideas and that’s a problem. The good captains will make more right stubborn decisions than wrong ones.

With MS, one gets the feeling that even though he is pretty simple in his approach to everything, it is not easy to figure out what is really going on in his mind.

It is very difficult to tell what is going on in anyone’s mind. You think you understand people but somewhere along the line, you get surprised by their behaviour. One thing I am sure about when it comes to MS is that being an intelligent man, he is not simple. But he has the skill of putting complicated and difficult statements across simply. To be able to think in a complex manner and then put it across simply is a great skill. That’s why there are very few leaders because not many can do that.

MS does not believe in a lot of talking and long team meetings. Do you have a similar approach?

To a degree I do. If you are keeping things simple, why have long meetings? Cricket is a very complicated game and you’ve got to be very careful while putting things across to ensure you don’t complicate things further for the players. If you have 10 points to make, just choose three most important ones; that’s the tipping point. There is a lot of tension inside a dressing room just before a Test match and you don’t need players to take the field confused.

When the seniors retired, you knew you both had to lead the team in a transition period. Did you two chalk out a plan for the future?

We did sit around and tried to come up with a long-term plan, which is not easy. You have to draw out a general plan and be flexible with certain areas. Two years ago, we decided who will play which role in the team and there has been a slight change to that. That can happen because somewhere along the line someone might lose form or when they get to international level, we realise they’re not as good as we had thought they were. Others rise to the occasion and show they have big-match temperament.

Shirin Sadikot

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