Former Indian all-rounder and current Bengal coach Sairaj Bahutule speak about his team’s preparations ahead of the 2017/18 domestic season, the sparkling resurgence of Bengal cricket of late, the big Pragyan Ojha debate and his expectations from the upcoming season in this freewheeling chat with cricfit.com correspondent Ritam Basu.
Q: How are Bengal’s preparations going for the ensuing first-class season?
Bahutule: Preparations are in full swing. We went to Karnataka to participate in the KSCA invitational tournament last month and played some good cricket there. We were unlucky to miss out on a final berth since the semi-final against Gujarat was decided by a coin toss. After that, the boys underwent a strength and conditioning camp in Kolkata which went on for around ten to twelve days. We are also supposed to go to Surat to play a couple of two-day warm-up matches against Gujarat later this month, which should give us adequate match practice prior to the commencement of the new season.
Q: Last season, Bengal failed to progress beyond the group-stage of the Ranji Trophy but managed to reach the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, which it lost to Tamil Nadu. Were you satisfied with your team’s overall efforts at the close of the 2016/17 season?
Bahutule: The boys are only getting better and better with each passing day. The work ethics of the players coupled with Sourav’s (Ganguly) vision for Bengal cricket has already started bearing fruit, as evidenced by our overall display the previous season. The support staff also has been quite professional with the likes of Joydeep Mukherjee (Director of Bengal cricket) and Ranadeb Bose (bowling coach) always striving to keep the boys focused on the task at hand. Then, Manoj Tiwary too has been leading the side exceedingly well over the last couple of years or so and he has played a big hand in instilling a new culture in the Bengal dressing room. So, we are blessed to have a resourceful and efficient unit which is working in a synchronized manner towards a common goal.
Q: In recent times, quite a few players from Bengal like Sudip Chatterjee, Manoj Tiwary, Ashok Dinda, Sreevats Goswami and Abhimanyu Easwaran have been selected for India-A tours, top-flight domestic competitions like the Duleep Trophy and the Irani Trophy and also to play for the Board President’s XI side. Are these happy tidings for Bengal cricket?
Bahutule: Yes, certainly! These opportunities are very important for the development of the said players. As coaches, our job is confined to supporting the players and making sure that all their problems are properly addressed. It’s the players that need to be lauded and credited with putting up good performances and catching the selectors’ attention in the process.
Q: After the conclusion of the last domestic season, there were speculations in certain sections of the media that the captaincy of the Bengal team could be handed over to Sudip Chatterjee. To what extent were these speculations true?
Bahutule: Well, I am not aware of such speculations and I don’t know who has spread these baseless rumors. I would like to reiterate that Manoj Tiwary is the captain of our side for the 2017/18 season and will continue to assume the mantle of captaincy in the next few seasons as well if he wants to.
Q: The BCCI has decided to scrape the neutral venue format in the Ranji Trophy and return to the conventional home and away format. Would you view it as a welcome change?
Bahutule: The conventional format is always welcome because cricket is a game which ought to be played the conventional way. So it’s good in a way that the home and away format has been restored since home advantage is a crucial component in any sport let alone cricket.
Q: For the past few years, the general consensus about Bengal has been that the bowling department is heavily dependent on Ashoke Dinda. Has Bengal been able to unearth enough wicket-taking options to ease the workload off Dinda’s shoulders?
Bahutule: Ashoke has been our star performer for quite some time now and he is the pace spearhead of the side. The youngsters naturally look up to Ashoka and his consistency rubs off on all the young pacers. I am confident that the youngsters will follow in his footsteps and make rapid progress in the years to come.
Q: As the Head Coach of Bengal, what is your take on the Pragyan Ojha issue which has been dominating the headlines of late?
Bahutule: Pragyan is a fantastic bowler and his presence will always be a bonus for the side. You need to understand that it was the decision of the C.A.B to rope him in and avail his services and they have every right to decide whether to persist with him or not.
Q: Ojha hasn’t been included in the Bengal side which will take on Gujarat in a couple of warm-up matches later this month. What is the reason for his exclusion?
Bahutule: We tried to contact him (Ojha) before the squad for the two-match warm-up tour of Gujarat was announced but did not get any response from the other end. Hence were forced to name a Bengal squad without him.
Q: Muttiah Muralitharan, during his recent visit to Kolkata for the Vision 2020 camp, said that Bengal has adequate replacements for Ojha if at all he is unavailable. Do you concur with his opinion?
Bahutule: If somebody suffers an injury and gets ruled out, there will always be another player to replace him. I don’t think Murali said it any other sense. And let me tell you: Pragyan is very crucial to our plans going into the 2017/18 season. Let us not push the issue any further.
Q: You happen to be one of the leading names in the realms of Mumbai cricket, having played for Mumbai for nearly two decades. In what areas do you think Bengal cricket needs improvement in order to match the standards of the so-called ‘Bombay school of cricket’?
Bahutule: I think every cricket gharana is different from the other in terms of culture, infrastructure, and a few other determinants. Since Sourav took charge of the C.A.B a couple of years ago, a lot of good projects have been initiated to inculcate a culture of three-day and four-day cricket among the budding players of Bengal. The Vision 2020 program has been a huge success and the involvement of people like Muttiah Muralitharan, V.V.S Laxman and TA Sekar sir with the program has definitely added a lot more weight to the entire scheme. As far as my job is concerned, I have made every possible effort to share my experience of playing for Mumbai with the Bengal team and give input as to where they need improvement. But needless to say, Bengal has abundant talent in cricket and we only need to make sure that the youngsters, who are going to be the future flag bearers of Bengal cricket, are properly trained and nurtured. I can vouch that we are moving in the right direction.
Q: Who are the most promising youngsters in the Bengal set-up at present?
Bahutule: There is a pretty large pool of young players who can serve Bengal with aplomb in the near future like Aamir Gani, Pradipta Pramanik, Aritra Chatterjee and Kanishk Seth. It’s imperative therefore that they are allowed to showcase their talent on the big stage on a consistent basis because unless they are given a decent run at the first-class level, you will never be able to make a proper assessment of their abilities.
Q: Do you think Team India possesses the best spin artillery in world cricket right now?
Bahutule: It’s (India’s spin attack) a good mix and it’s heartening to see a chinaman bowler and leg-spinner playing together on the same side and also doing well; something which has never happened in Indian cricket before. Kuldeep Yadav has got great control over his bowling and Chahal too has been wily in mixing his pace and perplexing the batsmen. So the influx of these two players has definitely enhanced India’s spin department.
Q: There has been a dearth of quality leg-spinners at the Test level lately. Is the art of leg spin gradually fading away?
Bahutule: I don’t think so because if you remember, the leg-spinners did quite well in the previous season of the IPL. Yes, it’s true that we don’t get to see too many leggies at the Test level nowadays, but to say that leg-spin is on the decline would be an overstatement.
Q: You have been working with the Bengal side for close to three years now. What has been your fondest memory of Kolkata during this stint?
Bahutule: The warmth and kind of hospitality that you receive here in Kolkata are really praiseworthy. As a city too, Kolkata has experienced a sea change with respect to infrastructural development from the time I used to come and play here. Everything here, starting from the weather to the cuisine is agreeable and I am grateful to the C.A.B and especially Sourav for giving me the opportunity to work towards the development of Bengal cricket and over the last three years, they haven’t left any stone unturned to ensure that I am provided with a good working environment at all times.
Q: The last question. What sort of roadmap has the Bengal think tank formulated for the upcoming domestic season?
Bahutule: We don’t want to muddle things up too much; we always look to stick to our basic plans. It’s a team effort and you can expect to see an exciting brand of cricket from Bengal this time around.