5-6 players from my team will represent India in the next 3 years: Bengal head coach Arun Lal

Revered for his fighting spirit, Arun Lal's contribution to Bengal cricket is unparalleled. Image: BCCI/Twitter
Revered for his fighting spirit, Arun Lal's contribution to Bengal cricket is unparalleled. Image: BCCI/Twitter
Ritam Basu

Bengal head coach Arun Lal believes that at least five to six players from his team will represent India within the next three years.

Under Lal’s tutelage, Bengal reached the Ranji Trophy final after a 13-year hiatus in 2020. After eking out some miraculous wins throughout the tournament, the Abhimanyu Easwaran-led side came second in the summit clash against Saurashtra on the basis of a first-innings deficit.

This season, Bengal look sharper and more determined to lift the trophy. The team is no longer reliant on individual brilliance. Several players are now chipping in with match-winning contributions, which testify to the cohesion and conviction of the side.

Those who’ve interacted with Lal, fondly called “Lal ji” in the cricket fraternity, know that this team culture is emblematic of his own philosophy. A pivotal member of Bengal’s last Ranji Trophy-winning team in the 1989-90 season, he’s someone who always puts the team ahead of personal achievements. He would say:

“I don’t want people to remember me. I only want people to remember Bengal for the brand of cricket we play."

Since joining Bengal's technical staff, first as a mentor in the 2018-19 season and then as head coach, Lal has infused a hitherto elusive killer instinct into the team, akin to Mumbai’s “khadoos” brand of cricket.

A tough taskmaster, the former Indian opener has also introduced a strict fitness regimen and nobody has benefited from it more than the fast bowlers. The likes of Ishan Porel, Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep are now able to bowl longer spells and enjoy hunting in packs. Each of the pacers, along with all-rounder Shahbaz Ahmed, has scalped over 37 wickets since the start of the previous edition of the Ranji Trophy.

No wonder the current crop of Bengal cricketers look up to Lal as a father figure. Despite combating a rare jaw cancer a few years ago, Lal’s fitness at 66 years of age can put any young player to shame.

In a recent interview with Sportskeeda, Lal spoke at length about Bengal 2.0 and explained why his bowling unit is currently the “best” in India. Having won all three of their Elite Group B matches against Baroda, Hyderabad and Chandigarh, Bengal have advanced to the quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy 2021-22 with the highest points tally (18).

Q: After spending nearly a month in the bio-bubble, you’re finally back home. How happy are you to reunite with your pet animals?

Arun Lal: I have seven dogs here. I missed my dogs, I missed my farm, I missed my birds…I missed my life! The bio-bubble is very difficult to endure. I think it should be done away with. There’s no reason to have a bio-bubble now. Yes, it was necessary at one stage, but it’s becoming a laughing stock now. The children are going to school physically, while we’re trapped inside bio-bubbles. It makes no sense.

Q: You had to wait till the final over to secure a win against Chandigarh in your final group match. Was the Bengal dressing room tense or relaxed before the fall of the last wicket, given that you had already qualified for the quarter-finals?

Arun Lal: We were very tense because we wanted to win. We wanted to continue with the winning habit and the momentum. We’ve qualified for the knockouts with the maximum points in India. It’s a statement we’ve made as a team.

Hats off to the boys for keeping their motivation intact till the last over on the fourth day. Even though we had already qualified for the quarter-finals, it didn’t matter to us. You can’t ask for more from a team that is playing with the same fervor on the first and last days of a first-class match. I’m proud of this team.

Q: This Bengal team has a bunch of excellent fielders. Would you attribute this to the fitness culture you’ve introduced to the team?

Arun Lal: We pride ourselves on our fielding and Abhimanyu [Easwaran] leads from the front. We were playing on a large ground at Cuttack's Barabati Stadium and before he went out to bat, he was already plus 25. He saved 25 runs by running, sliding, stopping, throwing, blocking boundaries and what not!

We’ve got some spectacular fielders. Sudip Gharami is as good an all-round fielder as Abhi, if not better. Then you also have Ritwik Roy Chowdhury, Shahbaz Ahmed, Anustup Majumdar and Writtick Chatterjee. Everybody is taking spectacular catches in the slips. We’re a young team that is brimming with confidence and exuberance. Along with these youngsters, we have some stabilizing factors like Manoj [Tiwary], Anustup and Sudip Chatterjee.

I also salute the spirit of this team. When you take 22 players to play just three matches, a lot of them are not going to play. Yet, nobody has become despondent or lacks energy. Everybody is contributing, making suggestions, running hard before and after a game. That shows the essence of this team. I assure the ones who’re not playing that they’re as good as the ones who’re playing. We have great bench strength now.

Q: You’ve tried to replace the individual culture with a “team first” culture since taking charge of Bengal three years ago. How much of that philosophy have you been able to inculcate in the players?

Arun Lal: You know what? I keep telling everybody that when you’re performing well and you start believing that you’re a star, it's the death knell for the team. Let others believe that you’re a star. You don’t have to think about it. The moment you start believing that you’re a star the team comes second. You’re right in saying that I always put the team ahead of an individual. You may be the best performer for Bengal, but the team is more important than you.

Q: Given the performances of the Bengal bowlers over the past couple of seasons, do you think Bengal’s bowling attack is the best in India at the moment?

Arun Lal: Why “at the moment”? I’ve been saying this for the past three years! Our bowling unit is the best by a mile. There’s no comparison [with any other bowling attack]. Bengal’s bowling unit isn’t given the acclaim that it deserves. Only one team has scored over 300 against us since the 2020-21 season and it was Saurashtra in last season’s Ranji final, that too on a flat wicket.

It’s not easy to take 20 wickets in a four-day game, but our bowlers have consistently been doing it. That’s why we’re the only team in the country to win all the group matches this season.

(L to R) Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel and Akash Deep form Bengal's fearsome pace trio. Image: The Telegraph
(L to R) Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel and Akash Deep form Bengal's fearsome pace trio. Image: The Telegraph

Q: Even though Abhimanyu Easwaran has been doing quite well for India A, he didn’t score many runs in last season’s Ranji Trophy. How big a concern was it for the Bengal think-tank? How relieved are you after seeing him score a hundred in the last match?

Arun Lal: Of course it [Easwaran’s rough patch] was a concern. I was disappointed that a champion like him wasn’t getting a lot of runs. One good thing about Abhi is that he leads from the front. Even when he’s not scoring runs, he still leads with the same fervor. If Abhi starts scoring consistently at the top of the order, not many teams can beat us. If he gets a hundred, I doubt if we’ll lose the match.

He’s an important figure in this team because he leads by example. He’s too good a player to miss out on big scores. He has played two match-winning innings this season – the 79 in our second innings against Baroda and the hundred (114) against Chandigarh. I still want more from him. A man of his caliber should score over 400 runs in six innings. Trust me, he’ll only get better from here onwards.

Q: How did you motivate Easwaran when he was going through a rough patch?

Arun Lal: See, I don’t believe in having one-on-one interactions. All these boys are motivated, skilful and capable individuals. They don’t need any inspiration to start scoring runs. They are people of substance. The idea is to stick together and keep believing in each other. You might think singling out players and talking to them individually could be beneficial, but it might have a reverse impact. Every star player goes through a rough patch. We say that a player is out of form, but nobody can define what “form” actually is. Abhi is a big inspiration, yaar! He’s going to hit a rich vein of form soon. That’s a given.

Q: What about Shahbaz Ahmed? Do you think he is Bengal’s MVP at the moment?

Arun Lal: Oh, absolutely! His performances for Bengal have been towering. Shahbaz has an unassuming energy. If the captain asks him to run in from the boundary line and bowl, he’ll do that without any hesitation. He’s that kind of a guy who’ll say, “Koi baat nahi, wicket nikaalna hai, main nikaal doonga” [“Don’t worry, if you need a wicket, I’ll get you a wicket”]. Even while we were chasing 349 to win the first match against Baroda, Shahbaz said, “Don’t worry, I’ll score the runs.” You need to have tremendous self-belief to say that. That’s the hallmark of this new Bengal team.

Q: You’ve always advocated for multi-utility cricketers…

Arun Lal: That’s right. We now have at least six to seven young cricketers who can bat, bowl and field well. Most of them may be sitting out right now, but I can assure you that they’ll become integral part of our limited-overs set-up within the next five years.

You’ll see that the teams who win the competitions are the ones whose No.7, No.8 and No.9 are scoring runs. Otherwise, the top six of all the teams are almost the same. If your bowlers can collectively score over 100 runs, your team will not lose.

Q: How impressed are you with young Abhishek Porel’s temperament?

Arun Lal: I’m very impressed with him. He’s a special talent. I’ve had nothing to do with his success. We gave him full freedom to go out there and express himself. He has scored a lot of runs for the Bengal U-19 team, so we told him to play his natural game. Actually, there’s not much of a difference between the U-19 and the senior levels. It’s just that you get fewer loose balls at the senior level.

Q: The opening combination is a cause of concern because Sudip Gharami hasn’t been scoring enough runs. How will you look to address this issue before the start of the knockouts?

Arun Lal: I’m hopeful that he’ll come good. Sudip Gharami is a special talent. I think he’s among the top five fielders in the country at present. He is technically sound and is a natural opener. It’s indeed sad for both Bengal and him that he hasn’t got runs. However, I’m sure that he’ll become an integral part of Bengal cricket within the next five to six years. He takes miraculous catches and even in the last game, he took three brilliant catches.

Q: There’s a big gap before the Ranji knockouts due to the IPL. Will it hamper the team’s momentum?

Arun Lal: I would’ve preferred to play the knockouts now, given our momentum. But it’s the same case for every team that has qualified. We need to understand that this isn’t something new. We all knew this was going to happen, so we’re prepared for it. We need to take heart from the fact that we’re an undefeated team so far. We have the potential to go the distance, so we must keep our spirits high.

Q: After a long time, six players from Bengal have got IPL contracts. Is this an indication that Bengal’s limited-overs teams are on the right track?

Arun Lal: We’re playing fabulous white-ball cricket. We played some special white-ball cricket last year. We couldn’t win any trophies due to some bad luck and inclement weather. I’m satisfied with our white-ball performance. You’ll see that the new players who’re now coming in will only make our white-ball teams better in the next five years. We’ll have more players playing in the IPL, that’s for sure.

Q: How many players from the current Bengal squad do you expect to make the cut for India A and the Indian senior team in the next two to three years?

Arun Lal: Lots of them. Bengal cricket has two main objectives at this stage – one is to win major trophies and the other is to prepare a strong supply line for India A and the senior national team. Mukesh Kumar certainly deserves a national call-up. He’s not recognized enough for his performances. Shahbaz Ahmed is close to earning a national call-up.

Even Akash Deep has a great chance because he’s the fastest bowler in India at the moment and he moves the ball exceedingly well. In fact, when the ball gets old in the middle overs, he’s as good as any other bowler in the country. Abhimanyu is already there. Among the batters, I think Abhishek Porel is another great prospect. There are five or six of them.

Q: Do you have plans for recalling Wriddhiman Saha if he wants to play the Ranji knockouts?

Arun Lal: It’s not for me to decide. It’s the selection committee’s call.

Wriddhiman Saha (left) and Arun Lal. Image: Wriddhiman Saha on Twitter
Wriddhiman Saha (left) and Arun Lal. Image: Wriddhiman Saha on Twitter

Q: What are the C.A.B.’s plans for unearthing new talent? Do remote villages in West Bengal have enough potential to be a steady supply line to the state team?

Arun Lal: The C.A.B. [Cricket Association of Bengal] is doing a fabulous job in this regard. They have observers everywhere who submit their reports on a daily basis. Selectors travel to the districts to see matches. Boys who are doing well at the district level are getting picked for the state side in various age groups. A big thumbs up should go to Abhishek [Dalmiya], Raj [Snehasish Ganguly], Debu [Debabrata Das] and all the other administrators. I’m also very happy with the selection committee because they’re coming up with the right choices. I’ve never felt that there’s any favoritism anywhere.

Q: When can we expect you to bring out your autobiography? I’m sure it will inspire people from all walks of life…

Arun Lal: (Laughs) I have no such plans at the moment, but let’s see. I’ll think about it soon!

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Edited by Samya Majumdar


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