These days, the whole of Indian cricket is wired to not pay any heed to the ‘uncontrollables’. But how long can you ignore them, especially when you have been polishing the ‘controllables’ year after year?
The last of Manoj Tiwary's 15 matches (12 ODIs and 3 T20Is) for India came way back in July 2015. While aiming for a national comeback at the age of 37 would be nothing short of a Bollywood script, he can’t wrap his head around his exclusion from the IPL for the past four seasons. The only ‘uncontrollable’ he is dead set on overhauling now, is winning the Ranji Trophy for his home state, Bengal.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Tiwary admitted that he has given up on his ambitions to again don the India Blue. However, a dream that was left unfulfilled as Bengal captain, is what still powers him to balance the dual role of a state cricketer and minister.
“It does get difficult, but the desire to win the Ranji Trophy for Bengal is my ultimate aim now. I know my India comeback cannot happen. Looking at the strength of the Indian team and my age, it would not be ideal to think of making a comeback. IPL is also not happening for me, I don’t know why, but it is what it is. But I always dreamt of becoming a Ranji-winning captain. It didn’t happen as captain, but I want to be the champion as a player. And since I love the sport, I am still continuing to play. The day I feel I am not enjoying myself, I will hang up my boots,” Manoj Tiwary declared.
His commitment can be best illustrated by the developments that unfolded between the quarterfinal and the semi-final of the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy. Tiwary put in a full-stretch dive in the second innings against Jharkhand, but to no avail, as he was run-out on 136.
What that desperate attempt did, however, was aggravate his knee injury. It not only made him a doubtful starter for the semis, but it also potentially jeopardised Bengal’s chances by taking out their in-form batter.
“I had a cartilage issue before the season. So before the semi-final, both my knees were swollen. And that happened because I dived to get back into the crease in the second innings versus Jharkhand and was run-out. So that fall had an impact on my knees, which then got swollen up. I was in little doubt whether to play the semi-final or not, but then I took medicines, got myself taped, and came out for Bengal,” he added.
It doesn’t end there. In a game in which Bengal were on the back foot throughout, Tiwary battled through pain to score a fighting 102 off 211 balls against Madhya Pradesh. And it’s only ironic that the side Bengal lost to, by 174 runs, went on to realise their longstanding dream of winning a maiden Ranji Trophy title.
"I backed him & it is bearing fruit now” – Manoj Tiwary hails Shahbaz Ahamad’s growth
Bengal did come back empty-handed. But their biggest positive was the rise of Shahbaz Ahamad. The 27-year-old topped both the batting and bowling charts for them, scoring 482 runs at an average of 60.25 and scalping 20 wickets at a strike-rate of 49.30.
After a successful stint with the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in IPL 2022, he underlined his dependency in clutch situations by notching up his maiden first-class hundred against MP. The southpaw scored a gritty 116 off 209 balls, in a 183-run alliance with Manoj Tiwary, to keep their hopes alive. But, despite the duo’s cumulative 218 runs, Bengal folded up for a paltry 273, thus conceding a vital 68-run lead.
One can’t fault them for being a tad more hurt than their teammates. Tiwary also echoed similar sentiments, while adding that Shahbaz has done enough to be one of the first names on the team sheet.
“Yes, there is a little bit regret. Because when you score big runs, then you want your team to win. So that people will remember it, even more so, because it came in a winning cause. And yeah, there has to be communication in the middle. Sometimes, a youngster can also guide a senior one. I thought he was being a bit too flashy at times, when I cautioned him from the non-striker’s end. But he played well. He had a fabulous season this year – with the bat, with the ball, and on the field as well. He’s one of the players whom we can depend on now. Earlier, Bengal used to mostly bank on one or two players, and you can now add Shahbaz to that list,” Tiwary stated.
Since making his domestic debut in 2018, Shahbaz has shown rapid improvements. His all-round efforts in Bengal’s run to the final in the previous edition forced RCB to snap him up at the 2020 auction. However, after being on the fringes for two seasons, he played all 16 games in this edition. And Manoj Tiwary had a big hand in this development.
It had been about a decade since Bengal made the final of India’s premier domestic competition. Amid extensive deliberations and dissections, a notable feature that hit then captain Manoj Tiwary was that the top teams had bowlers who could bat. And Tiwary was on the lookout for a left-arm spinner who could be equally handy with the willow.
It was during the 2016/17 season that Shahbaz was regularly churning out impactful numbers in club cricket. While Tiwary wanted to fast-track the rookie into the Bengal setup, the move was met with roadblocks, with people calling for home-grown talent to be blooded.
“That was the time when Pradipta Pramanick also came in. I saw Pradipta for the first time in Sri Lanka and he was very good, but we wanted somebody who could give us stability with the bat. I always noticed him [Shahbaz] scoring a lot of runs in club cricket, and also picking up a lot of wickets.
"So initially, there was a little bit of resistance from a couple of people since he was an outstation player. There were some questions like, ‘Why do you need outside players when there is so much talent at home?’ But in my mind, it was always about making the team stronger and giving preference to deserving candidates. So yeah, that’s how I backed him and it is bearing fruit now,” Manoj Tiwary told Sportskeeda.
The winds of change have hit very hard, and Shahbaz’s heroics this season have had people touting him as Ravindra Jadeja’s potential successor. Tiwary also pointed towards four others, who could potentially break into the Indian team.
“On the basis of what I have seen until a few weeks back – I don’t know what one does in the off-season – I would say Ishan Porel, Akash Deep, Shahbaz, Abhimanyu [Easwaran] are the ones to watch out for. And there is one more guy who will eventually come good, Abishek Porel. He is a great talent and, the more he will play, the better he will become,” he opined.
If the aforementioned names indeed marry potential with performance, Bengal could soon end their long wait for the elusive Ranji title.
No longer captain, but still leading the way
Back in 2011, after a string of low scores, Manoj Tiwary turned it around with a match-winning 104* against the West Indies. A decade on, the star batter has still been defying odds. After an underwhelming league phase, Tiwary turned up the heat in the knockouts.
While Bengal maintained their winning run in the group stage, their batting unit failed to put in concerted performances. Manoj Tiwary also flattered to deceive, managing just 115 runs from six innings.
“After getting bowled on a seaming wicket in the first innings versus Baroda, I counter-attacked in the second essay. Then I got run-out against Hyderabad, even though it wasn’t my fault. So it was always there in my head that I have to score one big knock, because I come with a lot of expectations. Coming into the knockout stage, there was a little bit of change in mindset. I told myself that, it’s fine if I get out to a good delivery but I have to stay at the wicket till the end,” Tiwary expressed.
Then, a 173-ball 73 in the world record innings against Jharkhand set the ball rolling. It was followed by two centuries in the next two innings, and suddenly, all of Bengal had their hopes pinned on the mainstay.
But the cookie had to crumble at one stage, as, by Tiwary’s own admission, a “very poor shot” saw the back of him for a 38-ball 7 in Bengal’s daunting chase of 350 in the semi-final.
He finished this season with 433 runs at a healthy average of 43.30 with two centuries and as many fifties to boot. His aggregates in the previous four editions are (most recent first): 707 runs at 50.50, 616 runs at 51.33, 461 runs 35.36, 643 runs at 49.46.
How does Manoj Tiwary want to tread the path forward?
An MLA from Shibpur constituency, Manoj Tiwary has been working for Bengal right at the grassroots. Getting to know more people, catering to their needs, helping them further explore themselves. It has helped Tiwary understand and appreciate human emotions better. A case in point was the handwritten note, which he brandished after reaching the three-figure mark versus MP.
“I never express myself on the field. But over the last three-four years, it made me realise that we take our wife and family’s efforts and sacrifices for granted. We can’t actually express ourselves, because we are too busy with our daily life. Sometimes that expression of love, when you are having a discussion with your wife, it makes a lot of difference to their feelings.
"So I wanted to do that, because without her support and sacrifices, I wouldn’t have been able to manage both the things simultaneously. It’s not easy to be at home and look after a young family. That is the reason why I wanted to dedicate this hundred to my wife, son and my pet dog Max,” Manoj Tiwary revealed.
With age catching up, he has to work extra hard on his fitness to keep the Ranji dream alive. Add to that, the growing ministerial need to be available at the drop of a hat. Nonetheless, Tiwary makes it a point to finish all work by 5 p.m., even if he has to skip lunch.
“In the pre-season, I train with the Bengal team in the morning and then go to my constituency. There I do my administrative work, have lunch or sometimes even skip it. Then I go to the sports department, then attend functions if any, but I make it a conscious effort to wrap up my day by 5 in the evening. That is how I have been managing. God has been kind, party workers have been very supportive, there are no complaints from the common people who all have voted for me,” he said.
Since making his Bengal debut in 2004, Manoj Tiwary’s journey has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. Having finished runners-up on three occasions – 2005/06, 2006/07, 2019/20 – one might get rattled, especially if they are pursuing something badly. There is every chance of earnestness being adulterated with desperation. Does he ever fret over time running out?
“No, I have never felt that way. And I don’t want those thoughts to come into my head ever. Age is just a number for me, like with so many other successful athletes who are in this age bracket. Once you are consistent in your performance, if you are match-fit and can sustain your physical fitness to complete the whole season, then age does not have a role to play. So I have never felt that way. But yeah, knowing the potential of the team, I know that we can and we will soon win the Ranji Trophy,” he concluded.
If his career is anything to go by, if his bounce-back in the latest season can be held as testimony, Manoj Tiwary can still turn any corner and speed away on his freeway.