Dubai: The grin on Arun Lal’s face was that of immense satisfaction as he posed with the ecstatic Bengal boys after making the final of Ranji Trophy — the elite domestic cricket competition of India — after 13 years. For the head coach of the state team which went on a giant-killing spree on their way to the final this season, there is nothing much left to prove to anybody — except to himself.
It’s impossible to gauge the contribution of this 64-year-old former opening batsman to Indian cricket through sheer numbers. He played a mere 16 Tests and 13 One Day Internationals for India in the 1980s, at a time when the legendary Sunil Gavaskar and Kris Srikkanth were at the peak of their prowess, and with only moderate success. Why is it then that the cricketing fraternity of the country — almost unanimously — doff their hat to this lionheart and celebrate his success?
Lal is a cancer survivor who always wore his never-say-die attitude on his sleeves when he went out to bat for Bengal or India and tried to instill the same qualities in his teammates — first as a player and then as a coach. He is a man who strode the Indian domestic scene like a Colossus and was the brains behind Bengal’s only Ranji Trophy triumph in 1989 — a campaign which saw a certain teenager called Sourav Ganguly making his first class debut in the final.
And now, he is one match away from making it a Ranji ‘double’ as a coach as Bengal will now take on Saurashtra in the final at Rajkot from March 9. “I take great pride in saying that we are the fittest and strongest team in the country at the moment. No words of praise are enough for the way they fought the perception and have beaten strong teams like Rajasthan, Punjab and eventually Karnataka on their way to the final,” Lal said from Kolkata.
When Gulf News caught up with him over phone, ‘Piggy’ — as he is known — sounded relaxed at his farmhouse on the outskirts of the City of Joy. It was only on Tuesday at the Eden Gardens that Bengal shocked Karnataka by 177 runs in the semi-finals — a team which boasted of names like Lokesh Rahul and Manish Pandey in their batting line-up. “This team has the best bowling attack in the country at the moment. Just ponder this, no team except Orissa, managed to get a 250-plus score against our attack during the entire campaign,” a proud Lal said.
“The likes of Ishan Porel and Shahbaz Ahmed are now ready to play for India. It’s quite sad that someone like Porel (the paceman was a part of India’s Under-19 World Cup-winning team in 2018 under the captaincy of Prithvi Shaw) fails to get a call-up in IPL,” said Lal, who was one of the much respected names in TV commentary panels across channels for more than two decades till a rare nerve cancer in the jaw pushed him out of action in early 2016.
“As you are aware, I had to undergo a 14-hour surgery at the Tata Medical Centre in Kolkata for a jaw reconstruction. There were other protocol like radiotherapy which followed — and I was out of action for a while,” Lal recalled. “It was in the latter half of 2018 when I was here on vacation at the farmhouse that I got a call from Sourav (then the president of Cricket Association of Bengal). He proposed that I join the team as a mentor as it was going through a rough patch,” he said.
This team has the best bowling attack in the country at the moment. Just ponder this, no team except Orissa, managed to get a 250-plus score against our attack during the entire campaign
The health of cricket in Bengal had been a subject always close to his heart, as Lal had left Delhi to make Kolkata his home since the 1980s.
“The results were not immediate as the team lacked the fitness levels required for today’s cricket. In the run-up to the 2019-20 season, I decided to do things my way to lay the foundation of a fitter and stronger unit,” he recalled.
The hard taskmaster that Lal can be — it’s not hard to gauge the tough regimen that he had set up for the team ahead of the current season.
“The boys were made to run for 25 laps around the Jadavpur University Stadium — be it in the heat or rains — and we followed it up with 2-3 hours at the nets. There were critics who found my ways archaic and said that they are being overworked and will get tired even before the season begins,” Lal recalled.
Those who have known this iron-willed character since his playing days will acknowledge that running used to be an obsession with him — so was his love for reading fiction. ‘’Unfortunately, I had to give up on these two things since my surgery — since the surgeons had to graft muscles from my leg to reconstruct the jaw. Reading for long hours is also a no-no,’’ he says matter-of-factly — no trace of self pity evident in his voice.
Looking ahead at the Ranji final, Lal slipped into the analytical mode once again. “We are still not playing to our potential as our top order has not been clicking. We have been fortunate to get valuable contributions from our number six to eight — from bowlers who can bat.
This is an area where we need to improve if we want to take the final leap,” Lal signed off.