Gujarat Lions on their debut finished on the top of the table with 18 points before losing out in the play-offs in the 2016 edition of the Indian Premier League. Image Credit: BCCI

Mumbai: Keshav Bansal, the owner of Indian Premier League’s (IPL) Gujarat Lions team, is only 24 years old. As Director of Intex Technologies (India) Ltd he is known for his shrewd business brain and his passion for cricket. The players feel comfortable having a young owner around them who understands their pulses and challenges. During an interview with Gulf News Keshav speaks about his team, the challenges and varied other issues.

Excerpts

How was it at 24 years old to run an IPL franchise? What prompted you to take up such a challenge?

I believe age is just a number and hard work is the key to any business and professional success. The journey has been exciting yet full of challenges. Leading this team has been humbling and an experience I will cherish for my lifetime. I enjoyed every aspect of it, as I truly replicated what I learnt at Intex. When we bought the team we just had three months before our first game. So, organising everything in such short time at a place where no IPL match has happened before was a big challenge. But we moved day by day. It was difficult to sell sponsorship also as Gujarat Lions had no past record. However, I think the passion and commitment towards the sport is what kept me going.

Intex is major mobile phones and consumer durable company. We always look forward to connect with the youth. Cricket is the best fit for any brand to reach out to today’s youth. We have been sponsoring many cricket tournaments in the past. However, we thought buying an IPL team for promoting the brand Intex will be an out of the box idea. As, being an owner of an IPL team, we could build a better connect and engage deeper with the youth. This eventually worked.

How was the response from the players and how did you adapt with the stars in the team? Did any players too make your task easy?

The response from players has been extremely positive. We had a dream debut season by finishing at the top of the table. It was because of the energy, charisma of all the players both on and off the field. We’ve all become good friends. The support from everyone has been overwhelming and the team is hungry, pumped up and raring to go. Suresh Raina is keen to improve on aspects we fell short on last year and personally I am looking forward to this year with a lot of excitement and optimism.

Having experienced players like Raina, [Brendon] McCullum, Ravindra Jadeja and a fantastic coach like Brad Hodge, does add a lot of value. It makes your job much easier. These players have successfully led the side from front. They kept the team together specially in the bad times. It does help tremendously.

What was your connection with cricket before you became a franchise owner?

I am a big sports enthusiast. I have enjoyed playing squash, football, table tennis and swimming. I have followed cricket like any other youngster in India. I haven’t really played much cricket. Intex as brand has been sponsoring various cricket tournaments and that brought me closer to the game.

What is your objective when you buy a player as you went for some top players like Jadeja, McCullum, James Faulkner and Dwayne Bravo?

Being new entrants in the IPL tournament, we went into the auction with a clear mindset of having a balanced team. IPL being a T20 format, demands players to be fearless and aggressive. The idea was to have a strong core team that we achieved via the first players draft. Along with the core team, our choice of 19 more players consists of a young and energetic talented pool. The entire pack of 24-players have helped build a formidable team that is worth watching. With Raina as captain and Hodge mentoring the team, Gujarat Lions team will surely emerge as a force to reckon with.

How satisfied were you with the performance of the team in 2016?

We are extremely satisfied with the performance in 2016. Our team did very well and the entire team of Gujarat Lions deserves the credit for it. Right from the day at IPL auction to our last home game, our entire staff did a fantastic job at selecting the players we were looking to form a balanced team. The right mix of experienced and fresh talent along with Hodge and Heath Streak, we believe is the best one could have. Raina led the team beautifully during the course of the season and definitely spearheaded the team with example. Hodge and Raina were the ones who took most of the decisions during the auction. I trusted their cricketing wisdom and went along with it. Thinking about it right now, it was a fantastic decision.

What did you learn from the experience and what needs to be done to make the team a winner?

We were quite happy and satisfied in what we achieved last year. We had a great overall team performance. Bowling and fielding departments are the areas where we need to improve. Therefore, if you noticed, we picked maximum bowlers in this year’s auction. We feel we have strong and a balanced team now. I keep telling the team that IPL is a fearless game and we need to have a really good batting side that is also balanced with strong bowlers. I am a firm believer in promoting lot of Indian talent, so our strategy will be the same as last year. Bravo is injured so we need to have a strong all-rounder as a replacement for him till the time he is fit. We have hence chosen strong Indian bowlers and good all-rounders.

How much has people of Gujarat backed your team? Do you think the state did benefit from having an IPL team?

Our Gujarati fans are our lifeline and I must add, their expectations keep us on our toes. People of Gujarat have supported us whole heartedly. They have given lot of love and support to the team. They have showed up in massive numbers to cheer their team in the stadium. According to Facebook, Gujarat Lions was the most engaged and talked about team last season on its platform. This was only due to the backing of our fans. We expect that to even improve further this year. We are extremely delighted to get this overwhelming support. IPL adds lot of value to any state it happens in. It brings the people of the state closer to the sport. It unites everyone as they all come together to cheer their team. It pushes youngsters of the state to play for their state team. It also adds to the economy of the state. As we see a huge involvement and benefit for the state level sponsor brands, hotels, entertainment, travel agencies.

Do you plan to branch out to promote other sports too or prefer cricket due to its wide reach?

We are always open to associating with new age marketing platforms. Being a big sports enthusiast myself, I believe it is a great way to communicate brand value to a mass audience. We are open to partner and explore new opportunities to associate with more sporting leagues.

How much has your parents and also the UAE-based uncle Sanjay Bansal encouraged you? Has there been any support from the UAE or from expatriates here for your team?

My parents are my biggest inspiration and are living examples of assiduousness, perseverance and stellar achievement. My father who built the company is a man of substance and has taught me that hardship is necessary for success. I attribute much of my personality to my mother who has ensured (that) my sister and I grow up in a balanced, down to earth environment with a balance between family values and business prowess.

My uncle is a prominent and highly knowledgeable businessman who teaches me new tricks of the trade each time we meet. In fact, the UAE is a country close to my heart as it is the land of opportunities. Cricket is probably the most positive factor there and thanks to its nature and the performance of our players in previous seasons, there is support from here indeed which is deeply heart-warming.

We are told you were actively involved in selection of Raina as captain and Hodge as the coach? What prompted you to choose them?

I was an active participant in the selection of captain and coach for Gujarat Lions. We had to build a team from scratch. After knowing Raina as a person, we did realise he has the traits of a leader and a great team player. He definitely is one of the best T20 players of all time. He is one the experienced players in the side. Being an Indian also adds to his side’s advantage, as he understands the local conditions better than anyone.

It’s interesting to share that I interviewed almost seven individuals for the coach’s position. Brad had a tremendous passion and fire to mentor and guide the team. He brings to the table, his unparalleled expertise and understanding of the game which is hugely beneficial for our over-all team performance. As a coach he has mentored and kept the team together, especially in tough times. He has been an extremely successful T20 player himself which adds even more.

You also recently picked UAE players Chirag Suri? How was it to even reach out to associate nation players?

IPL is all about new talent and enthusiasm. Chirag Suri is a young lad and has performed quite well for his national side (UAE). He is an aggressive opening batsman and is quite focused and dedicated to his game.

We met Chirag during last season. He managed to impress the team with his aggressive and fearless batting skills. The credit for getting him on-board goes completely to the team’s coaching staff. They continuously monitor talents across the globe that can be a part of our team mixture. We are a team who has always catered to young talent and signing Chirag this year speaks volumes about the team beliefs and objectives.

How much freedom you give to your coach and captain especially in team combination? In fact the logic behind releasing Dale Steyn?

We have our plans in place. The coaching and the management staff work in tandem along with the captain to choose players who can be beneficial for our team combination. It’s the coach and the captain who decide team’s playing XI. They are cricket experts and the best at it. We believe in empowering them and giving them complete freedom for the squad selection.

Dale Steyn is a fantastic cricketer and representative of the game. It was the coach and captain’s decision to release Dale Steyn. He has been facing various fitness issues lately. To strengthen our bowling attack we have roped in the Indian veteran pacer Munaf Patel along with Basil Thampy and Nathu Singh into our squad.

Any changes and additions are you planning to make the squad stronger?

For this year, we have roped in former Indian batsman Mohammad Kaif, as the assistant coach. The boys are looking forward to gain from Kaif’s massive experience in the game.