Azhikkakath Joseph Antony
If a tree is known by its fruit, Vidarbha cricket has reaped a rich harvest. Like shoots around an olive, the talented have sprung up around Usman Ghani and grown in his shade.
A silent sentinel more than an in-your-face mentor, his success as a skipper and player is eclipsed by that as a coach. As the sower, Ghani’s gaze over his crop is as gentle as a farmer patiently peering skywards for rain. Sure enough, his winning ways with the young ensure the yield, both with bat and ball, is plentiful.
What makes this soft-spoken gent get the best out of the men, women or children placed in his charge ? The answer may lie in the approach he adopts with his wards or seen perhaps in William Wyler ‘s Oscar award sweeping blockbuster Ben-Hur.
In the panoramic chariot race, the arrogant Messala inflicts stripes on his steeds with his whiplashes. In contrast, Ben-Hur talks to his horses before the contest, merely urging and prompting them onwards in white hot competition. Messala’s dubious deeds disrupt man and machine but Ben-Hur’s mounts remain loyal to their master, right until victory.
Under Usman’s tutelage, Umesh Yadav made his first class debut. The pupil is beholden to his pedagogue. “Usman Sir’s a great human being. Even when I went through lean patches, his belief in my abilities was constant. That kind of backing steered me through stiff competition and encouraged me to keep getting better,” said the strapping speedster, who earlier wanted to be a policeman but did much better as a patrol man on the highways of pace.
In this new recruit’s raw power, Ghani spotted a rough diamond. With some polishing, he was sure it would sparkle and shine. “My bowling action was complicated but he sorted that out. He was convinced I deserved chances and that faith has brought me this far,” acknowledged the India and Vidarbha spearhead, who generates pace upwards of 140 kmph without difficulty.
Ghani has been able to relay his expertise to subsequent generations effectively because he has experienced agony and ecstasy as a player in 35 Ranji and a dozen limited overs matches, some of them at the helm too. A quarter century after Vidarbha made the last eight, he led from the front with knocks of 94 and 66 against Haryana to clinch the vital first innings lead in the 1995-96 season.
The hunger to achieve remained and manifested itself through his trainees. That he was keen on a coaching career was obvious when he obtained a Master’s degree in physical education. So did he obtain a BCCI Level C certificate back in 2007 itself.
If chaperoning children can be the toughest test, he shepherded Vidarbha’s under 14 side to the Raj Singh Dungarpur Trophy, not once but twice. A string of successes followed in the Vinoo Mankad, Cooch Behar and Vijay Hazare tournaments, either ending up in silverware, runner-up positions or semi-final finishes. Ghani acquitted himself honourably when he groomed the seniors in Ranji and Deodhar trophy competitions as well.
“As head coach of the National Cricket Academy (NCA)’s North Zone under 15 camp at Palam, Delhi, Usman Sir was like the father of a family. I learnt a lot from him–professional ethics, tactical and technical aspects of the game,” remembered India’s 2012 Under 19 World Cup winning skipper Unmukt Chand, described by no less than Virat Kohli himself as ‘a very special player.’
“We were schoolboys and that camp was educational too, say in knowing how to use a spoon and fork,” said the prolifically scoring prodigy. “Although most of us were away from home for the first time in our lives, we found him both strict and lenient. He formulated plans for all sessions, including one to meet our parents,” recalled the Delhi lad, who in time would show loads of guts and grit.
A cracked jaw notwithstanding, Unmukt bashed on regardless, smashing 116 off 125 balls in the 2018 Vijay Hazare Trophy against Uttar Pradesh at Bilaspur. “Very accessible and communicative, Usman Sir’s a nice human being,” observed the captain who crushed the Aussies on their home turf, the big deeds beamed by his bat fetching him a deal to write a book when still in college.
“The coaching staff was brilliant. I still remember Usman Ghani sir, our head coach…,” the hard-hitting opener acknowledged in ‘The Sky is the Limit: My journey to the World Cup (Penguin, Rs. 250). Other promising prospects to have benefitted from Ghani’s wisdom include Manan Vohra and Pawan Negi.
Among the colts he groomed to play for the India Under 19 squad were Atharva Taide, Darshan Nalkande, Aditya Thakare, Yash Rathod, Harsh Dubey and Rohit Dattatrey. While Taide, Nalkande and Thakare made the Malaysia tour, the last-named lad played the World Cup in New Zealand. Dubey and Dattatrey played in the Tests and the former in the one dayers too against the visiting South Africans.
With his flair to ensure flowering of youth, call-ups were frequent to the NCA’s zonal camps across age groups and gender. “I was fortunate to train under Usman Sir who was head coach of the 2010 south zone camp at Mysore. It proved to be a turning point in my career. I was in a dilemma whether to pursue an engineering job, having done well academically or opt for cricket. I grew confident that I was cut out for the game’s higher levels,” reminisced Shikha Pandey.
“For a caught and bowled dismissal, Sir rewarded me with a Rs. 500 note,” said India’s all-rounder and medium pacer. Apart from Pandey, other internationals Ghani tutored on the distaff side include Veda Krishnamurthy, Rajeshwari Gaikwad, Sunita Anand, Karuna Jain and Niranjana N.
Viraj Kadbe in 2007-08 used to bat 7 or 8, elevated to no. 4 and was among country’s top five run-getters. “I don’t know how I did it. It’s all because of Usman Sir,” admitted the former Vidarbha skipper, a leg spinner until the climb up the batting ladder. Ghani’s optimism rubs off on his wards, his reminder to respect the Vidarbha cap, invariably perking up performance.