Arun Lal's guiding hand in Bengal's season of hope and triumph

Anustup Majumdar dragged Bengal out of a crisis in the first innings PTI

"Mutthi mein kuch sapne lekar
Bhar kar jeb mein aashayein
Dil mein hai armaan ye hi
Kuch kar jaye, kuch kar jaye"

It roughly translates to 'dreams in our fist; hope in our pockets; our heartfelt desire is; to achieve something'.

These powerful lines, part of a poem narrated by veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan, boomed through the walls of the Bengal team room a night before possibly the biggest day in the cricketing careers of many from the team. Their Ranji Trophy dream was alive, there was aashayein (hope) of breaking a 30-year drought and getting their hands around the elusive title they last had a shot at in 2006-07.

On Friday morning, they saw that dream come crashing down in an hour, after an inspired Jaydev Unadkat picked up two wickets, then showed outstanding presence of mind to effect a freak run out, and celebrated with so much passion that you feared his nerves would pop.

In the Bengal dressing room, there was stunned silence. No one moved from their seats. No one wanted to make eye contact. The expressions on their faces told you the story of pain and heartbreak. And just like that, it was a case of being so near, yet so far. The end margin for the first-innings lead was 44 runs, but it was a lot closer than that.

As the team stood deflated behind the ropes to walk in for the second innings that had been reduced to a mere formality, Arun Lal, their head coach and mentor, called them into a team huddle. He spoke passionately, or so you could gather from afar. And then as they dispersed, he clapped and patted all the boys and members of his support staff on the back.

To him, this was no ordinary team. He'd fought through opposition from several quarters to run the team the way he wanted to, and wven faced with their biggest heartbreak in recent memory, he wasn't going to let his emotions flow or have words slip out in anger.

"We are proud of how far we've come," Lal said. "This has been an incredible run for us. To get to a Ranji Trophy final isn't easy, and we did a bloody good job. They should walk with their heads held high. I'm mighty proud of the fight they have shown."

For Manoj Tiwary, the entire game has been emotional for many reasons. For starters, this was a final. Thirteen years ago, he had played in one against Mumbai, as a rookie seeking to impress the national selectors. He even squared off against Sunil Joshi, the current chief selector, and Sarandeep Singh, current member of the selection committee, that season.

Here they were, now watching Tiwary, the big brother, being flanked by his team-mates to celebrate his 100th Ranji Trophy game for Bengal. They even had a celebratory dinner, with every member of the support staff and team signing a miniature bat for posterity. It reflected a kind of camaraderie very rarely seen in the Bengal team. And just like in the past, where no one made an effort to hide the mistrust or infighting, the spirit also shone through quite naturally, right from the captain to the reserves.

"I saw tears in Lal ji's eyes, when we came to this final," Tiwary said. "He's very inspirational, says a lot of inspiring things. He is emotional by heart but a very good man. That Amitabh Bachchan shayari (poem), he used to play every day while we started our team meeting. Those words are pure, straight from the heart. It was as if Lal ji himself was reciting it to us. And prior to the game when it was played, he teared up. For him, this was a Ranji Trophy final to cherish, like it was for all of us. Seeing that, I also had tears in my eyes, but I am better off not showing it. Lal ji is an expressive person. I will always remember those lines."

For Lal, known to be a modest man, it was the team effort that brought him recognition. "Look, you all should forget Arun Lal. I genuinely believe it's the team that has brought you guys to me. Had we not qualified, you guys wouldn't even be talking to me. It's about the boys, the players, our support staff," Lal said. "They are the real heroes. I always believe a coach is as good as his team, and not the other way round."

"He talks straight. He has kept players on their toes while still giving them security. He changed the way we train. Even in the rainy season, training wasn't called off for a single day. Wet outfield or dry, if we had to do 20 laps, we had to do it. Fitness wasn't in question, he wanted to make us mentally tough." Manoj Tiwary on Arun Lal

As humble as Lal made himself sound, Tiwary was clear his efforts were by no means a "small thing." Uniting a dressing room and getting them onto a common platform, after all, was a task. It helped that everyone looked at the common goal. When he joined them as mentor in 2018-19 - "I merely sat back and observed how things were run", he said - the players drew inspiration from the very fact that Lal was here, having taken up the Bengal job under tough circumstances, personally, after fighting his way back from a rare form of cancer that affected his jaw.

Four months after his surgery and chemotherapy sessions, Lal was back in the commentary box to call a CAB Super League final that was widely televised. The game is best remembered for being India's pink-ball debut.

"When you live through that [cancer], you learn to look at life differently," Lal said. "What is a cricket match at the end of it? You win and lose. I've always instilled in the boys, fighting through pain and overcoming it gives you bigger satisfaction than anything else. Win or lose, it's the effort that counts."

That pain and fighting spirit were seen all through the final. Tiwary hurt his finger in the semi-final while trying to evade a bouncer. He needed it to be iced and plastered coming into the game he wasn't going to miss for anything. On the third day, with the highly skilled Unadkat reversing the ball in a magnificent spell, he fought there for close to three hours, shelving his flair in favour of the hard grind. Anustup Majumdar was off the field for a majority of the first day, after having a crack in his left thumb while attempting a slip catch. He needed pain killers to ease himself in, and when he finally got the chance to bat, he nearly bailed Bengal out by doing the unthinkable on the fourth day. He was the reason Bengal even dared to dream of a title going into the final day.

"He's liked by everyone in the fraternity," Tiwary said of Lal. "He is open, says it as it is, and talks straight. If he finds something wrong, he will tell you straight. Not send out a message through the press. He has instilled fighting mentality in this team. He has kept players on their toes while still giving them security. He changed the way we train. Even in the rainy season, training wasn't called off for a single day. Wet outfield or dry, if we had to do 20 laps, we had to do it. Fitness wasn't in question, he wanted to make us mentally tough."

Lal set four fitness tests for the teams to pass. Discipline was inculcated by the means of a fine of INR 2000 for bowling a no-ball in the nets. Senior players were told to step away from their comfort zone. "He told us seniors what he expects from us," Tiwary says. "If you're playing for 10-15 years, you don't realise when you slip into a comfort zone sometimes, but for a person with good intentions from the outside, he can see it. It's not something we do on purpose, but it can happen. So he set that straight first. You see this season, all senior players have done what you expect of them."

Lal says it's his ability to stay detached from cricket, and lead a very simple life, away from the game that has helped him immensely. While in Kolkata, he spends time with his eight dogs at his farm and takes part in plantation drives. He is passionate about environment sustainability, loves taking off to bird parks, and hopes to even write a book about it one day.

"It's the other interests that are as important," Lal says. "If you come to my house, you will not see a single trophy, photograph, frames with cricketers, autographed bats, books - nothing. When we won the Ranji Trophy in 1989-90, we all got replica trophies made of shaalimaar. I just gave away all of them: the trophies, photo frames, bats. I can't say why, it's not because I don't love cricket. Maybe it's just me, but that is the person I am."

Lal would've sure loved getting his hands on the winners' trophy this time, but it's the satisfaction of seeing this group fight that has him excited. He isn't yet sure if he wants to be part of another season - "we'll see how things go" - but for now, he can walk away and reflect on an inspirational journey, just like those words from Bachchan that he made his team listen to every day.