At the start of the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy season, when he was offered the job as head coach of the Maharashtra team, David Andrews remembered John Wright's advice. Today, even as the team is a step away from securing a berth in the final for a second time running, Andrews believes it was Wright's philosophy that he took seriously that brought results.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat here in India," Wright had offered. "It was advice I took in my stride, and here we are today," Andrews tells Wisden India. "John used that concept to great effect I guess, because he was really successful during his time here as India coach. So you can say I've incorporated his learning in the way I deal with teams and also outside cricket. So far, so good."
Andrews is Australian, in every sense. An outdoors person who loves his sport, his early fascination for India was one of the primary reasons he accepted the opportunity to take over as director of junior cricket in Maharashtra in 2009, after coaching Northern Territory in Australia for close to 15 years.
"I first visited [India] in 1990 as a part of a Northern Territory side to play cricket. The following year, I returned and travelled across the country from south to north, and then went on a two-month hiking trail in the Himalayas. I felt some sort of calm amidst the chaos," he reminisces. "I was also fascinated about how the Beatles came to India. I heard a lot about the country as a youngster, and while I did think about relocating for a brief while, I really knew this (the job with Maharashtra) was an opportunity I didn't want to turn down."
He has spent close to nine months a year in India, travelling the length and breadth of the country.
Andrews was first given charge of the state's Under-16 side. His job wasn't just to nurture the side given to him, but also scout for talent. "I was fortunate to have a great bunch of selectors," he says. "We sat down and charted a road map. We were on the same page all throughout, so that made it easy.
"Coaching the Under-16s is very tough, because as coach, you're almost like a non-playing captain. You're shouting instructions from outside, helping with field placements and telling them what to do. But what I observed here in India is, the skill levels of an average 15-16-year-old is much higher than in Australia, because back home, kids tend to juggle different sport till they reach a certain age. So I had to just work on their game sense and situations in a game."
The results were achieved over a six-month period in the build up to the BCCI Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy. Maharashtra were winners in the first year, in 2009-10, and finished runners-up to Delhi in the second.
In 2011, Andrews was promoted as coach of the Maharashtra Under-19s. "It was here that I thought the likes of Vijay Zol, Ankit Bawne and Nikhil Naik were ready to make the transition as well, because they were outstanding players," says Andrews. "So, that is when we had the first signs of continuity."
Maharashtra, in the Plate Group of the U-19 Cooch Behar Trophy, won all their matches, till stumbling in the final against Mumbai. They avenged the loss the following season. The consistency achieved was enough for the Maharashtra Cricket Association to be convinced that Andrews would be integral to the senior side.
Maharashtra had employed five coaches over a four-year period. Shaun Williams, Darren Holder and Dermot Reeve came and went. Surendra Bhave took over midseason and left having led them to the final the next year. It was fair to say Andrews had quite a task at hand.
Were they any apprehensions?
"I was used to the system by then. Four years is good time in India to get used to the way things function," he says. "In that sense, I lived like an Indian here. I got used to the cultures, language, people. So coaching the senior side was a transition for me personally, but the boys have made my job a lot easier as well. I knew a lot of these players from the age-group system. We had a feeder system in place, from the U-16s to the U-19s. So there was a constant exchange of ideas.
"I've been given a free hand, so that has helped. There have been bits and pieces about politics, yes, but one of the ways to get over that is to play and win. Ajay Shirke (MCA president) has been supportive. I go by performances. I know politics is there everywhere. If there are outside issues, I deal with it because I don't want it to trickle down to the players. So that has helped."
Andrews believes the current Maharashtra group has the best pace bowling group, comprising Samad Fallah, Anupam Sanklecha, Domnic Joseph Muthuswami and Shrikant Mundhe. Among the batters, he backs Zol to come back stronger after recovering from his injuries, and is mighty pleased at Bawne's progress. "Special player," he gushes. "His curve has been on the rise, two more consistent seasons and he should be there."
But by his own admission, the job hasn't been a walk in the park. The start to the season was anything but spectacular. After taking a first-innings lead against Odisha, the side endured a horror run as they lost in a little over two days to Haryana in Lahli. In their third match, they were handed a three-wicket loss by Punjab at home.
Suddenly, the season was slipping away even before the competition had begun.
"I believe, at this level, it is about man-management. Half my time is spent in interacting with the players, as a team or one-on-one. You have to keep it open. We are frank in our discussions," he stresses. "The only time I get aggressive is when they back off. You can try and fail. I've always said this. When you are on the field, you have to show that full commitment. When you are off it, do what you want. It's a tough game, you need to relax. Off the field, I have fun with them as well. That relaxed them, because there is such a lot of pressure on these guys. That's what I look at when developing cricketers."
The transformation was there for everyone to see.
Maharashtra bounced back by beating Saurashtra with a bonus point, with Ankit Bawne (century) and Akshay Darekar (seven wickets) making telling contributions. Then they beat Rajasthan by nine wickets at home, with Shrikant Mundhe starring with the ball. A first-innings lead against table toppers Delhi put them within striking distance. But going into the final game of the league stages, Maharashtra had to beat Vidarbha outright to take the other results out of the equation, and they did.
"We had a long chat again before the quarterfinals. With this group, they had five coaches in three-four years. After the insipid start, we had a long discussion. Basically, I tried to get that out and told them they will be backed 100%. I told them, 'I will stick up for you if you are putting in the effort. Just back yourselves and play the game you want to. Don't worry about selection. Of course, you will struggle, that is fine. Just be positive.' It worked well."
Maharashtra beat Andhra outright in Lahli despite being bowled out for 91 in the first innings. "That set the tone for us coming over here, it will be a new chapter for us, if we reach the final again. This team has the potential. I think the big difference in the quarterfinal was self-belief. Once you've been there and done that, you tend to ride the tough situations better."
Six years on the road can be demanding, but Andrews isn't tired. "The only day I felt tired this season was when we were playing a match on Christmas day. We had a horror day, and friends and family back home were gearing up for Boxing Day, and those traditions," he laughs. "But yes, I still have the energy. I thought I was mentally strong when I came to India for the first time as a coach, but experiences make you better and I'm still learning."
The takeaway from the interaction is Andrew's foresight and vision. But clearly, his embracing of a country as complex and diverse as India, and taking the numerous challenges in his stride is one that makes his story from Darwin to Pune a wonderful experience.