FOR AROUND the last 45 minutes of play, the area around the two batsmen in the middle resembled a Mumbai local train during peak hour. Baroda skipper Deepak Hooda had pulled off a real-estate miracle by accommodating all nine fielders around the pitch. As Dhawal Kulkarni walked out to join Siddhesh Lad, 11 overs still remained for the visitors to snare the two wickets — No.11 Royston Dias wasn’t expected to bat — needed to seal the match. Mumbai were under siege at Wankhede Stadium.
Baroda now had Kulkarni in the crosshair. He was the obvious target. Kulkarni isn’t quite known for his batting talent. Secondly, Baroda had run out of ideas when it came to planning Lad’s dismissal. For nearly five hours, Mumbai’s aptly-named “crisis man” was playing his trademark impenetrable knocks. Baroda wasn’t the first team that was finding it tough to clear that ‘Lad high hurdle’ that Mumbai puts infront of their rivals as they eye the finish line. On the domestic circuit, it is well-known fact that a win over Mumbai can be dreamt only after the slim boy with a stout heart is dismissed.
With Kulkarni holding firm for 31 balls and Lad remained unbeaten on 71 off 238 balls, Mumbai escaped with a draw and a solitary point. Baroda might be regretting the missed opportunity. They had already ensured three points from the match already, and were now looking to add four more to their tally by enforcing a famous innings-defeat against mighty Mumbai. Not to forget, put themselves in a real contention for a play-off spot. They had just gotten rid of Abhishek Nayar, who had hung on grimly for 108 balls and scored 8 before being adjudged caught-behind much to his visible chagrin.
When Lad had walked out to bat on Sunday, Mumbai still had over 70 overs to bat out and had just lost their star batsman Ajinkya Rahane. It was a kind of dismissal which is seen with Rahane against left-arm spin where he goes back prematurely, often misjudging the length, and looks to flick the ball across the line. Here, it was an arm-ball from Swapnil and it fizzed past his crooked bat and slammed into the stumps. In a star-studded batting line-up brimming with stroke-making talent, it’s probably Lad’s arrival at the crease that would have put the Mumbai dressing-room at ease the most.
That’s his role after all. Not to forget his reputation. Lad is one among a breed of batsmen that constantly seem to be in threat in this fast-paced world of cricket. But it’s a breed that probably will never die out. For, at least as far as the longer format is concerned, no team could possibly do without a pressure-absorbing and calm-inducing figure in the midst of all the glamour boys.
And even if he’s only 25, Lad has already established himself as that sorted, even if slightly conservative, uncle that every family has to call on to the scene in every crisis, and who more often than not resolves it out without any fuss. Lad looks as unassuming as his batting.
There’s little about him that says “cricketer” and that too one at such a high level. He’s short and slight and could easily pass off in a crowd, even at Wankhede, without much notice. A shiny stud that shimmers from the left ear is perhaps the only sign of him being a millennial. The rest of him, including his approach to batting, is rather old-school.
Though the pitch had eased out on the fourth day, the situation still demanded for extreme caution and a lot of attrition. And Lad displayed both from the moment he came out to bat and looked untroubled through it.
He’d come to Mumbai’s rescue many times already before Sunday. There was his 103-run partnership for the 10th wicket two seasons ago to help them beat Saurashtra in the final. There was a century in the previous match against Odisha too after his team had slumped to 85/6 in their second innings. He’s compact in defence and for a short man isn’t too focused on playing square of the wicket. He’s confident on the drive and is equally adept against the short ball. His technique against spin, in an era where batsmen—even the quality ones—tend to prod in predetermined fashion, is more traditional in terms of playing the ball very late off both front and back foot. But what stands out the most is his poise at the crease. He seemed unperturbed by the constant jabber around him and the massive job at hand. So valuable has he become to Mumbai’s cause that it’s learnt a selector felt dropping him for Rahane for a match earlier in the season wasn’t worth the risk.
Lad has been plagued with injuries over his short career and suffered a slip disc three years ago. While that’s been a constant worry, he also had to deal with neck stiffness on Sunday. On three occasions, he was tended to by the physio, which also meant a break in his rhythm. It was after the second of these treatments that he briefly lost his concentration and skied a catch off an ungainly shot to Swapnil was caught too. It was a late call of no-ball that came to his rescue. Lad thumped his chest a few times before resuming his innings. As he would reveal later on, the only thought in his head since the previous night had been to save the match for his team. And he wasn’t done yet. That was pretty much the only chance he gave Baroda to get the better of him before slamming the door shut on them.
“I am trying harder to bat in good situations too,” he quipped at the end of the day when asked about his penchant of coming to the fore when the chips are down. According to his father, Dinesh, dealing with a pressure scenario has always brought the best of the junior Lad, and not just on the field.
“He was like that with his studies too. In 10th standard, he didn’t study for the whole year till the time there were only 10 days left. And then easily he scored 78 per cent,” he says.
Lad himself turns to the train cliché to explain his unique love-affair with pressure.
“I used to travel in crowded trains from Gorai in Borivali to Shivaji Park. Perhaps it comes from that,” he said. He could be forgiven for the cliché on this occasion though, especially on a day he overcame a local train scenario at the Wankhede and saved the day for Mumbai once again.