During their lowest point of a nightmare Ranji Trophy 2018-19 season, Mumbai were walloped by Vidarbha by an innings and 146 runs in Nagpur. It prompted a senior Vidarbha player to remark that the-then Mumbai team did not resemble a Mumbai team at all. It was the season they’d laid out a green pitch for Gujarat at Wankhede Stadium and had themselves surrendered in a nine-wicket thrashing. In the previous season, Karnataka had outclassed them by an innings in the quarter-finals. In 2019-20, Railways handed them a 10-wicket humbling at Wankhede.
To appreciate what this young Mumbai side under coach Amol Muzumdar and captain Prithvi Shaw has done in 2021-22 – albeit in a much shortened season – it is worth revisiting what Mumbai endured in the three seasons following the departure of coach Chandrakant Pandit. The opening combination would be a revolving door; the middle order, irrespective of the stature and reputation of its inhabitants, could become a collective walking wicket, and the bowling couldn’t even come close to covering up for the batting collapses. Selectors, coaches, players – there was chop-and-change all around. Constant failure and uncertainty have never made for a happy dressing room.
Yes, Mumbai did win the Vijay Hazare Trophy twice in that period, but as their former coach Vinayak Samant would say, nobody really cares in the Mumbai cricket fraternity if they win white-ball tournaments. For ages, there has been just one target – win the Ranji Trophy; nothing else counts.
Amid accusations that players were mostly interested in white-ball cricket – and the rewards from the Indian Premier League make it a big temptation – former players would keep lamenting that the value of the Mumbai cap had gone down drastically.
“When I took up this job, all that the entire association (the MCA) asked about was getting back in red-ball cricket,” Muzumdar said on the eve of the Ranji final against Madhya Pradesh . “That was our main focus. Coming so far, we’ve tried to achieve that. Credit to the boys, they’re on track. Red-ball cricket was a concern for everyone from Mumbai. Looking at the last few years, even you guys [reporters] must have thought so.
“But the guys have done splendidly well. The focus was on how to get Gen-Next hooked on to deliver in the Ranji Trophy. With this kind of performance, we’re pushing towards it. I am certain these guys will serve Mumbai for a long time.”
Young and talented
For the first time in several years, there is an excitement about the Mumbai top six – Shaw, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Armaan Jaffer, Suved Parkar, Sarfaraz Khan and Hardik Tamore – that has replaced the despondence of recent seasons. All of them are in their early to mid-20s, and have already shown the potential to develop into a formidable batting line-up in years to come.
As some of them batted in the National Cricket Academy nets at Chinnaswamy Stadium on Tuesday morning, they might as well have been sweating it out together for their schools or on the maidans of their home metropolis. With all those countless matches going on at the same time at Azad Maidan, they have grown used to reacting to those cries of ‘watch it’ at the very last moment to flying red cherries. The maidans, on their part, have continued their tradition of churning out first-class batsmen, which is what Mumbai teams have been known for over the decades.
The leader of the pack, though, hasn’t set the stage alight yet. Shaw averages just 33 for the season; he has three fifties but no centuries. As he joked during the pre-match press conference, “No one even congratulated me after scoring the fifties.”
Shaw can take the game away from the opposition if he lasts a couple of sessions, but has lasted a mere 38.5 deliveries per innings this season. Captaincy has not changed the way he bats. It shouldn’t make him go into a shell, but with a game that already has defensive loopholes, he’s attacked one too many too early.
Madhya Pradesh seamers Kuldeep Sen, Puneet Datey, Gaurav Yadav and Anubhav Agarwal are collectively sharper than their Mumbai counterparts, of whom only Tushar Deshpande has some pace. Sen, in fact, has played only two games this season but was impressive during the IPL. He is understood to be coming back from an injury, but if he plays, he could cause some early trouble for Mumbai.
This is where the final is a golden opportunity for Shaw to demonstrate that his unquestionable talent can be tempered with the discipline that a big occasion demands. Discipline is something he hasn’t come to be known for off the field as well.
Muzumdar did give him credit for being “made for captaincy” but ultimately, as much as it is about tactics and man-management, leadership is also about setting a personal example to be followed.
Leading Mumbai to their 42nd Ranji title at age 22 may not become the personal turning point for Shaw, but will certainly be remembered for long, if it happens.
As it will be for coach Muzumdar. Into the preceding white-ball season, there were some apprehensions whether the driven, sharp-talking domestic great would be the right fit for a side of talented, free-spirited youngsters. But as he’d set out to do when he took up his first major assignment as head coach, Muzumdar has put some order into the red-ball unit.
“Kaahi tari motha kareen re, tu bagh [you see, we’ll do something major],” he’d told this correspondent after he accepted this coaching job. It has obviously helped that he has the stature, as the second-highest run-getter in Ranji Trophy history, to command respect from his players. And he has never been one to lack effort. Sarfaraz had told this paper after the Ranji group stage that Muzumdar reminded him of his father, the way he made him work hard during training.
All the training will boil down to the five days of the final. As Muzumdar said, another set of five days could arrive in these players’ lives again, but this particular set never will. So they better make the most of them.