LAST MONTH, Mumbai opener Akhil Herwadkar came agonisingly close to scoring a century against Australia A in the second unofficial Test match in Brisbane. Heavy rains on the final day of that game meant he would remain unbeaten on 82. The disappointment of missing out on a century notwithstanding, the opener finished that tour as one of the highest run-getters for India A. Akhil seems to have carried that confidence and poise, which he had exhibited in Brisbane, into the second Ranji Trophy game against Baroda at the Air Force Sports Complex in Palam today.
In pursuit of Baroda’s first innings tally of 305, the Ranji champions were put under immediate strife. With the weather not playing spoilsport this time around, Akhil decided to make it count. On a bright sunny day here in the national capital, the left-hander stitched together a chanceless century — his fifth in first-class cricket — to help Mumbai take a slender, yet valuable 8-run lead in the first innings when stumps were drawn on Day 2. The standout feature of his knock was his temperament, which was unflappable. Nothing seemed to fluster him.
Not the early demise of his opening partner Jay Bista, Mumbai’s No.3 Shreyas Iyer, nor his captain Aditya Tare’s inexplicable exit. Even when the flamboyant Suryakumar Yadav looked in a blistering mood in the morning session, stroking ten sumptuous boundaries in his knock of 54, Akhil was happy to bide his time and play second fiddle. He came into his own post the lunch interval, and was especially prolific through the off side. Couple of delightful cut shots, followed by a punch shot square of the wicket, off Baroda’s medium pacers Sagar Mangalorkar and Murtuja Vahora respectively gave his innings the much needed impetus. The 21-year-old found a trusted ally in the experienced Abhishek Nayar.
Nayar, much like Surya, began his innings with a flurry of boundaries. The all-rounder made the most of Gagandeep’s inconsistent bowling, pelting the seamer for three boundaries in the space of just two overs.
Nayar’s knock was chancy, and was no where close to the clinical perfection attained by opener Akhil at the other end. When Nayar was snapped up for 38 by Deepak Hooda, Mumbai were 6/172, still 133 runs adrift and struggling.
Then came Mumbai’s match-defining partnership. A 90-run stand for the seventh wicket between Balwinder Sandhu and Akhil took Aditya Tare’s team well within sights of Baroda’s first innings target. Nayar and Suryakumar’s belligerence now made way for a more clinical display of batsmanship.
On a sluggish track, which had begun to show ample signs of indifferent bounce, the duo battled their way against some disciplined Baroda bowling to bail their team to safety. Akhil, on his part, showed no signs of nervousness in the 90s.
All he needed were three hits — two exquisitely crafted drives, followed by a single to the deep point region to reach a deserving milestone in his domestic career. Akhil is Mumbai’s sheet anchor — a calming zen-like presence in a team full of aggressive stroke-makers.
Like his Mumbai team-mate, Shardul Thakur, Akhil too seems to have gained enormously from his tour to Australia. Playing on the hard, bouncy wickets and scoring against a decent Australia A bowling attack, followed by his interactions with India A coach Rahul Dravid, has helped him up his game by several notches.
The exposure trip to Australia had helped Akhil begin this Ranji season on an emphatic note. His century at Palam only illustrated his growth as a player. Not many will remember Akhil’s inauspicious initiation into first-class cricket five seasons ago.
He came back as a more refined player in 2014. But his breakthrough year came last season — when Mumbai clinched their 41st Ranji title. Not surprisingly, the champions benefitted by the string of consistent scores from their young opener.
With 879 runs, Akhil finished only second to the prolific Shreyas Iyer in the list of highest run-scorers.
In between, he also raked up his highest first-class score — a 192 against Gujarat last season. The Ranji high gave him an entry in the Irani Trophy earlier this year. Perhaps, the biggest attestation of his growing stature came barely two months after the last domestic season — he got a plum IPL contract with the Delhi Daredevils.
Brief Scores: Baroda 305 all out in 86.1 overs (Pinal Shah 66, Deepak Hooda 46, Yusuf Pathan 41; Vijay Gohil 3/70, Shardul Thakur 2/82) vs Mumbai 313/8 in 88 overs (Herwadkar 106, Yadav 54, Sandhu 56 batting; Mangalorkar 3/74).