It was a regulation outside-edge, and Siddhesh Lad had well and truly been beaten. So sure was Jaydev Unadkat that his captain of all people wouldn’t snuff this chance up that he didn’t even bother to wait for Cheteshwar Pujara to clasp the ball in his hands. His own hands had already started pointing towards the heavens and were rapidly progressing towards his shoulders. Yes, Arpit Vasavada had dropped an easy opportunity the previous day to let Shreyas Iyer off, with the Mumbai No.3 making him pay dearly for it. But this was Pujara, who is not known to let slip any opportunity on the cricket field, especially not a straighforward catch at a crucial juncture of the game. Dropping catches though can be scarily contagious for a cricket team. And by the time Unadkat’s hands had risen to his mid-riff, the ball had hit Pujara’s hands and was on its way to hit the floor, much like Saurashtra’s chances for the elusive Ranji crown.
Mumbai were 271 for 9 then, still just 36 runs ahead. Lad was on 24. So the dropped catch, despite its bad timing, wouldn’t have given any of the Saurashtra players a reason to believe that this would be the last time they were on an even keel with their opponents during the match. For, from that point on, Lad and Mumbai never looked back. With Balwinder Singh Sandhu for company, the slight Mumbai right-hander took the game into his own hands and by the time he got done with them, Saurashtra were staring at a 136-run deficit. The last pair had added 103 for the final wicket, pushing Mumbai well and truly into the driver’s seat. And a shell-shocked Saurashtra could only watch in horror as the multiple-time champions zoomed away towards their 41st title. Pujara & Co. succumbed for a paltry 115 in their second innings to hand Mumbai a win by an innings and 21 runs at Pune’s Maharshtra Cricket Association (MCA) stadium.
If only the Saurashtra mainstay had held on to that catch. Not only did the lost opportunity give Lad a second chance, it seemed to also hand him a license to go berserk. The field remained spread out. But he was prepared to take on the outfielders. Two balls after it, he smashed Unadkat for consecutive boundaries. In the left-arm pacer’s next over, he slapped it over wide long-on before dispatching the next over mid-wicket. Hardik Rathod too was shown the same contempt, with the seamer being effortlessly carted over deep cover and then launched over long-off. Lad was holding court, and Sandhu at the other hand was playing an able hand too. He continued to defy the Saurashtra bowlers.
Desperate and hapless, they launched into their unique ‘clapping’ routine that had got them wickets in previous encounters. But here, it only seemed to push Lad into an even higher-octane mode. Ironically, it was to a not-so-straightforward catch that Lad fell to, with Sheldon Jackson running a few yards back to hang on to a mis-timed shot to bring Mumbai’s innings to a close with 371 on the board. It was Mumbai’s highest tenth-wicket partnership in Ranji Trophy; the previous best was Ashok Mankad and Sushil Sanghvi’s 87-run stand against Gujarat at Ahmedabad in 1967-68.
Not for the first time in his nascent career, Lad had put his hand up when Mumbai desperately were seeking a saviour.
Thakur seals the deal
In a way, you couldn’t blame the Saurashtra batsmen for struggling against Mumbai’s potent pace attack. They had after all climbed the ranks this season from Group C, not having contended with the best of bowling attacks in terms of quality. A fired-up Dhawal Kulkarni and Shardul Thakur were always going to be a much tougher challenge. Thakur has shown all season that he not can run in all day long with his tail-up, he also has the ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries out of nothing.
Here, there was assistance on offer, and he made the most of it. So did Kulkarni, who had set the match up with his first-innings heroics with the ball. The duo got rid of the openers in quick succession, and before long Saurashtra were in the dumps at 48 for 4. Pujara though held firm. He had to. But not long enough to even help his team play for the proverbial pride.
He survived for 97 deliveries, and over two hours, scoring 27 before Thakur got one to bounce off the surface, to hit Pujara’s gloves and get him caught by Akhil Herwadkar.
The gate had opened, and Thakur shut it on Saurashtra, running through the middle-order to finish with 5/26 as Kulkarni chipped in. But it was Thakur who justifiably finished the Ranji Trophy season in perfectly dramatic fashion, uprooting Rathod’s middle-stump to bring the Ranji Trophy back to Mumbai and to make them champions, once again for the umpteenth time.
Brief scores: Saurashtra 235 & 115 all out in 48.2 overs (S Thakur 5/26) lost to Mumbai 371 by an innings and 21 runs.