'We are the champions, we are the champions' echoed around the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune as Mumbai celebrated their 41st Ranji Trophy title with a crushing innings victory over Saurashtra.
It was a long wait of two seasons. Long because of the standards Mumbai have set over the years --anything but a title is considered a failure. But a young Mumbai team finally got back to doing what they did best - win the Ranji Trophy title.
It was an exhilarating five-month ride which saw them play cricket of very high quality as they ramped up six outright wins without suffering any losses on their way to a richly-deserved title.
It's a typical hot afternoon in Mumbai. On the eve of Mumbai's second match of the Ranji season against Punjab, coach Chandrakant Pandit and captain Aditya Tare are seated at the Wankhede Stadium pavilion balcony having a conversation that lasted nearly 45 minutes. Their focus is unwavering even as a photography unit tries to take numerous shots from the MCA pavilion stand. The disturbances are numerous but nothing can waver their attention.
Mumbai had managed a draw in their opener against Andhra Pradesh but they had conceded a slender first innings lead because of some poor shot selection. After that shaky start it seemed as if their tough phase might just get extended from the last season, where among many frustrations, they faced the ignominy of being bundled out for 44 against Karnataka in semi-finals - their second-lowest total ever in first-class cricket. The soul searching had begun and the tension was palpable on the faces of Tare, Pandit and around the dressing room.
"It was a wake up call, I think we almost pretty easily gave up that game because we tantalisingly conceded a seven-run lead. Everyone was hurt and we learned after that game that we cannot just make silly mistakes and expect to win, we had to cut that down and the entire team learned from that game," Tare told Firstpost.
"The players sat down and had a chat after that game, I discussed it with the coach and he also gave his inputs. I just wanted to make sure that the boys are in a good space and nothing is hampering them mentally on and off the field. I was just making sure that everybody is on the same page. As we needed to reunite, sort out the issues, move on and get the campaign going," Tare added.
What followed was nothing short of fascinating from Mumbai. Shreyas Iyer, Mumbai's star batsman for the second season running, scored the third-fastest double century in history of Ranji Trophy as Mumbai thumped Punjab by an innings. The path to resurrection had begun.
Mumbai had last won the Ranji title in 2012-13 under the leadership of Ajit Agarkar but during that season, they had players with abundant experience in Sachin Tendulkar, Agarkar himself, Ramesh Powar and Zaheer Khan -- all of who had played some part throughout the season and were a constant presence in the dressing room. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, who were mostly out on national duties, chipped in with useful performances whenever available.
But it all started to go a bit downhill after that season. Agarkar retired, Pawar moved on to Rajasthan. Tendulkar was on the cusp of retirement, Zaheer was marred by fitness issues and wasn't at his best. Tendulkar played just one match in the 2013/14 season, his last one in first-class, where he hit a match-winning 79 against Haryana. Rohit and Rahane were again on national duties. Wasim Jaffer, their most experienced batsman, had an average season. All this meant that Mumbai could only make it to the quarter-final that season. Coach Sulakshan Kulkarni was sacked and Pravin Amre was appointed in his place. The captaincy reins were handed to a young Suryakumar Yadav.
The next season started off on a disastrous note, as Mumbai lost to Jammu & Kashmir in their first-ever Ranji meeting and it was just the sixth loss ever at Wankhede in the last 15 years. From then on the roller-coaster ride began. At one point they even faced the prospect of relegation. The infighting within the team only made it worse and then the newly-appointed captain Suryakumar Yadav resigned after a loss to Tamil Nadu - only their fourth innings defeat in the history of tournament and first since 1951.
It was a tumultuous time when Aditya Tare took over as captain. He had a young side but he took the new found responsibility in his stride, scoring a century in his first match in charge. Brick by brick, Tare and coach Amre combined to repair a broken Mumbai side as they rallied hard to miraculously enter into the semi-final.
Quarter final and a semi-final in consecutive seasons, most teams would have taken it happily but not Mumbai. It was evident they weren't the dominant force of the past.
A fresh start was the need of the hour. Former India wicket-keeper Chandrakant Pandit - who had coached Mumbai to two titles previously - was named the replacement for Amre who decided not to continue for the new season. But just before the start of this season, they received another setback as Jaffer, who had missed most of the last season due to injury, announced that he would leave for Vidharbha.
This left Mumbai with a very young and inexperienced squad where Abhishek Nayar was the oldest and most experienced member at the age of 31. The average age of the side was a tad over 25 and average first-class experience was just 22 matches per player.
"In the last two years, senior cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar, Ajit Agarkar retired, Jaffer left and suddenly there was a vaccuum in the team with a plenty of youngsters around. There was hardly anyone in the dressing room to look up to apart from one Abhishek Nayar, who has had good amount of experience. Dhawal (Kulkarni) was in and out because of international cricket. These were some of the worrying factors before the start of the season," Pandit told Firstpost.
Tare and Pandit got together to plan further strengthening of this edifice. Senior-most member Nayar took over the responsibility of keeping the team together. With new coach came new methods. "My basic funda was that we better have a process, rather than the result," says Pandit who insisted on the usage of 'we', referring to the coaching team.
The hard work started for Mumbai after the semi-final defeat to Karnataka, in the off-season. The team warmed up for the season by winning the Buchi Babu memorial tournament in Chennai, followed by a training stint in Hyderabad, which is where the camp zeroed in on the players for the Ranji squad. Selectors assuring the players of not much chopping and changing was reassuring for the squad as well.
"We did a lot of work last season, we did a lot of training, we spent a lot of time in the off-season, a unit of about 25-30 of us along with coach Amre. We did training at various gyms, just not at BKC but outside too. We went to Powai to do roadside training and carried out other activities. We made good use of the Buchi babu tournament and the tour to Hyderabad, wherein we could spend a lot of time on the field together and sort of gelled well as a team," Tare added.
After the opening game, the cricketing world saw a different Mumbai - a fearless and ruthless one. Mumbai teams of the past were known for their Khadoos attitude - one of grinding the opposition out, inflicting a slow and painful death on the opposition. But this team had a different kind of approach where they just went for the kill. Before this season, Mumbai had never chased down a 200 plus target more than once in a season but here they went on to chase three including two 275 plus targets . No team had done that (chasing two 275 plus targets) more than once in a season. Their average run rate was 3.72, second-best after Himachal Pradesh's 3.83. Five outright wins in the group stages made Mumbai comfortable table toppers.
There were times where they were down and out but the way they responded was something special. Against Tamil Nadu, they conceded a 140-run lead in the first innings but bounced back hard to win by one wicket. Against Railways, they chased down 295 in 64 overs on the final day, against MP they were 74/7 in first innings in response to 240 but they pulled off a miraculous win, chasing down 281 on difficult final-day track.
"The way we bounced back against Punjab was I think the turning point, where they started believing that they can do it. In the middle stages of the tournament, the wins against Madhya Pradesh and Railways gave them solid confidence," says Pandit.
The fearless aproach wasn't something that was pre-planned but the free-hand provided by the team-management proved to be crucial. "Whenever we were pushed on the back foot or whenever we had a bad session or bad day or a bad game we showed character and bounced back to perform better," Tare says.
"These youngsters are naturally fearless, they don’t care much about the reputation of the opposition. They just want to play their own cricket and I think it was a great job by the management to give them the free hand. We made them play their natural game whereas me, Nayar and some of the senior players changed our game accordingly and tried to play that supporting role. We had an aggressive mentality, we wanted to chase those runs, score runs at a faster rate rather than play for draws which was something different from the last season," Tare added.
With a break of two months in between the group stages and knock-outs, because of limited overs tournaments advanced in domestic calendar rejig, there was a fear that the momentum might be lost. But the team management led by Pandit tried to keep the group motivated along with constant talks about the longer format. Before the start of the knock-outs the players were shown a short video of the team' highs and lows in the league stage.
"It was a bit difficult at times (the break), but all the time we were thinking along those lines (Ranji Trophy) even during the team meetings during the limited overs matches. They were aware that they are expected to come back quickly and they adapted very quickly to come back in that momentum," says Pandit.
Mumbai duly thumped Jharkhand in the quarters and then entered the final on the basis of first inning lead after a gutsy performance against MP in semis.
Shreyas Iyer had a record-breaking season where he ended up with the second highest runs tally ever in a single Ranji season but what made Mumbai formidable was that each and every member of the squad performed when required and they had a player for every situation.
"If you make them stand in a line, anyone could point a finger at anyone and say that ‘Okay, this match was won by this guy, that match was won by that guy’. They started believing that if someone’s not there, I’ll be able to do it. You see for example, Siddhesh Lad in the final, sometime earlier Abhishek Nayar was doing it, at times Tare has done, so has Shardul Thakur, Dhawal Kulkarni, Suryakumar Yadav and even Akhil Herwadkar has done a tremendous job. So, eventually the confidence level started building up. Because, they started looking at their partner and felt that, yes he can do it. But one thing we kept on telling each other was that we should not leave it to others."
Former India pacer and Mumbai captain Ajit Agarkar touched on that as well. "Because so many guys have performed at different stages, you generally have a successful season. Over the years, it's been a strength for Mumbai cricket where there are not just one or two performers there are seven or eight," Agarkar told Firstpost.
Then came another unique technique on the eve of final - the team management made a video where coach Pandit touched upon mythology and recited stories of Ramayan and Mahabharat to keep them focused and guard them against complacency.
The plan was to keep things simple and take it as just another game. Taking the example of Lord Rama's simplicity, Pandit stressed on forgetting the pressure that comes with being considered the outright favourites in the tournament. He also brought up Arjuna's unwavering focus in achieving a target.
"The video showed the youngsters that the eye should be on the trophy now. That we have to be so focused without getting diverted by any disturbance. Because there would be many friends, well-wishers who would be sending you messages, due to which the they may get overconfident and carried away. So I didn't want them to have that overconfidence," Pandit adds.
Shardul bowls a full inswinger to rattle Hardik Rathod's stumps. The Mumbai players go berserk in celebrations. Shardul is down on the ground after what seems like a Hamid Hassan-esque cartwheel has waywardly gone wrong. Mumbai have crushed Saurashtra to clinch the Ranji title. The entire team gathers on the 22-yard track in a huddle. The joy is palpable but somewhere inside there is relief too, the relief that the rich Mumbai tradition is kept alive.
"It takes time for team to settle, some guys take a little bit longer than you expect them to. It's just sometimes you gain experience by playing, making the mistakes and that's how you learn. The experience gained over the last two years has helped. Tare has settled into his role quite well too," says Agarkar.
"You've got to look at their consistency this year. They've had quite a few outright victories. Whenever they've had the opportunity, they have crushed the opposition. You look at consistency, it's hard winning the Ranji Trophy. Because one or two bad games might derail your campaign. You've got to play well throughout the season so you got to play well under pressure through the course of entire season which is what this team has done," Agarkar adds.
"Even the likes of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane followed the entire process of Mumbai team [whenever they played] and that boosted the boys further that international players too have followed the same process," says Pandit.
Pandit also had a special mention for Sachin Tendulkar who had visited the Mumbai camp on few occasions, individually talking to the players and guiding them which boosted their confidence further.
It's been one helluva ride for the youngsters but this is just the start of a long journey and the real challenge lies ahead.
Ajit Agarkar summed it up perfectly. "They have taken the first step of getting that first win. A lot of these guys have won it for the first time so they know what a victory tastes like, how sweet it is winning a Ranji. Because it is hard," Agarkar says.
"They have got the first out of the way and now it's about backing up and trying to win another one which is where you will know true quality of this team. They will probably find out how good they are next season. If they can back it up now, it will make them special."