A guaranteed place in the Ranji Trophy semi-finals. A first-innings lead of 374. Five sessions in which to bowl out the opposition a second time. With all these advantages, Mumbai still did not enforce the follow-on against Baroda on day four of their Ranji quarter-final. There was no eagerness to push for an outright win, no desire to go for the jugular. Moving on to the next round was enough.
In their last game of the league round, all Mumbai needed for an outright win was 135 from a minimum of 41 overs. Instead, they crawled to 65 for 1 from 27 overs when the match was called off. After the game, Mumbai coach Sulakshan Kulkarni said, "It wasn't really going to matter eventually - whether we went for the target or not. The fact is we have achieved the objective of qualifying for the quarter-final.”
The fault though, lies not with Mumbai, but in the Ranji schedule that requires the players to play five-day matches back to back. Mumbai would have wanted to rest their bowlers ahead of their semi-final clash with Services. Having the batsman pile on a few extra runs would also do no harm to their confidence. The players can’t be faulted for their approach.
The bigger problem is the system that forces teams to make these sorts of decisions. Teams, and by extension players, have to learn how to win. In Test cricket, there is no excuse for not going for a win under similar circumstances. A captain who chose not to do so would be castigated from all quarters. Yet in Indian domestic cricket you have India’s most successful Ranji side, a side renowned for its killer instinct, choosing to simply let play meander for almost two days.
Players cannot be expected to step up to international level and absorb pressure the first time they face it. Bowlers and batsmen alike have to be tested at lower levels so their hone their skills under adverse conditions. Bowlers who are not used to taking wickets in the fourth innings at first-class level cannot suddenly be expected to do so when pitted against international opposition. They need to be battle tested first. They need to learn how to control their emotions and discover how to pry a batsman out even on wickets that do not offer much assistance.
Similarly, batsmen who are not used to batting for two days to save a game in the Ranji Trophy will be out of their depth when asked to do so in a Test match.
Perhaps more important is the mental approach to the game. The Australians place winning above all else. It is a mindset that is developed and inculcated at all levels of their cricket. You play to win. But in Indian domestic cricket, more often than not, you play just to take a first-innings lead. After that, all you have to do is ensure you don’t lose and the system will reward you.
If that is the attitude pervading India’s domestic cricket, it shouldn’t come as any surprise when the Test team fails to win as well.
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